A powerful Sheriff, a haircut & a drunken war
Welcome to Never Mind the Bolsheviks, a new blog about football in the 15 former Soviet republics who used to nestle behind the Iron Curtain.
And thereÃ¢ÂÂs no better place to start than with a piece of history being made recently in MoldovaÃ¢ÂÂ¦ or a place nearby.
Unlike almost every other league in the former Soviet Union, MoldovaÃ¢ÂÂs Divizia NaÃ Â£ionalÃÂ is at the business end of the season and Sheriff Tiraspol sit 15 points ahead of their nearest rivals, Dacia ChiÃ ÂinÃÂu, with three games left to play.
Their 3-0 win at seventh-placed Nistru Otaci on Saturday April 25 brought them their ninth successive league title, eclipsing their bitter rivals Zimbru ChiÃ ÂinÃÂuÃ¢ÂÂs haul of eight championships since Moldova achieved independence in 1991.
FFT.com: Putting Moldova on the map
Sheriff are something of an anomaly in Moldovan football; in fact, some would argue Ã¢ÂÂ passionately Ã¢ÂÂ that they arenÃ¢ÂÂt even Moldovan at all.
The team are based in Transdniestr, a Soviet-loyal breakaway republic occupying a sliver of land in the east of Moldova, where statues of Lenin and images of the hammer and sickle still defiantly adorn streets littered with government posters requesting citizens donate 30 centimetres of hair. NMTB didnÃ¢ÂÂt see much evidence that this appeal was successful.
In 1992 they fought for their independence in a civil war known colloquially as the Ã¢ÂÂDrunken WarÃ¢ÂÂ. Bizarrely, officers of the Transdniestrian and Moldovan forces Ã¢ÂÂ who until the previous year had been quite close chums in the Red Army Ã¢ÂÂ got together in the evenings to indulge in that popular Eastern European pastime of getting blind drunk until the wee hours.
They met to reminisce and to discuss the dayÃ¢ÂÂs events, in what were probably quite heated debates until they reached that stage of inebriation where they were slurring Ã¢ÂÂI love yousÃ¢ÂÂ across the table at each other, before retiring to their respective barracks for the night.
The following morning they swapped alcohol for AK47s and attempted to kill each other, until the evening came round and they met up for an after-battle pint or two again. ItÃ¢ÂÂs thirsty work, war is.
"I'm jusht having a resht"
Unsurprisingly the conflict ended in stalemate and ever since Transdniestr has been left in a state of limbo, receiving only tacit approval by Russia who has thousands of troops stationed there.
When they werenÃ¢ÂÂt having a night on the tiles with their Moldovan adversaries, Transdniestrian officers were busy forming Sheriff, a pervasive company that owns almost every business in the region and is in close cahoots with president Igor Smirnov, who has ruled the schismatic state since its declaration of independence in 1991.
Transdniestrians can shop at Sheriff supermarkets, top up their cars at Sheriff petrol stations, and gamble away the savings they have in SheriffÃ¢ÂÂs banks at the companyÃ¢ÂÂs casinos. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs even a Sheriff water park under construction.
Tethered horses not shown
In 1997 they branched out into sport, forming Sheriff Tiraspol and building a ÃÂ£100 million stadium replete with a 40-hectare academy for the club, who were given a brief rubric: dominate Moldovan football. And theyÃ¢ÂÂve duly obliged.
No one has come close to challenging MoldovaÃ¢ÂÂs, sorry, TransdniestrÃ¢ÂÂs finest, and this season theyÃ¢ÂÂve won the league at a canter, adding yet another cup to a bulging trophy cabinet.
The club are on the verge of an unprecedented treble this year. In January Sheriff won the CIS Cup Ã¢ÂÂ nothing to do with ScotlandÃ¢ÂÂs insurance-sponsored secondary knockout, but the annual get-together for the champions of each former Soviet state.
And later this month theyÃ¢ÂÂll be attempting to win their sixth Cupa Moldovei when they face Dacia ChiÃ ÂinÃÂu in the final.
Who says you canÃ¢ÂÂt buy success?
New sheriff in town
If anything, they were formed as much to be a propaganda tool to use against Moldova as they were to give Transdniestrians a sense of identity.
Moldova is EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs poorest country and Transdniestr its least affluent region, where the average wage is around ÃÂ£100 per month, yet SheriffÃ¢ÂÂs players Ã¢ÂÂ recruited from around the world on mindboggling wages Ã¢ÂÂ earn thousands a week.
And they live in luxurious apartments adjoining the ground overlooked by a series of rundown, Soviet-era tenement blocks where 99 percent of Transdniestrians reside.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs also unlikely that the locals can afford one of the gleaming fleet of Mercedes-Benz cars on the forecourt of the stadium's adjoining showroom.
During the filming of Simon ReeveÃ¢ÂÂs illuminating BBC television series Holidays in the Danger Zone: Places That DonÃ¢ÂÂt Exist he was offered a top-of-the-range vehicle if his documentary about Transdniestr led to Britain formally recognising the pariah state.
Sadly it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a sweetener presented to NMTB on its last visit to the Sheriff Stadium.
Nice ground in a nasty neighbourhood
An onsite hotel is presently under construction at the ground, but if you want to visit (donÃ¢ÂÂt Ã¢ÂÂ itÃ¢ÂÂs horrendous and at the Ã¢ÂÂborderÃ¢ÂÂ officials will extort cash out of you travelling both ways) you could stay at the wonderfully-named Hotel Timothy.
Befitting the republicÃ¢ÂÂs Stalinist feel, the place resembles something out of Goodnight Sweetheart.
There may be a better hotel in Transdniestr, but NMTB certainly hasnÃ¢ÂÂt come across one during a dozen or so trips across the Dniestr so far.
One thing that isnÃ¢ÂÂt in question is SheriffÃ¢ÂÂs hegemony over the Divizia NaÃ Â£ionalÃÂ and their place in the second qualifying round of the Champions League next season; itÃ¢ÂÂs probably the only time theyÃ¢ÂÂll call themselves Moldovan.
Those Transdniestrian passports they use wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be much good, though.
It would be a real fillip for the republic, although probably not for Moldova, if they do make it to the group stages of the competition at the ninth time of asking and put Transdniestr on the map.
Sheriff Tiraspol versus Manchester United. Now that could be an interesting away day for the Red Devils...
FourFourTwo.com: More to read...