TIRASPOL • FC Sheriff Tiraspol have been the dominant force in Moldovan football for years, winning 19 league titles since 2001, including nine of the last 10.
They have done all that despite many people in Tiraspol not seeing themselves as being Moldovan.
Tiraspol is the capital of Transnistria, a breakaway state located on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border where the majority of citizens are ethnic Russians, not Moldovans.
In turn, FC Sheriff are a club run by an eponymous company built on murky money in a pro-Russian separatist enclave of Moldova.
Tiraspol broke away from Moldova in a short civil war in the early 1990s. Thirty years later, the little-known Transnistria region with its own border police, army, currency and flag, has not been recognised internationally but is propped up by free Russian gas and some 1,500 troops.
The territory, however, is effectively run by the Sheriff holding company that sports a five-pointed sheriff's star as its logo.
Owned by a former Soviet police officer, Viktor Gushan, the conglomerate controls businesses ranging from a cognac distillery and caviar farm to supermarket and gas station chains - and the football club making waves in Europe.
"Gushan is the person with the most influence here, both in politics and economics," said Anatoly Dirun, director of the Tiraspol School of Political Studies.
Gushan founded Sheriff in 1993 with fellow police officer Ilya Kazmaly. The two 59-year-olds spent the following years buying up former Soviet factories and led Transnistria's so-called "privatisation" - the selling off of Soviet-era state-owned businesses to private owners. As they rose to power, the duo launched new businesses.
In 1997, they founded FC Sheriff, who earlier this month shocked Shakhtar Donetsk in their first Champions League game before stunning Real Madrid on Tuesday.
Today, Sheriff's companies export goods ranging from textiles to construction materials and caviar across Europe and as far as the United States and Japan.
Vadim Krasnoselsky, the current head of Transnistria whose presidential campaign was financed by Sheriff, hails the company as the region's "main taxpayer".
Politics and economics aside, Moldova-based journalist Madalin Necsutu made the observation that "sport is also a form of soft power" for Transnistria to gain international visibility.
"What the separatist regime has not achieved even at the regional level through traditional diplomacy, it is now achieving at the global level through football with the image of Sheriff playing against teams like Real Madrid," he said.