Moldovan Club Wants to Spend

TIRASPOL, Moldova -- Move over Real Madrid and Chelsea -- another big-spending club wants to get in on the act by luring top players from around the world with the promise of fat pay packets and first-rate soccer.

But this time it is not in Spain or England. This ambitious club is in Transdnestr, a tiny area that broke away from the former Soviet republic of Moldova even before the collapse of communist rule.

"We could get Manchester City's manager. Kevin Keegan would be good here," jokes Miroslav Primovich, spokesman for the club, Sheriff Tiraspol.

"But seriously we are in the market for players. ... We already have foreign players in our team. Two from Romania, one from Panama, one from Brazil and others. ... We are always on the lookout for more."

The players might not be on a par with the big names pulled in by Chelsea after Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the club in July, but Sheriff Tiraspol had money enough to build a new stadium to UEFA standards.

Now it hopes to fill it with world-ranking players in international games.

But the stadium, or rather a sports complex including the main 14,000-seater stadium, a 11,000-seater smaller stadium with artificial turf and an indoor pitch seating 5,000, is not in one of the most accessible countries.

Transdnestr, run by hard-line communists, is not recognized by a single state. Western-backed efforts to bring it back into the Moldovan fold by forming a federation have as yet failed.

Checkpoints manned by surly border guards protect the enclave in the east of what is now independent Moldova.

Guards check documents and are especially cautious when foreigners try to get into the "country," which can be crossed by car in 15 minutes.

They even stopped Moldova's president, Vladimir Voronin, from attending Moldova's Euro 2004 qualifier against the Netherlands in April, which was played in Tiraspol, capital of the separatist region.

Sheriff is still allowed to play in the Moldovan league, despite the breakaway, and has won the title three times. The club's officials want to make sure the world knows about the new facilities in Tiraspol.

With five training pitches -- two of them with artificial grass -- a football school for youngsters between the ages of 9 and 16 and the construction of a five-star hotel with swimming pool, the cost of Sheriff's new home is rumored to run up to $100 million.

Moldovan authorities have allowed the national team to play at Sheriff's stadium as it is the only facility in the country to pass the UEFA test. The stadium in Chisinau, Moldova's capital, has been banned from holding internationals.

Owning most businesses in Transdnestr, the company that built the complex -- also called Sheriff -- clearly has funds at its disposal. But no one is sure how much. Sheriff owns supermarkets, telephone and Internet companies, trades oil products, operates several petrol stations and has a television channel and radio station. It faces no competition from any other company in Transdnestr, one of the poorest areas in Europe where goats are led through streets ridden with potholes and elderly women bent double beg for a few kopeks.

"The club's president set himself a big task which was in the main a charitable gift to spectators so that everyone can get a taste of football at any level in Moldova," Primovich said. The aim of any business is to be profitable though."

He said it could take a while for people in Moldova to get into the routine of supporting soccer teams as they do elsewhere in Europe.

"The spectators are only just beginning to enjoy football. There just wasn't that tradition of going to see every match of the season," he said. "The numbers of spectators are rising ... and we like the fact that the spectators are treated well. We have waiters who serve beverages, of course nonalcoholic beer, chips and things."

Tickets are cheap, catering to consumers who take home average monthly wages of about $55.

Officials promise that fans will be treated to good soccer as the club has consistently been one of the most successful since Moldova became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, though it failed to get beyond the second qualifying round of the Champions League this season.

"The aim of all of this is for the team to win," Primovich said. "We hope to take part in prestigious international championships one day."