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When a Champions League Fairy Tale Is Disputed Territory

Edmund Addo sank into child’s pose in the middle of the field, his forehead touching the turf, his arms outstretched in front of him, a gesture of supplication and thanks. About 60 yards away, euphoria had overwhelmed his teammate Giorgos Athanasiadis, his legs buckling as two colleagues tried to help him to stand. Their coach, Yuriy Vernydub, danced on the touchline.

They were all relatively recent arrivals to Sheriff Tiraspol: Addo, a Ghanaian midfielder, and the Greek goalkeeper Athanasiadis had joined this summer; Vernydub predated them only by a year. Still, though, they knew what this meant to their team, which had been waiting for this moment for two decades.

And they knew what it meant to them. They had upended their lives to move to a country that does not technically exist, to play for a team based in a disputed territory, to join a club that represents a state-within-a-state, a grayscale place unmoored from the rest of the world. Now, after seeing off Dinamo Zagreb, the Croatian champion, they had their reward: Addo, Athanasiadis and the rest of Sheriff would be in the Champions League.

The next day, they would learn the identities of their opponents: Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan and, best of all, Real Madrid would all be coming to Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, to compete in the most revered, the richest, the most-watched competition in club soccer.

At first glance, Sheriff’s story may have the air of a fairy tale, but the details — fittingly — are rendered in shades of gray. Tiraspol, the city where the team is based, may be in Moldova as far as UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, is concerned. Sheriff may be the current, and essentially perennial, Moldovan champion.

But Tiraspol does not regard itself as part of Moldova. It is, instead, the self-styled capital of Transnistria — the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, to give its proper name — a breakaway republic on the left bank of the Dniester river, a 25-mile wide sliver of land with its own currency (the Transnistrian ruble), its own flag (red and green, with a hammer and sickle) and its own government (the Supreme Soviet).

Sheriff does not fit easily into the role of underdog. It has won all but two Moldovan titles this century. It plays in a state-of-the-art stadium complex built at a cost of $200 million in a league where many of its opponents play on ramshackle fields, surrounded by wasteland, in front of only a few dozen fans.

Its team is full of imports, drawn from Africa and South America and much of Eastern Europe, while its rivals can only afford to field locals. “It rarely buys players for big money,” said Leonid Istrati, a prominent agent in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. “But only Sheriff can afford good level players. Before, a few other teams could. Now, they can’t.”

The source of the team’s financial power is in its name. Sheriff is the centerpiece of the private economy in Transnistria, a conglomerate founded by two former KGB agents in the chaotic days of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Transnistria’s war of independence from Moldova.

Its roots, reportedly, lie in the region’s historic smuggling. Transnistria’s liminal status, its porous borders and its opaque history — it is home to one of Europe’s largest weapons dumps — have long made it a haven for all manner of illicit activity, from gunrunning to drug-trafficking and cigarette counterfeiting.

In 2006, the European Union’s border monitoring force estimated that if the territory’s import statistics were accurate, every single person in Transnistria was eating more than 200 pounds of frozen chicken legs every year. Even Sheriff’s founder, Viktor Gushan, has admitted that his company has had to operate “between things.

Now, though, Sheriff — the conglomerate and the club — is everywhere. It runs a chain of supermarkets. It runs gas stations. It has a winery and a television channel and a phone network. “It is important to remember that the Transnistrian area works entirely for Sheriff Tiraspol,” said Ion Jalba, a journalist and commentator in Moldova. “In Tiraspol, everything is controlled by this company. There are Sheriff shops and Sheriff fuel stations. The soccer club is like a child fed by the whole separatist area.”

It is that which allows Sheriff to pay its players as much as $15,000 a month to play against domestic opponents earning just a few hundred dollars, if they are paid on time. Zimbru Chisinau, historically the biggest team in Moldova, survives only on the rent paid by the national team for the use of its stadium.

That, in turn, has given Sheriff considerable power. Despite the political differences between Moldova and Transnistria, the relationship between Sheriff and the country’s soccer federation, the F.M.F., is thought to be remarkably close. “Soccer here is in complete control of Sheriff,” said Cristian Jardan, a soccer journalist in Moldova.

The authorities have not only postponed games this season to give Sheriff time to prepare for its Champions League qualifiers, they have also amended their rules on the number of foreign players a team can field in order to allow the club to strengthen its squad, Ion Testemitanu, a former Moldovan international and erstwhile vice president of the country’s soccer federation, said. “No other team in Moldova can compete,” he said.

Many, then, do not even try. Over the last year, Moldovan anti-corruption investigators contend that as many as 20 matches in the country’s soccer leagues have been fixed, with players paid a few hundred dollars by gambling syndicates to guarantee results. One whistle-blower told the newspaper Ziarul da Garda that players were instructed that their job was to “earn, rather than to win.”

The corruption is so rife that, in 2015, even Testemitanu was approached by fixers representing a syndicate in Singapore. At the time, he was not only vice president of the national federation — the F.M.F. — but assistant manager of the Moldovan national team, too.

“They took me out to a nice restaurant, they said they wanted information, and then after half an hour they told me what they were proposing,” he said. “They wanted to fix national team games: the youth teams, the women’s teams, everything. I did not say anything, just that I had to think about it. Then, straightaway, I phoned the police, and told them what had happened.”

Testemitanu agreed to wear a recording device, and to be followed by a surveillance team, to help detectives gather evidence. His wife instructed him not to sleep at home, so as not to place his family in danger. “I was frightened, of course,” he said. “I knew it was a risk. But I want normal football in Moldova.” Two weeks later, Testemitanu said, the conspirators were arrested.

That did not stop the problem; in the last year alone, the Moldovan authorities contend fixers have made as much as $700,000 from bribing players to throw games. It is proof, Testemitanu said, of endemic corruption in Moldovan soccer, one that journalists and investigators have documented stretches as high as the F.M.F. itself; an investigation by Ziarul da Garda, for example, found that several high-ranking executives had amassed huge property portfolios while working for the organization.

“The F.M.F. does not invest in Moldovan football,” Testemitanu said. “It invests in itself: it builds training camps and futsal halls, but it does not spread the money from FIFA and UEFA to the teams that need it.”

Sheriff’s presence in the group stage of the Champions League should be a chance to address that. The club itself will receive around $20 million simply for making it through the qualifiers; the F.M.F. also will benefit from a handout from UEFA, a reward for having a representative at this stage of the competition.

There is little hope that money will make an impact on Moldovan soccer, though. The country’s academies are underfunded, its facilities poor. Everywhere except for Sheriff, that is. “It has an incredible academy,” Jardan said. “But it does not promote anyone. There are barely any Moldovan players in the team that will play in the Champions League. It is not a Moldovan team. It is not even really a Transnistrian one.”

For all that, there is genuine excitement at the prospect of Champions League soccer gracing even disputed Moldovan soil. Testemitanu regards it as a “dream come true.” He has tickets for Sheriff’s opening game, against Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday, and he is hoping to get tickets for the visits of Inter Milan and Real Madrid, too.

He is willing to undergo the indignity of traveling to Tiraspol — being forced to show his passport at a border that his nation, and the international community, does not recognize, to be registered by authorities that still fetishize the iconography of the Soviet era — for the chance to see those teams. Jalba is the same: Seeing a team from the Moldovan league on this stage, he said, is “a source of pride, and a feeling of amazement.”

They know that it will come at a cost, but there is a fatalism, too: It has been like this for so long that it is easy to wonder what difference it could feasibly make. “The money from the Champions League will count for Sheriff, but even without it, it would have been the richest team in Moldova anyway,” Jalba said.

“The people who run the club do not care about the money,” Testemitanu said. “They already have money. They do not need $20 million. They control a whole country. It is about reputation, about being in that top league, in the Champions League.”

Now that Sheriff is there, though, now that it has finally made it, all that happens is that the difference is entrenched. The last wisps of the final shade of gray disappear, and everything becomes black and white.

This is what Sheriff has been waiting for; it is what the rest of Moldovan soccer might have been dreading. It crystallizes the inevitability of Sheriff’s winning the league, again and again, into perpetuity. Watching from Moldova, it is not a fairy tale about a plucky hero, but quite the opposite. It is the final victory of the giant. “For Moldovan football,” Jardan said, “this is the end.”

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Disappointing Race? Reframe It.

Call it the great reframing.

After a big race, professional athletes and amateurs often face the same challenge: how to react when the run doesn’t go according to Plan A, B or C.

It’s something Ryan Hall knows well. A two-time Olympian, and the only American to run a marathon in under 2 hours 5 minutes, Hall has had to strengthen that mental muscle as an athlete and now as a coach to runners including his wife, Sara Hall, the second-fastest female marathoner in American history.

“I went through this process throughout my career, and it’s one I continue to cultivate as a coach,” Ryan Hall said over the phone last week. “When you have a bad race, you don’t want to talk about it to your co-workers or peers. But I’ve learned that actually every single one of those conversations is an opportunity to reframe this narrative in my own mind and with other people.”

It can take time. Hall points to his 10th-place marathon finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as one of the most difficult disappointments of his career. He went into the race as a podium contender and was absolutely dejected at the finish. He is able to see that experience in a positive light now, he said, but it took him three years after the race to get there. “It’s a learned skill,” he said.

For some people, talking about a disappointing race with others can be an isolating experience, said Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist. He calls it disenfranchised grief. “We use that term when the loss of something may not be widely understood, and we see that a lot with amateur runners,” Ross said. “The marathon is so important for us that when it’s done, the general public, our family and friends, they don’t understand it. Why is it so hard?”

After this year’s Chicago Marathon and Boston Marathon — both of which were run in warm weather, slowing down athletes — many runners were eager to reframe how they thought about their races.

Sara Hall was among them. After failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at the U.S. marathon trials last year, she refocused on another big goal: setting an American record. She ran the London Marathon — an elite-only event held last year on Oct. 4 instead of its usual April date — in a personal best, 2:22:01, placing second. On Dec. 20, she raced in the Marathon Project in Chandler, Ariz. (she races relentlessly), finishing in 2:20:32, the second-fastest marathon run by an American woman.

She was just under one minute off the American record — 2:19:36, set at the London Marathon by Deena Kastor in 2004. She targeted the 2021 Chicago Marathon with the record in mind.

“It’s hard not to envision it going a certain way,” she said, days after finishing in third place in Chicago with a time of 2:27:19. “I envisioned a great weather day, that I would be in the hunt to win, to set an American record.”

Unlike professional athletes in many sports who have the opportunity to make up for a disappointing performance almost weekly, many runners compete in fewer than half a dozen races a year. At the Tokyo Olympics, some athletes cried openly when they were disappointed by race results. Others were able to quickly reframe their narratives by the time they posted to social media.

“The word disappointed doesn’t quite feel strong enough,” Scott Fauble wrote on Instagram after his 16th-place finish at the Boston Marathon on Monday. “I don’t think I need to belabor that fact, so I’ll sign off with some positives. The crowds were amazing — you guys carried me home those last 10 miles. My body feels generally whole. There will be more races in the future — more chances to live up to my expectations.”

“This race certainly wasn’t everything we’d hoped for,” Reed Fischer posted after his ninth-place finish at the Chicago Marathon, “but it’s a massive step in the right direction and proof (to me, at least), that I belong at this stage and in this event.”

In this process, Ross said, professionals and amateurs alike are able to normalize feeling two things at once: sadness and gratitude.

“I think there is a really powerful shift that we need to make between outcome goals and performance standards,” Ross said. Outcome goals are usually time or place goals. Performance goals can be much more about mentality.

“When the day is not your day, we get lost and upset because we are able to recognize that the outcome goal is out of reach. That’s when falling on performance standards is so important. It’s less about the outcome. It’s how you show up.”

It’s a concept that Sara Hall took to heart in the days after the Chicago Marathon. She loves being process focused, looking to little victories and identifying the next goal.

“Out there, you have to do whatever you can to stay positive, and I did stay positive the whole time,” she said. “That was a win in itself. I told myself I was still in it. I focused on how good my stride felt and how grateful I was to be in the race.”

It will be no surprise to see her show up again.

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Boston Found Garrett Whitlock in the Yankees System. Blame Instagram.

The Jeep Wrangler with the Yankees tire cover became a familiar sight at the Central Alabama Baseball Academy in 2020.

The vehicle belonged to Garrett Whitlock, who received the navy cover with the interlocking “NY” insignia as a gift after the Yankees drafted him in the 18th round in 2017. Whitlock drove the Jeep to his job as one of the academy’s pitching coaches, a paid gig he picked up while recovering from Tommy John surgery amid a minor league season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. He frequented the travel program’s facilities, often throwing bullpens as he restored his arm’s strength.

So when the Red Sox scooped up the right-hander with the fourth pick in the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 10, 2020, those at the academy instantly noticed the naked tire when he arrived later that day.

“It was pretty funny,” said the academy’s founder, and former minor league catcher, Kennon McArthur, who employed Whitlock for about six months. “Getting picked up by the rival.”

Whitlock was a revelation for Boston in 2021 after the Yankees opted to protect other pitchers on their 40-man roster. The 25-year-old recorded a 1.96 E.R.A. and struck out 27.2 percent of the batters he faced in the regular season. He threw three and a third scoreless, high-leverage innings in Boston’s division series against the Tampa Bay Rays and contributed two scoreless innings in the team’s Game 2 win in the American League Championship Series on Saturday. In the biggest gut punch to the Yankees, however, he was on the mound, working around a solo homer to close out Boston’s wild-card game win over his former club.

Whitlock hadn’t pitched above Class AA before this season, yet he has stepped up as the most valuable reliever for a team with championship aspirations. Just don’t tell him that.

“I’m still just trying to earn my spot on the team,” Whitlock said of his lofty status despite his limited résumé.

Recently Whitlock said he had joked with Chris Messina, Boston’s strength coach, about how he was officially a member of the team now that the regular season had been completed, thus finishing off the terms of the Rule 5 draft, in which a player has to stick with the team that chooses him all year or be returned to his original club. All the Yankees received for the young pitcher was $100,000.

“I joked, ‘You’re stuck with me now,’” Whitlock said.

While Whitlock comes off as unassuming, Manager Alex Cora immediately saw promise in the young pitcher and said the decision to keep Whitlock around was easy back in spring training.

“We saw him throwing a bullpen and I was like, ‘This kid’s making the team,’” Cora said. “He’s A-plus. He’s great. Talent-wise, you saw it throughout the season.”

The Sox knew about Whitlock’s successful rehab from elbow surgery thanks to social media. He had documented his recovery on Instagram, sharing progressively more intense practice sessions while clad in Yankees apparel.

“Instagram gets a shout out,” Cora said after Whitlock closed out Game 4 of their division series against the Chicago White Sox with two shutout innings. “I’m glad that some of the scouts have Instagram and saw him throwing a bullpen.”

Whitlock said he “never” imagined he would be in such a high-leverage role for the Red Sox.

Before Game 4 of the division series, he recounted the day he officially made the Red Sox. He was in the weight room at Boston’s spring training complex when Cora told him they needed to talk. “This is going to be one of two things,” Whitlock naturally thought. He and Cora joined a Red Sox contingent that included Chaim Bloom, the team’s chief baseball officer, along with Dave Bush, the pitching coach, Jason Varitek, a game-planning coordinator, and Kevin Walker, the bullpen coach.

“Hey, have you got any plans for April 1?” Whitlock remembers Bloom asking in reference to opening day. “We’d love to have you out there.”

Whitlock described making the team as the most memorable moment from a season full of special ones. But it wasn’t until months later that he truly believed he belonged in the majors.

It was Sept. 12, and he had just surrendered a walk-off home run to Leury Garcia, a utility player for the White Sox. The latest stumble in a rough start to the month left Whitlock sitting alone in the visitor’s clubhouse bathroom at Guaranteed Rate Field. “I was down on myself,” he recalled.

Then Kiké Hernandez walked in, ready with a pep talk. Hernandez reminded Whitlock that he had been a pillar of Boston’s bullpen. He would remain one.

“He was just like: ‘Hey, man, you’ve been huge for us all year. You’re going to continue to be huge for us,’” Whitlock said. “Once he said that, that gave me a lot of confidence.”

Lately, Whitlock is trying to “soak up everything.” It has been a year of considerable change, frequent firsts and heightened expectations. “You never know if this will happen again,” he said of his surreal season. As McArthur framed it, Whitlock went from “being an injured minor league player to a stud in the big leagues.” Whitlock doesn’t plan on losing sight of that.

“If I ever have a day where I’m just like, ‘Oh, it’s another day,’ that’s the day you come and take me out,” he said. “I never want to take a day for granted ever again.”

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With Use of Openers, Pitching Six Innings Feels Like a Lot

ATLANTA — There are 38 metal flags running up and down the light poles above right field at Truist Park, saluting standout seasons for the home team. A dozen flags signify titles won before the modern World Series, which seems like résumé padding for the franchise now known as the Atlanta Braves.

But there they are, starting in 1872, when a slim right-hander named Al Spalding started all 48 games for the Braves’ ancestors, the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association. He piled up 404⅔ innings that season, and two years later topped 600.

Max Fried is now Spalding’s spiritual progeny. On Saturday he worked six innings in the opener of the National League Championship Series, a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fried also worked six innings in the last round, against the Milwaukee Brewers. This is a major accomplishment in the modern playoffs.

“I think six innings in the postseason is huge for a guy, just the energy they expend mentally and physically,” Manager Brian Snitker said. “I feel like we have three guys that can do that.”

The others are Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton, and the Dodgers have three of their own in Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. On the American League side, though, the rotations are falling apart.

The Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros used eight pitchers apiece in Game 1 of the A.L.C.S., and the Dodgers used eight on Saturday. That was out of necessity, though, because Urias and Scherzer had just pitched on Thursday to help close out the Giants in San Francisco.

“Clayton Kershaw would be starting this game; unfortunately, he’s hurt right now,” Scherzer said on Saturday afternoon. “So this isn’t by design. As a whole, we looked to have four starters going into the postseason, but we don’t. And so we’re just trying to navigate this as best as possible.”

The Dodgers have so much depth that three Cy Young Award winners are off the playoff roster: Kershaw is recovering from a forearm injury; David Price was dropped for this round after struggling down the stretch; and Trevor Bauer is under investigation for sexual assault. Each of those pitchers is making more than $30 million this season.

In Game 1, a collection of mustachioed middlemen followed the opener and throttled Atlanta, which fanned 14 times without a walk. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s sunny superstar, whiffed four times against four different pitchers. No matter: Third baseman Austin Riley, who had homered earlier, drilled a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth.

The game was played crisply, mainly because all those pitchers had good stuff and knew it. They filled up the strike zone, nearly making this the first game in N.L.C.S. history without a walk (alas, the Dodgers drew one in the ninth). There were four stolen bases — even a sacrifice bunt! — and the whole thing seemed shorter than its 3 hours 4 minutes. That is when baseball is at its best.

The A.L.C.S., meanwhile, has been a mess, a bloated double feature with a running time of 495 minutes. Boston’s Chris Sale, who returned from Tommy John surgery in August, has made two playoff starts and gotten nine outs. Besides the Red Sox’ Nathan Eovaldi — a sound bet for five innings, if rarely for six — no starter on either team would be called durable.

Some of this is understandable, natural attrition at the end of a long season that followed a very short one. But part of it is on purpose. Pitchers aren’t supposed to be Al Spalding, or even Al Leiter, anymore.

“You’re limiting even your best to 18 outs now,” said the former pitcher Ron Darling, who is calling the N.L.C.S. for TBS. “So if we lower our expectations from 27 outs, then a four-inning start in the postseason is a very good start.”

Teams focus more intently than ever on matchups, deciding in advance whose pitch mix might disrupt a particular hitter. With so many off-days built into the October schedule, most relievers are available every game, and managers — with heavy input from the front office — seem eager to deploy them. Even veteran starters understand the difference.

“As players, all we want to do is win, so if you tell us this is going to help us win, yeah, we’re all on board, let’s go for it,” said Scherzer, who allowed one run in the N.L. wild-card game but was lifted in the fifth inning.

“To speak on the other side of the coin, from a fan’s perspective and baseball as a whole, if you say: ‘Is this something that we want the game to go into? Do we want to see this in the regular season?’ My answer is no. No, you don’t,” Scherzer said. “You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”

He added: “But when you get down to elimination games, you get into postseason games, you do whatever it takes to win. So, to me, I think this is more of a question in the off-season if we want to address it.”

Scherzer, who is part of the executive subcommittee for the players’ union, likes the idea of a rule change that could theoretically limit the use of an opener by tying the starting pitcher to the designated hitter. Called the “double hook” by the Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark, the rule would mandate that a team lose its designated hitter as soon as it pulls its starter.

The viability of that idea, and others, will be debated during off-season negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. But as sensible as the opener can be as a strategy, it is still a jarring innovation.

Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who used Corey Knebel as an opener for Game 5 of the division series and Game 1 of the N.L.C.S., resisted the idea when the Tampa Bay Rays first used it in 2018. Beginning a game with a reliever seemed to be against baseball’s spirit.

“I hated it,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t baseball. I like to see the starters, and starters go deep. But when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line. So it doesn’t matter how appealing it is or what it is. The goal is to prevent runs.”

The Dodgers have done better than any other team, with a 3.01 earned run average in the regular season and a 2.05 mark across their first seven playoff games. Their problem now is that Atlanta is also rich in pitching. It is a franchise tradition.

“It’s just kind of the way I was raised in the game,” Snitker said. “I came up with the Braves here and we were all about starting pitching. I don’t know any better.”

The N.L. teams have the arms to keep this series entertaining — or at least to keep it from morphing into the slog we saw in Houston. Just don’t expect the starters, even the really good ones, to stick around too long.

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