When your preconceptions are wrong
22 May ~ It's not that often you find yourself on a business trip in an unfamiliar city on the same day that a title-deciding football match is played – and admission to the game is free. In fact, it had never happened to me until last Thursday – when I watched Zimbru Chisinau v Sheriff Tiraspol in the Moldovan capital. I couldn't find a local person to go with, though. A Moldovan colleague I asked told me some of his friends were "well into" football: "They were going crazy over some game the other week: Barcelona and a German club".
Another college with a friend who "loved football" had no idea the game was on; in the local shop the assistant told me he only liked boxing – then apologised as I was from the "home of football".
Entrance to the fixture was free as it fell on the 66th anniversary of the club's creation. Too much time spent watching football in Russia (and some prejudice I didn't realise I had) meant I pictured a ramshackle stadium populated by small, dismal groups of "fanatics" and edgy-looking police. Fortunately I was wrong on all counts. Zimbru's stadium is pleasant and modern; the reasonably sized crowd was buoyant and simply enjoying the occasion.
Zimbru Chisnau's 10,500-capacity home ~ FootballFans.eu
The away support numbered about 50. Tiraspol is the capital of the breakaway region of Transnistria, where the majority of the population are Russian and Ukrainian. Towards the end of the Soviet era, it declared independence from the Moldovan SSR, though this was never recognised officially. There have been sporadic flare-ups ever since, though even given this the heavy policing of the away fans – around half of whom were teenage girls – seemed over-the-top.
The game itself was open. Zimbru played a lively passing game, though lacked any cutting edge. A familiar pattern began to form, with the home team doing a lot of the work before Sheriff – often through their excellent Burkina Faso wing-back Wilfried Balima – counter attacked with pace. They were soon two goals up and even before half time it felt like a certain away win.
In the 66th minute two noisy pockets of home fans lit flares and firecrackers to commemorate the anniversary; one of the groups then began throwing their firecrackers. Things got a little tense and the referee stopped the game, though the police didn't move in – instead they held their position, preventing anyone from the home areas who wanted to leave via the safe passage past Sheriff's fans from doing so, and instead forcing them to walk directly past the stand from which the home fans were throwing fireworks.
With a few minutes left, things calmed down. Many locals began making their way home – not a Premier League-style walk out at a poor result but rather a resigned trudge following the inevitable. The win confirmed Sheriff as champions for the 12th time in 13 years, while Zimbru finished poorly in mid-table. In Moldovan football's post-Soviet history, the balance of power has decidedly shifted from Zimbru, eight times champions between 1992 and 2000, to Sheriff.
I often leave football matches disappointed. But here I only felt positive – the fans created a good atmosphere and, overall, were well-behaved; the stadium felt like a proper home to the team; the football was better quality than my preconceptions had let me believe. And, perhaps best of all, I now have a team whose results I'll be looking out for in Moldova. Saul Pope