Sheriff Tiraspol beat Real Madrid 2-1 at the iconic Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in the second round of the Champions League group stage. Sheriff recorded one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history to date.

Real Madrid 1-2 Sheriff
Real Madrid was stunned at home by Sheriff Tiraspol in the Champions League group stage. (Image: FC Sheriff)

With a yearly budget half the size of Eden Hazard’s $27 million annual contract at Real Madrid, Sheriff Tiraspol made brands, pedigree, and money invisible for 90 minutes. The Moldovian champions, the poorest country in Europe, served as inspiration for every underdog living on the football planet. Starting with players of eight nationalities in their initial 11, Sheriff managed to get away with a miracle win.

Sheriff showed they’re no pushovers in the qualifying stages of the Champions League, getting past four qualifying rounds and leaving the likes of Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb behind. Their streak continued at home in the inaugural game of the Champions League group stage, as they beat Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0. But few could dare to predict the earthquake at the Bernabeu in Madrid. Sheriff punched first after 25 minutes when Yaxshiboyev, a midfielder from Uzbekistan, silenced the Real Madrid faithful for the first time.

In the second half, Benzema converted a penalty to make it 1-1 in the 65th minute, with Real’s goal engines seemingly heating up.

Sheriff wasn’t impressed, though. First, they had a goal disallowed for offsides, then Sebastian Thill, a 27-year-old midfielder from Luxembourg, scored the goal of his life with one minute left in normal time. Thill sent the perfect shot from outside the box, making Thibault Courtois’s spectacular jump worthless. You can watch the goal here.

Sheriff now leads Group D in the Champions League with six points from two games. Real Madrid is second with three points, while Inter and Shakhtar are tied at one each.

Champions League Group D standings
Group D standings after two rounds. (Image: FC Sheriff)

Who is Sheriff Tiraspol?

Founded as Tiras in 1997, the club from Tiraspol celebrated promotion to the Moldovan first tier the next year, just as Real Madrid was partying over its seventh (of 13) Champions League triumphs. Rebranded as Sheriff after promotion, the team rapidly became a force in the Moldovan league. They now have 19 national titles in their trophy room, with nine of them coming in the last nine seasons.

Tiraspol is inhabited by around 130k people and is the biggest city in Transnistria. The region is formally part of Moldova, but has aspirations of becoming an independent state backed by Russia. Sheriff isn’t just the symbol football club in the territory — its also the biggest economic engine in Transnistria. The company is involved in the oil industry as well as in TV broadcasting, telecommunications, and food production.

The football club has one of the most modern training camps in Eastern Europe and plays its games in a 12-thousand seat stadium, which is rarely even half full. Transnistria has a border with Moldova and a currency of its own, the Transnistrian Ruble. ATMs in Tiraspol never work for international cardholders; the only cards accepted belong to a local bank.

Salaries on the team don’t get past $180k per year, with performance bonuses adding to the players’ revenue. Sheriff’s budget this season stands below $15 million, being the smallest in the Champions League. Tiraspol is enjoying football at this level for the first time. Sheriff has never reached the UCL group stage before, having just played in the Europa League with minor results.

Sheriff’s success is based on the club’s excellent scouting department, which finds players everywhere around the world. Currently, there are players of 19 nationalities on Sheriff’s roster.