Anywhere that it's recommended not to take photographs will always intrigue and Moldovan breakaway republic Transdniestr certainly does that. For the love of football, we sent Mark Gilbey along.
I don’t think Wish You Were Here…? ever went to Moldova.
Mainly because it’s exactly the kind of place most people wish they weren’t – Moldovans included – and footage of Judith Chalmers wandering round Chişinău’s concrete esplanades or looking all depressed on the artificial beach at Vadul lui Vodă would’ve made for some decidedly crap telly.
God knows what Rohan Ricketts does in his spare time since he joined Dacia Chişinău.
If the lad’s got any sense, not visiting Transdniestr, the country’s Russian-leaning breakaway republic that occupies a sliver of land on the eastern banks of the repugnant Dniestr River and waged war against Moldova in 1992 for its independence.
It isn't a place to spend your weekends. Depending on your choice of reading material, the pariah state’s lack of recognition from the international community has reportedly made it a haven for all kinds of unpleasant things like the illegal arms trade, human trafficking, money laundering, extortion and smuggling.
And unless you fancy trying your hand at one of these alleged activities, there’s even less to do in Transdniestr than there is in Moldova. They have built a rather spiffing football stadium for their beloved Sheriff Tiraspol though, who are definitely in no way some kind of promotional tool for the separatist regime to demonstrate to Moldova and the rest of the world that the grass is greener on their side of the Dniestr. Definitely not.
Moldovan football and, indeed, Moldova itself, isn't exactly awash with cash; in fact, it’s the current custodian of the “Europe’s poorest nation” tag, but Sheriff’s gargantuan stadium complex cost twice the annual budget of the entire country when it opened in 2002.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website states: “We advise caution if considering travelling to Transdniestr, where there is no official British representation and British consular services may be limited in their ability to help.
“Transdniestr is not under Moldovan government control and seeks independence. The authorities… can be uncomfortable with visitors taking photos.” Hmm.
It isn't all that popular with Moldovans either, who didn’t cross the Dniestr in their droves when the Federaţia Moldovenească de Fotbal scheduled the national team’s matches at the Sheriff Stadium.
Attendances were low, and then-manager Igor Dobrovolski lamented the dour atmosphere and the detrimental effect it was having on his players, and at his behest the FMF reverted to staging games in Chişinău.
The mood on the bus to Tiraspol wasn’t much better. It’s approximately 40 miles from Chişinău and as we approached the demilitarised zone, immigration forms filed down the bus that even Moldovans must submit with their documents to the Transdniestrian officials. “We shouldn’t have to do this, not in our own country,” Nastia said. It wouldn't be the last time I’d hear that.
It’s considerably easier if you happen to be the holder of one of those passports the rebel government issues, although they probably wouldn’t get very far if they turned up at Heathrow brandishing one. And they’d definitely be buggered if they tried to do anything with the republic’s own currency, the Transdniestrian rouble. It’s useless even in Moldova.
Russian tanks and roadblocks greeted our arrival, before we decanted at an immigration post manned by some rather stern looking men in green uniforms and steering wheel sized hats. If I wasn’t accompanied by Nastia, anything up to €30 could quite conceivably be requested to “buy” a “visa”.
About 10 minutes later we arrived in Tiraspol. Bizarrely for a weekend, the streets were eerily quiet, and a strange atmosphere presided over it. The city is a drab, Soviet time capsule of broad, tree-lined avenues littered with Lenin statues and communist iconography, that exists as if the USSR never collapsed; even Transdniestr’s flag is emblazoned with the hammer and sickle.
You also can’t walk far without some seeing a Sheriff badge. The club were created in 1997 by the eponymous company whose logo is plastered across all of its businesses. Which happens to be quite a lot. Sheriff own casinos, supermarkets, petrol stations, even a television channel and mobile phone network, and the word on the street is: if you want a start a business, they're the ones you go to.
It’s rumoured the real head honcho of this empire is Transdniestr’s long-serving president, Igor Smirnov.
Whoever’s in charge, they're clearly massive football fans, as the Sheriff Stadium sprawls across 40 hectares and its two arenas, world-class training facilities, equally sublime academy and luxury accommodation for the players cost an estimated $200m.
And yes, despite the average monthly wage of Transdniestrians hovering around the £100 mark, that is a Mercedes-Benz showroom adjoining the stadium.
Initially entrance is denied until I chirp up about wanting to take some photographs to show their beautiful stadium to all my friends in the UK, and a security guard is radioed to conduct a guided tour. And an incredibly detailed one at that. Amongst other things, we’re shown the changing rooms and drug testing areas, before being ushered down the tunnel and out on the pitch of the 13,000-seater stadium.
Sepp Blatter once popped by for tea and biscuits and called the Sheriff Stadium “wonderful”, which is a much-trumpeted fact in Transdniestr, while Michael Palin also visited during the filming of his New Europe series to witness Moldova Under-21s face Switzerland. “In the stadium, which would have many Premiership clubs boggling with envy, there are maybe 3,000 people, of whom half are UEFA officials and the other half security.”
It’s arguably the finest edifice in Moldova and the pitch, in spite of the inclement weather, is in pristine condition. And I’m allowed on it, sadly without a ball.
Sheriff have also splurged a sizeable wedge on ensuring they’ve actually boast a side fit to grace the stadium as well, and were the first Divisia Naţională team to lure young South American and Africans to Moldova, which goes some way to explaining why they're running out of space in the trophy cabinet.
Sheriff have won the last 10 championships; six of them part of a league and cup double, which kind of pisses all over that time-worn axiom “money can’t buy you success” really, doesn’t it?
And just you try telling the unofficial national team of an unrecognised country that covets acceptance the Europa League means nothing. This is the Zhelto-Chernie’s second successive season in the group stages of the competition and they beat Dynamo Kyiv 2-0 last month. It’s not some second-rate tournament to them.
It’s probably the only time they ever call themselves Moldovan, mind.
We aren’t permitted access to the academy or to knock on any of the players’ doors, but what the club have shown is superb. Say what you want about what the club represent. The Sheriff Stadium is amazing.
There, I’ve said it. Sorry, Moldova. I know you don’t even have a national stadium, but this impressive stuff.
Outside in the real world, we vox popped for a Moldovan newspaper on the main street, the verdant Ulitsa 25 Oktober, and spoke with some teenagers out shopping. They're optimistic about life in Tiraspol, hate Moldova, have never been there and have no desire to visit any time soon.
Nastia jots everything down. “What is she writing?” one asks to his friend. “She is writing in their language,” he replies.
Moldova has, for all intents and purposes, lost Transdniestr, whether it becomes an independent state or absorbed by the Russian Federation.
It certainly makes for an interesting future for Sheriff, whatever the disputed region’s outcome.
You can read more from Mark at Four Four Two's 'Never Mind The Bolsheviks' and be sure to follow him on Twitter @Mark_Gilbey