A tiny Moldovan club from an unrecognized state stuns Real Madrid in the Champions League

FC Sheriff Tiraspol belongs to an unrecognized breakaway state in between Europe's two poorest countries. It plays many of its away games on scruffy Moldovan fields in front of dozens of fans. Its entire squad, comprising nobodies from Uzbekistan, North Macedonia, Guinea and elsewhere, is valued at roughly $13.6 million.

And on Tuesday, it stunned Real Madrid.

In the world's grandest club soccer competition, against its winningest club, Sheriff pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in Champions League history. A team of 11 players worth less than $1 million apiece beat a team of World Cup stars, Golden Ball winners and European champions.

They did so 2-1, on a marvelous 89th-minute goal from Luxembourgish midfielder Sebastien Thill.

They beat a club synonymous with arrogance that has, on 87 different occasions, spent more on a single player than Sheriff has spent on all players in its 25-year history, according to Transfermarkt. Madrid has more La Liga titles than Sheriff has seasons played. The Spanish giants have 13 European crowns; Sheriff, until two weeks ago, had never played a single Champions League group stage game.

Madrid's current squad is valued at $872 million. Sheriff's is worth roughly 1/64th of that.

Yet Madrid's stars — such as Eden Hazard, who cost $126 million alone — were silenced by the Sheriff defense on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Sheriff's minnows — such as Uzbek striker Jasurbek Yakhshiboev, who scored the first goal — silenced the 81,000-seat Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

At the final whistle, Sheriff players fell to their knees. Coaches embraced. Captain Gustavo Dulanto raised his fists and looked around, overcome by some combination of exhaustion, pride and disbelief all at once. They had, together, conjured one of the most remarkable stories in European soccer — ever.

Sheriff Tiraspol's story

Where the story gets complicated is back in Moldova, a former Soviet republic whose per-capita GDP is, by some estimates, the lowest in Europe. Sheriff has dominated the Moldovan Divizia Naționala since its founding in the late 1990s. But it has done so with very few Moldovan players — a majority of its current squad hails from South America, Africa or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. And it represents a city that doesn't consider itself part of Moldova.

Tiraspol is, instead, the capital of Transnistria, a breakaway republic that the world recognizes as part of Moldova. But Transnistria itself recognizes a separate hammer-and-sickle flag and a separate currency. Most of its citizens speak Russian. A statue of Lenin, the Russian revolutionary and Soviet founder, stands outside the parliament building.

In fact, Sheriff the soccer club is largely fueled by an eponymous business conglomerate that all but controls the separatist state. Sheriff the company was founded in the 1990s, soon after the splintering of the Soviet Union, by two Soviet special service agents. Many of the specifics are murky, but ever since, the company and region alike have been tied to various forms of illicit activity. Nowadays, the name "Sheriff" is plastered all over the region, on supermarkets and gas stations and, yes, the soccer club.

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28: (BILD OUT) Gustavo Dulanto ofFC Sheriff Tiraspol celebrate after winning during the UEFA Champions League group D match between Real Madrid and FC Sheriff at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 28, 2021 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
FC Sheriff Tiraspol captain Gustavo Dulanto cerelebrates a historic Champions League upset of Real Madrid. (Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images) (DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Coincidentally — or perhaps not — FC Sheriff is by far the wealthiest club in the Moldovan first division. It outspends its domestic rivals, doesn't share its relative riches to build grassroots soccer, and almost always wins. (Its opponents are so outclassed, and make so little money, that some have allegedly fixed games.)

But when, by virtue of winning, Sheriff then qualified for Champions League preliminary rounds, it transformed from Goliath to David, and almost always lost.

It had never reached the group stage until this year, when it beat Croatian champion (and Champions League veteran) Dinamo Zagreb in a final-round playoff. It was drawn into a group with Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk, and nobody gave the newcomers a shot.

A month later, Sheriff sits atop the group, having beaten Shakhtar on Matchday 1, and then Real Madrid 13 days later. There have been upsets before in this storied tournament. There have been Cinderella runs, such as that of APOEL Nicosia, a Cypriot club, to the quarterfinals in 2012.

But there has never been an underdog tale quite like this.