It IS a football club few have heard of, from a corner of the former Soviet empire even fewer could easily locate.
FC Sheriff Tiraspol, the champions of Transnistria who were started by a former KGB agent, play in a place where smuggling is rampant and statues of Lenin still stand revered.
Its fans are a bawdy, often violent bunch. Its officials treat basic details of the club’s operations – even the recent successes that have brought it to the verge of joining Europe’s football elite – as classified material.
“With Transnistria, there is always secrets,” says Mihai Sitnic, a journalist with Fotbal.md, a website in neighbouring Moldova. “They don’t want anybody to know about this club. Everything is hidden.”
As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Transnistria, a 15-mile-wide self-declared republic, was fighting a war of independence with Moldova, a former part of the Soviet state. Transnistria, which leaned toward Russia, did not want to be part of the new Moldovan nation.
That war ended in 1992 in a stalemate. Since then, Transnistria has followed its own Soviet-style path, leaving the enclave adrift from almost all of the rest of the world and firmly under the wing of the Russians, who maintain a military base there. It has its own border, currency and police. Its flag still bears the hammer and sickle.
But somehow football has managed to bridge these fault lines. Since Transnistria is recognised by virtually no-one, including European football’s governing body, FC Sheriff plays in the Moldovan league, despite all the enmity. And, maddeningly for Moldova, it keeps winning. FC Sheriff has won 11 of the last 12 Moldovan league titles.
In recent weeks, FC Sheriff played a group of qualifying matches, hoping to reach the group stage of the Champions League, but ultimately lost to Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia. They are now competing in the Europa League, and will play on Thursday against the French team Olympique de Marseille.
FC Sheriff was formed in 1997 by Viktor Gushan, a former KGB officer, and is embedded in the private economy. Sheriff’s distinctive badge can be found on everything from supermarkets and petrol stations to the jerseys of the team that shares its name. The money has helped FC Sheriff become the richest club in the Moldovan league, allowing it to scoop up talented young players in Africa and nearby Serbia.
But don’t expect an interview with Mr Gushan. “I am sorry, but no-one from the club will speak to you,” said Vadim Kolchev, the club’s press attache.
Mr Gushan’s reticence might be explained by the hint of change in Transnistria. In presidential polls last year, incumbent Igor Smirnov, a strongman who had held the post since the declaration of independence in 1990, was voted out and replaced by Yevgeni Shevchuk, a young lawyer and possible reformer.
Mr Gushan’s Sheriff monopoly flourished under Mr Smirnov. According to a 2010 US state department report: “The company also effectively controlled the Obnovlenie (Renewal) Party, which held a majority of seats in the region’s legislature.”
But Renewal is Mr Shevchuk’s party. And according to the Transnistrian government’s website, Mr Shevchuk was also once deputy director of Sheriff.