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.