Sheriff FC: The surprise from Moldovan separatist region
Fans of European giants Real Madrid and Inter Milan will see their teams face unusual competition this autumn: a club from a tiny separatist region in one of Europe's least known countries, Moldova.
After a couple of failed attempts, Sheriff FC are making their debut this week as the first club from the ex-Soviet country to reach the group stage of the Champions League.
But their historic success is highlighting divisions in the wake of a brief civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the creation of Transnistria.
The tiny breakaway state has its own currency, border police, army and cellular network but is not recognised internationally, allowing Sheriff to continue playing in the Moldovan league.
The Moldovan football federation celebrated the qualification as "EUROFANTASTIC!!!", a sentiment echoed by sports blogger Sandu Grecu, who called it a "massive achievement for Moldovan football."
Not everyone is so thrilled.
"I don't see much reason to be happy," sports journalist Cristian Jardan told AFP.
"The team represents a separatist enclave where corruption, smuggling and shadow economy deals are rife, which directly damage the budget and state interests of the Republic of Moldova."
The Champions League place, he said, will only benefit the owners of Sheriff -- "and nothing more".
Founded in 1997, the young club based in the breakaway region's administrative hub, Tiraspol, have been on a steady climb into the limelight.
They have won six straight Moldovan league titles and 19 out of the last 21.
At a training session last weekend at Sheriff Stadium -- soon to host the likes of Karim Benzema and Lautaro Martinez -- coach Yuriy Vernydub was still processing Champions League qualification.
"Honestly, I didn't expect it," the 55-year-old Ukrainian told AFP. "It's a fairytale".
Since 2009, the side have played four times in Europe's second-tier competition, the Europa League, and have twice been eliminated in the Champions League qualifying rounds.
This year saw them earn a coveted Champions League group stage place and about 16 million euros ($19 million) in guaranteed prize money.
It's a significant sum for a team whose entire squad is valued at just 12 million euros ($14 million) and are dwarfed by their Group D rivals.
The specialist website Transfermarkt estimates that Real Madrid boast a team worth 780 million euros, Inter Milan's players are valued at 575 million euros and Shakhtar Donetsk's 180 million.