It’s a late August evening and on the main road from Tiraspol to Chișinău, two minibuses rattle along, carrying the 30-odd Milsami Orhei fans who travelled to see their team in action against their rivals Sheriff Tiraspol. The lights from cars moving east in the opposite direction illuminate the faces of these Milsami fans, wedged into cramped seats, all bedecked in red. Some are dozing despite the dreadful Romanian pop blaring from the minibus’s tinny speakers, some stare morosely into space, others drink beer and chat quietly. 

The mood is sombre thanks to the 3-0 beating that their team just suffered – not an awful result when one considers that Sheriff have won 13 of the last 15 Moldovan league championships. But this one hurts for Milsami. They are the reigning league champions, having snatched the title on the final day of the season in one of the most incredible league finales ever seen – Milsami, Sheriff and Dacia Chișinău all finished level on points, but despite Milsami’s inferior goal difference, their better head-to-head record bounced them from third to first after a thrilling 2-1 win over second-placed Dacia and consigned Sheriff to their first finish outside the top two since 1999. 

With the backing of the wealthy businessman Ilan Shor and following a decent European run, there were signs that Milsami might finally be in a position offer a consistent challenge for the domestic league title to a Sheriff side that has come to consider the title the absolute minimum for a successful season. But as we drive across a large ironworks bridge painted half white, red and blue for Russia, half green and red for Transnistria, and brake to a halt at the heavily guarded border checkpoint outside Tiraspol to have our 10-hour visas checked by an armed soldier, it is clear that, in Moldova, nothing is ever as it seems. 

In 1990, the thin sliver of land between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border declared its independence from the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic following the MSSR’s slow but steady increase of regional autonomy thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost. Of particular concern was the decision to make Moldovan (linguistically very similar to Romanian) the official language of the state. Transnistria feared that Moldova would unite with neighbouring Romania – something that some Moldovans still argue is the best option for the country – thus marginalising the Russian-speaking communities east of the Dniester. After a brief but bloody armed conflict with Moldova in 1992, the tiny Russian-speaking state of Transnistria remains in existence despite absolutely no international recognition – officially, not even Transnistria’s benefactor Russia recognises it. With Transnistria looking east to Russia and Moldova west to Romania and the EU, relations remain frosty, with all road traffic subject to border controls and visa requirements. Transnistria also has an entirely separate government, issues (unrecognised) passports and even has its own currency, but thanks to Uefa and Fifa’s reluctance to get involved in political matters, FC Sheriff, based in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, have no choice but to play in the Moldovan league if they wish to compete for the riches of the Champions League and Europa League.

Rich is an appropriate word when describing FC Sheriff. The name and logo – a sheriff’s badge – are ubiquitous in Tiraspol, with supermarkets and petrol stations of the same name all over the town. They are all under the control of Viktor Gusan, a football-obsessed former KGB officer who oversaw Sheriff’s rapid rise to supremacy after their formation in 1997. 

While many teams in the Divizia Națională play on bobbly pitches in front of a couple of rickety plastic seats, FC Sheriff have a modern 12,000-seater stadium for their first team, an 8,000-seater for their second team and eight training pitches with eight more under construction, not to mention an indoor stadium, several tennis courts and the only Olympic-standard swimming pool in Moldova. When the Swiss striker Danijel Subotić joined Sheriff in the summer, the facilities played a large part in his decision to move to Transnistria. “It’s incredible what we have here,” he said. “I’ve visited Barcelona, Madrid and Milanello in Milan, and it’s not half as big as here.” Their facilities are among the very best in Europe, but for most people, they can only be viewed from behind the heavy iron fences that surround them.

The experience of dealing with FC Sheriff became, in the end, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: they were suspicious because they don’t want anything negative written about them, but their constant attempts at control were the primary element that made this reporter want to be negative. In truth, there are plenty of unfavourable things that one could write about Sheriff. The source of their vast wealth is caught up in the murky world of the various Sheriff monopolies that dominate Transnistria and the state’s complicated international status makes transparency next to impossible. Any attempts to shed light on matters as simple as whether the supermarket or football club existed first are shut down by the club’s press officer, Vladimir Horoshilov. “I avoid this question,” he says. “It’s a typical question for European journalists. Because you don’t understand this small city. You can’t understand.” He’s right, but whether it’s impossible to understand because of how complex it is or because of how unwilling everyone is to explain remains unclear.

What Horoshilov didn’t seem to realise though, is that for a modern European club – which Sheriff strives to be – there is superficially nothing particularly unusual about the club’s structure. Leverkusen and Wolfsburg are both organs of a larger commercial entity and anyone who has attempted to understand the relationship between Manchester United and the Glazer family can appreciate that financial murkiness is one thing Sheriff do not have a monopoly on.

“Every journalist who comes here wants hot material,” Horoshilov continues. “All people think that Transnistria is this black hole in Europe. We are a small country, but very strong.” He laughs. He, like almost everyone in Moldova and Transnistria, says he only wants to talk about football. Not politics. Just football. Yet statements about Transnistria’s power pepper our conversation, and, when chatting to football fans from the western side of the Dniester, statements about Sheriff’s advantages thanks to their ubiquity in Transnistria are unavoidable. Here, the lines separating football and politics blur and intertwine, weaving like the Dniester itself as it wends its way through Moldova on its way south to the Black Sea. 

For all of the antipathy directed at Sheriff, however, there can be no question that their presence in the Moldovan league is, for the most part, good for football in the country. Moldova’s Uefa coefficient has been dragged up by three visits to the Europa League group stages over the last seven years, giving teams like Saxan from Ceadîr Lunga in the autonomous region of Gagauzia in south-western Moldova the opportunity to play in continental competition, and Horoshilov points out how many children from the impoverished Moldovan countryside get the chance to play football at the world-class Sheriff facilities when many villages don’t even have proper roads, never mind football pitches. Vadim Paireli and Sergei Svinarenco are two local boys who are regulars in the Sheriff first team, playing alongside the free-scoring Subotić, the skilful Brazilian winger Ricardinho and the Burkinabé club legend Wilfried Balima, who has been there for more than a decade.

Subotić, in particular, is an interesting case. After joining Portsmouth in 2008 but failing to make an appearance, he set off around the world as a footballing mercenary in Italy, Romania, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Kuwait before arriving in Tiraspol. “I went where the money was,” he admits readily. Sheriff’s incredible facilities, excellent wages and European football more than made up for the inconvenience of its location, but one of the hardest things for Subotić to adapt to was life outside the Sheriff complex when playing away games. At Academia Chișinău’s tiny ground just north of the Moldova capital, for example, fans throng the touchlines and, when they walk past the little hut at the halfway line, can look directly through the eye-level windows into the dressing rooms. “I thought I was back in the Under-15s, mama and papa there, you know?” says Subotić. “I didn’t get into the game, I couldn’t get used to it. At Sheriff you play in a big arena and you see your name on the big screen. Then you play in the cornfields. It’s hard to adapt if you’re not psychologically prepared.”

Subotić joined the club after Sheriff’s shock failure to win the league in 2015 and after their even more shocking elimination from the Europa League at the first hurdle at the hands of the Norwegian side Odds BK, a game they expected to win comfortably but lost 3-0 on aggregate after conceding three goals in the first 28 minutes of the home leg. Ricardinho’s explanation of the defeat was pithy – “because it’s football” – but the powers that be were not amused.

“I felt the pressure at first, but it has changed since then,” says Subotić. “We have a good collective and a good team. Within two or three weeks, with the win over Milsami, everything changed, including in the dressing-room.” It’s surprising to hear from several sources that the team spirit is strong at Sheriff and uniting players from diverse backgrounds, many of whom were attracted to Tiraspol for the financial gains, is no mean feat. “When I came here first, everyone was in it for himself. There were little groups – the Africans in one corner, the Brazilians in one corner, the Moldovans in one corner. And you could feel that on the pitch too. But after two or three games we started doing collective things, going to the swimming pool, going out, and now we have a real collective.” Wilfried Balima agrees. “It’s like a family here,” he says.

After that 3-0 win (in which Subotić scored one and set up two), the fortunes of Sheriff and Milsami diverged drastically. At the winter break, Sheriff were joint top with Dacia, while Milsami only won three more league games and were closer to the relegation places than to the top of the table.

Naturally, Sheriff’s vastly superior financial situation and almost absolute dominance of domestic competition polarises opinion. Ask a Dacia or Zimbru Chișinău fan about Sheriff and they’ll scoff about how their overpaid foreigners keep Moldovans out of the team and how refereeing decisions always seem to go their way. This is something that Victor Draghi, the press officer of the Moldovan Football Federation (FMF), is very sensitive about. In August, Sheriff visited hitherto unbeaten Zimbru in Chișinău and, in a toxic atmosphere, emerged with a 2-1 victory after the referee, Serghei Derenov, one of Moldova’s three Fifa referees, very harshly sent off a Zimbru player midway through the first half and failed to award a clear penalty to the home side as they mounted a spirited comeback. “He was an experienced referee but we don’t understand why he made a lot of mistakes during this match,” explained Draghi. Following an examination by the referee’s committee, Derenov was banned for life from refereeing in Moldova. It seems harsh, but, according to Draghi, it was his fourth unusually poor performance and the FMF felt as though strong action was required to assure the outraged parties that no clubs were receiving preferential treatment. 

It was difficult to not feel a measure of sympathy for Draghi, the public representative of an organisation that is very firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place, but the FMF is just as powerless as any other organisation in the country that seeks to weed out corruption. Since September, Chișinău’s main square has been occupied by anti-government protesters who pitched tents and vowed not to leave until the government changes – not that many believe that a mere change in government would make any difference. “There is not a single politician in this country that I trust,” said one protester as the demonstrations kicked off on September 6.

His cynicism is perfectly understandable when one examines events in Moldova leading up to the protests. Earlier in 2015, US$1bn (an inconceivable amount of money for Europe’s poorest nation, with a GDP of just $8bn) disappeared from three Moldovan banks. Ilan Shor, the president and primary benefactor of Milsami Orhei, was placed under house arrest for a month in connection with the theft and, during this time, was elected mayor of Orhei and Milsami won the league. He has since been released, but no one has been brought to justice. Since then, Moldovan citizens have seen fuel and food prices increase dramatically.

“Football reflects the situation in the country,” says the Milsami captain and Moldova international defender Petru Racu. “If there is no political and economic stability, then it’s hard for any business to be stable.” In a country in which everyone knows that their politicians are corrupt, how could football be any different? Racu spent much of his career in Sweden before returning to his homeland two years ago, and has little doubt that referees in Moldova are influenced. “I have played five games against Sheriff and I gave away four penalties, when in the previous 10 years of my career I gave away maybe one or two altogether. One of them was possibly a penalty but the other three came from the moon.” 

Poor Victor Draghi sighs at the idea of referees being bribed. “This is Moldova. It’s a poor country with poor people… Everything can happen but we don’t have facts in our hands to say yes he took money or no he didn’t take money.” It is telling that the FMF seems much more concerned with showing the football community that they are unbiased and not corrupt than actually weeding out corruption and cleaning up the sport. “For the last three cup finals, we had referees from abroad to show everybody that federation wants a clean referee,” says Draghi. This decision was made after Rapid Ghidighici had a good goal disallowed in a cup final in 2012 that was eventually won on penalties by Milsami, but the practice was ultimately discontinued as it served only to undermine the precarious authority of Moldovan referees for the less pivotal matches.

Rapid Ghidighici ceased operations a year and a half later, and this is another issue that blights the Moldovan footballing landscape. Of the 11 teams that began the 2014-15 season, three no longer exist: FC Tiraspol, FC Veris (who withdrew while top of the league in protest at refereeing decisions) and FC Costuleni. This is a consequence of the fact that football clubs are usually owned and financed by one powerful individual, like Sheriff’s Gusan or Milsami’s Shor, who can simply pull the plug at any time and for any reason. The Zimbru president, Nicolae Ciornîi, has threatened more than once to withdraw his team from the championship, and although the FMF has regulations in place to ensure that licences will not be granted to any club that does not have the means to pay its players and club employees, there is little it can do to protect against the whims of the football oligarchs – which, in reality, is not very different to any football federation anywhere in the world.

The Moldova national team also suffers as a result of the chaos at club level. In a Euro 2016 qualifying campaign that was a resounding success for many of the smaller nations, Moldova conspired to lose at home to Liechtenstein and finish three points adrift at the bottom of their group, amassing only two points from away draws in Liechtenstein and, famously, against their hated rivals/loyal allies (delete as appropriate) Russia in Moscow. Despite the state-of-the-art facilities at Sheriff, the Moldovan national team plays its games at the charming Zimbru Stadion. According to Vladimir Horoshilov, “for the Moldovan authorities, it’s important to play in Chișinău. When Moldova played England, the England delegation was here [at Sheriff] and said this stadium is very good and we want to play here. But Moldova said no, only Chișinău.”

Draghi, however, sees it somewhat differently. “The arena is better in Tiraspol, they have better facilities. We have a lot of problems with the Zimbru stadium. We have had a lot of letters from Uefa about the condition of the pitch. But in Tiraspol they don’t like Moldova. The fans will come, but they will come to see the opponents of Moldova. That’s why it’s a problem to play there.” He referred to a World Cup qualifier in 2008 against Latvia, at which the crowd in the Sheriff stadium cheered against Moldova for the duration of their 2-1 defeat, and the coach of the Moldova side, Igor Dobrovolski, himself a former USSR and Russia international (he won an Olympic gold medal in 1988 and finished second top scorer behind Brazil’s Romário) and a winner of the Champions League with Marseille, vowed that Moldova would never play in Tiraspol again as long as he was head coach, because at least the supporters in Chișinău can be relied upon to support the home side.

A year later, Dobrovolski resigned as coach but was reappointed in December 2015 after the debacle of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Petru Racu is quietly optimistic. “He’s a huge name in all of Russia and is the most respected name in Moldovan football,” he says, but many challenges lie ahead. The only place where politics and football seem successfully to remain apart in Moldova is in the dressing-room of the Moldova national team. “I have many friends [in Transnistria],” says the Chișinău-born Racu, “but we are not close when it comes to politics. We are the same people but when it comes to political questions there are always differences of opinion. They say, ‘I am Russian, it’s my country’. It can go on for hours. And does something change in the end? No! With the national team, it’s all about football, because when it comes to politics we know everyone always has a totally different opinion about things, and you don’t really want to start conversations like that.”

Racu explains how the football world in Moldova is very small and all the players know each other very well, having played together from a young age, but the dressing-room lingua franca can occasionally cause friction. “When somebody can’t speak Romanian, the first language in Moldova, they just speak Russian. And then someone might make a joke about language or something and then it becomes too sensitive, somebody smiles but somebody doesn’t, someone makes a joke but it doesn’t always feel like a joke. But it doesn’t come like more than that. It doesn’t come to trouble.”

In a country in which language is so political, it is telling that people often mention the language of football. Vladimir Horoshilov says with a smile that even though many of Sheriff’s foreigners speak neither Russian nor English, they speak “football language. It’s a universal language.” 

Victor Draghi also speaks of a football language to unite the two sides of the Dniester River. “We have good relations in the football family,” he says and mentions how borders are opened to allow the football teams, if not yet the fans, to pass through freely. Personal experience of the incredible friendliness and hospitality of everyday people in both Chișinău and Tiraspol made it very clear that the desire to understand and to be understood is much more important than the language used to do so. While the chances of a united Moldova in the foreseeable future look extremely slim, football is laying the foundations for greater cooperation in the linguistic and political standoff between Moldova and Transnistria.

"The ongoing photography project "Le derby ( de Moldavie )" by Chiara Dazi is supported by Brouillon d’un rêve de la Scam and La Culture avec la Copie Privée; ECF - Step Beyond Travel Grant; Oberliht Young Artists Association; and LFI."

Zimbru’s Bad Boys supporters group

Near the circus in Chișinău. The monument with a football was built when a new stadium was still planned in the area. After eight years the old Republican Stadium [**??] in the city has been demolished without any sign of construction on the new arena beginning.

Wilfried Balima signs autographs for his young fans in the Sheriff Stadium.

Watching a game from a Lada in the car park as the rain falls at Dinamo Auto.

A cloudy Sunday in the Dinamo Auto stadium on the outskirts of Ternovka, a village between Tiraspol and Bender. The home side are beating Academia Chișinău.

Zaria Balti face Dacia Chișinău. at the Stadionul Orășenesc in Balti. The fan’s T-shirt reads “To Berlin!”

The team bus and an old red Lada parked in the car park in front of the Dinamo Auto stadium in Ternovka, Transnistria.

A Milsami player looks through the window of the changing rooms during half-time in Academia Chișinău’s game against Milsami Orhei.

FC Milsami supporters enter the stadium of Dacia Chișinău. The stadium is in the village of Speia, 60km from the capital.

Dacia supporters on match day, singing and wearing Romanian flags.

A large crowd follows the new team Zaria Beltsy.

A journalist interviews a Sheriff player in the car park at the Zaria Beltsy Stadium.

A Milsami player watches a Saxan player shouting from a bus window.

The public watches a Saxan game in Ceadîr-Lunga. The team is the only one from the Gagauzia region in the first division.

For people from Gagauzia, Saxan is a symbol of regional pride.

Match day at Sheriff’s stadium.

Ironic applause for the national team from a spectator in a building overlooking the Zimbru stadium after a poor performance against Montenegro.