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“Football paradiplomacy” or how Transnistria has come into the limelight in Europe thanks to sports

Sheriff
©Mădălin Necșuțu  |   Stadionul Sheriff
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On September 2, the management of the Sheriff Tiraspol football club sent a congratulatory message to the leadership of the Transnistrian separatist republic on the occasion of the 31st anniversary of the  region’s self-proclaimed independence from the Republic of Moldova. “Friends, we congratulate you on Republic Day and we wish you and your loved ones, good health and a million of sincere and good smiles. Set new big goals and never lose your way! Surround yourselves with loyal, loving people and everything in your life will happen in the best way! ”, the Sheriff Tiraspol club wrote in Russian on its Odnoklassniki page, the Russian version of Facebook.

It is a political message that shows an unequivocal attachment to the separatist regime. Sheriff Tiraspol is active in the championship of the Republic of Moldova, and from the point of view of international football forums is a Moldovan team. Participation in international competitions now gives Tiraspol the opportunity to use Sheriff Tiraspol to make the separatist region more visible and to try to gain a minimum of legitimacy on the international stage.

From football diplomacy to soft-power thorough football

After the “Twitter Revolution” or the “April 7 Revolution”, along with the toppling of Voronin's communist regime and the installation of a pro-European power in Chisinau in 2009, the then new prime minister, Vlad Filat, tried a so-called “football diplomacy”  by participating in matches where he met with the separatist leader Evgheni Șevciuc. Concerts and even a joint visit to Mount Athos followed.

 “We have a very good communication with Mr. Șevciuc and this is a very good platform for further negotiations. The logical outcome is the country’s reintegration’, Vlad Filat said back then. Subsequently, the press published several investigative articles about the smuggling encouraged by the two leaders from Chisinau and Tiraspol.

Today, 10 years on, Sheriff Tiraspol has brought this “football diplomacy” to the next level.

For many years, with the massive help of Russian diplomats, Transnistrians have been trying to make their way, without much success, into the European chancelleries and forums. In a study by  IDIS Viitorul,, a think-tank in Chisinau that has been dealing with the Transnistrian issue for years, the author Igor Munteanu, a former ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the USA, an academic and former deputy explains the term "paradiplomacy" as the provision by Moscow to its satellite - Transnistria - of a wide range of military and diplomatic arsenal, in order to ensure the enclave with a kit of tools for attack and retaliation on all levels.

This time, the Transnistrian secessionist region has the chance to put Tiraspol on the map of Europe by means of the so-called “soft power”. Even if it’s only through football. However, with regard to its image at international level,  this is certainly the biggest success for Tiraspol. A clever plan that has been worked on for many years and in which a lot of money has been invested, most likely from onerous sources.

The recipe is not exactly new. It is specific to a mentality manifested among the Eastern bloc countries during the Cold War. As the East could not keep up with the economic development of the West, they used sports, a “soft power” tool, to match or even exceed the successful image of the West, in order to feed the internal population with the illusion of well-being.

Currently, the Transnistrian club only follows the trajectory and routes of Russian football teams in which a lot of money has been invested for many years, to allow them to perform as often as possible at the highest European level.

Similarly, the arrival of the Russian owner Roman Abramovici in 2003 at the helm of London club Chelsea London and the winning of two Champions League finals and one of the Europa League (former UEFA Cup), was a blow  associated with Russia. Also, the organization by Russia of the World Cup in 2018, even if it entailed an expense of about 11 billion dollars.

The Sheriff Tiraspol  Club belongs to the Sheriff holding company, which de facto controls the entire economy of the separatist region and also dictates the political life of the small secessionist republic on the left bank of the Dniester. The football club is under the patronage of local oligarchs Viktor Gușan and Ylia Kazmalîi, the most influential businessmen in the region.

Both the Chisinau and the international media have many times conducted large-scale investigations  into their involvement in Russian  smuggling  and businesses  run in the region.

Success story with black money and imported players

On August 26, the Sheriff Tiraspol team managed for the first time the  historic performance  of qualifying for the Champions League groups, after winning the double round against the more awarded Croatian Dinamo Zagreb team. Thus, Sheriff Tiraspol fed the club’s treasury with at least 17 million euros in royalties from the international forums, from participation and broadcasting rights.

Luckily, then, in the group stage, Sheriff had the chance to meet two European football forces – Real Madrid and Internatzionale Milano. Shakhtar Donetsk, former winner of the UEFA Cup under the leadership of Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, will also come to Tiraspol.

Thus, regardless of the results, the small team on the left bank of the Dniester will bring clean money into the local oligarchs’ pockets, but more importantly will put the spotlight on the separatist region for the entire world to see, and this has never happened in recent decades.

Reasonable suspicions loom over the Sheriff  group that they are smuggling all kinds of products - cigarettes, petroleum products, etc. - either with the Republic of Moldova or with Ukraine, especially via the port of Odessa. For years, the Transnistrian oligarchs have been investing in a football team that has eventually achieved this level of success.

The problem is that Sheriff’s success story will not benefit the Republic of Moldova’s Football Federation in any way, financially or in terms of image.

Sheriff Tiraspol has no de facto affinity with Moldovan football. For years, the team has dominated the Moldovan football championship and has virtually no rivals. Moreover, Sheriff Tiraspol uses the Federation to be affiliated with international competitions.

The matches with Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk will be played in Tiraspol. In the happiest scenario, Chisinau will provide accommodation for the players of these teams.

Tiraspol has a large and modern stadium, built somewhere in the 2000s, which can host such matches. Of course, it will not be easy for the supporters on the right bank of the Prut to go to these matches through the “Transnistrian border”. Moreover, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the separatist regime in Tiraspol has further restricted the access of “foreigners” into the region.

The joy of some supporters in the Republic of Moldova is not exactly justified. No Moldovan player is part of Sheriff Tiraspol's first 11. The team mainly consists of South American and African “mercenaries”.

Only one of them, the Brazilian Henrique Luvannor, was naturalized and has Moldovan citizenship. Moreover, neither their contracts ore the source of the money from which they are paid are public.

An attempt at legitimacy through visibility

As regards the matches against these big teams, many international journalists will arrive in Tiraspol to report on them. Most of them will be in the Republic of Moldova, or in the Transnistrian separatist region respectively, for the first time. Automatically, they will not just watch the matches. They will visit the region and write about it.

The European public, and not only, will hear all kinds of colorful stories about the small “state” squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine, just like many reports about the Republic of Moldova start with the phrase ”sandwiched between Romania andUkraine.... What it did not succeed through regular public diplomacy, Tiraspol succeeds today through football. A sport that remains very popular in Eastern Europe and that somehow follows in this region the same patterns it did during the Cold War.

Nobody has any expectations from Sheriff Tiraspol in this group of the Champions League. That is why any point or points won by this team will be equivalent to a huge success with regard to Tiraspol’s image, both externally and internally, against the background of the abrupt impoverishment of Transnistrians in recent years.

The secessionist regime needs this Sheriff Tiraspol success story badly, in order to stay in power against a background of growing discontent on the left bank of the Dniester. However, football does not put food on people’s tables.

Tags: Republica Moldova , Russia , Transnistria
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  • After the “Twitter Revolution” or the “April 7 Revolution”, along with the toppling of Voronin's communist regime and the installation of a pro-European power in Chisinau in 2009, the then new prime minister, Vlad Filat, tried a so-called “football diplomacy” by participating in matches where he met with the separatist leader Evgheni Șevciuc.
  • For many years, with the massive help of Russian diplomats, Transnistrians have been trying to make their way , without much success, into the European chancelleries and forums. In a study by IDIS Viitorul,, a think-tank in Chisinau that has been dealing with the Transnistrian issue for years, the author Igor Munteanu, a former ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the USA, an academic and former deputy explains the term "paradiplomacy" as the provision by Moscow to its satellite - Transnistria - of a wide range of military and diplomatic arsenal, in order to ensure the enclave with a kit of tools for attack and retaliation on all levels. This time, the Transnistrian secessionist region has the chance to put Tiraspol on the map of Europe by means of the so-called “soft power”. Even if it’s only through football.
  • As regards the matches against these big teams, many international journalists will arrive in Tiraspol to report on them. Most of them will be in the Republic of Moldova, or in the Transnistrian separatist region respectively, for the first time. Automatically, they will not just watch the matches. They will visit the region and write about it. The European public, and not only, will hear all kinds of colorful stories about the small “state” squeezed between Moldova and Ukraine, just like many reports about the Republic of Moldova start with the phrase ”sandwiched between Romania andUkraine...”. What it did not succeed through regular public diplomacy, Tiraspol succeeds today through football. A sport that remains very popular in Eastern Europe and that somehow follows in this region the same patterns it did during the Cold War.
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