LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Intrepid tales of football travel

James Montague visits the non-existent country of Transnistria, where flagship club FC Sheriff played host to Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League.

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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin doesn’t often make an appearance during an away trip in Europe these days, but in the mysterious self-declared republic of Transnistria, Lenin remains solid as a rock.

Tottenham fans travelling here for their Europa League group match against FC Sheriff Tiraspol will find statues of the eagle-faced revolutionary throughout Transnistria’s capital, along with Transnistria’s flag, one of the few left that has a hammer and sickle on it.

Lenin? Hammer and sickles? Transnistria? You are probably, rightly, asking whether I’ve made this all up. Transnistria isn’t a member of UEFA. Transnistria isn’t a member of anything. Surely Transnistria doesn’t exist at all.

And, in a way, it doesn’t.

You see, Spurs fans are entering into one of the world’s remaining frozen conflict zones, an oasis of Communism that time forgot. You won’t find Transnistria on the map. Nor find its currency in any bureau de change. It is a tiny sliver of land on the eastern banks of the Dniester River, nominally in Eastern Moldova, next to the Ukraine.

When the USSR was crumbling to dust in the early 1990s, republics and former subjugated states alike rushed to throw off the yolk of Soviet imperialism. But not Transnistria. They quite like the old certainties of the past, thank you very much. So when Moldova and Ukraine both declared independence, Transnistria was left marooned from Mother Russia. They fought a brief war of independence with Moldova in 1992. A ceasefire was declared and remains in place. Transnistria has been in limbo ever since, neither a state nor a region, yet with its own borders (patrolled by a thousand Russian peacekeepers), currency and flag – recognised by no one.

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During the 1990s it became a poster boy for the wildest of the wild east. Smuggling, people trafficking and preposterous levels of excise fraud. But today it is a safe, peaceful place. You can take a bus from the capital of Moldova, Chisinau, to Tiraspol in under an hour, stopping only to pass the Transnistria ‘border’. There is a new government that is trying to open Transnistria to the outside world. The rampant criminality of the 1990s is gone. But the flags and the Lenin statues remain. As does the largest hangover from the 1990s.

Sheriff.

FC Sheriff Tiraspol gets its name from the corporation that funds it. The first thing you will notice when you enter Transnistria is the ubiquity of the sheriff’s badge. The Sheriff corporation owns everything from petrol stations to a mobile-phone network to distilleries to, yes, a football club. Run by a former KGB agent, Sheriff has controlled much of the private economy since the war, although that appears to be changing with a less pliable president in power.

But what hasn’t changed is FC Sheriff Tiraspol’s domination of Moldovan football. Money has been pumped into the team and a modern stadium, the finest in Moldova. Though most residents of Transnistria want either full independence or reintegration with Russia, UEFA is unlikely to ever recognise it. Meaning that FC Sheriff Tiraspol plays in the Moldovan league, crossing the border on every away trip, its fans cursing Moldovans in Russian, the opposition cursing the Transnistrians in Moldovan, which is virtually the same as Romanian.

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The money has meant they have dominated the league, winning 12 out of the last 13 championships and with it, European football. Their players are mined from the academies of Serbia and other friendly nations in Africa.

Don’t be put off by the talk of Lenin, former KGB officers and frozen conflicts. Tiraspol is a fun night out – vodka is cheaper than water, and some of the best cognac in the world is made at the Kvint distillery. The match-day experience is thus cheap, safe and of a far higher standard than at some Premier League grounds.

You’ll find it a short hop on the No.2 trolleybus out of town, next to the large, metal pylon with a hammer and sickle on it. With its pristine training pitches, all-seater stands and planned luxury hotel, it wouldn’t look out place on the drawing board at Manchester City.

The difference here is the Soviet-esque wide brimmed hats worn by the police patrolling outside and the $5 tickets. When I was there for a Champions League qualifier against the Armenian champions last season, the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. Avoid the ultras if you can – they’re the ones in balaclavas, chanting ‘Russia, Russia, Russia!’

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Still, it is an experience you won’t forget. There will be no stranger away trip anywhere in Europe; a trip to a country that doesn’t exist, using currency that isn’t worth anything, eulogising a system of political and economic control long since thrown to the wind. But Transnistria still stubbornly holds on to its independent identity, flags, Russian language and its statues. Lenin would have approved.