But could Putin do it on a cold night in Chisinau?
Partizan’s black and white colours weren’t good enough camouflage for some would-be coup plotters.
Football matches have been held behind closed doors for a variety of reasons. The spectacle of mute stadiums during the pandemic aside, teams are routinely forced to keep their fans out as punishment for their unruly behaviour. For instance, England had to host Italy in a cold, empty Molineux after the riots outside the two sides’ previous meeting at Euro 2020 final.
Now, we can add preventing a coup to the list, after Moldova’s FC Sheriff was told to play Partizan Belgrade in the company of the Zimbru Stadium’s unused plastic seats.
FC Sheriff earned their place in the UEFA Europa Conference League’s knockout round playoffs after finishing third in a Europa League group behind Real Sociedad and Manchester United. This season they had to play at Chisinau’s Zimbru Stadium, as their home ground lies in Tiraspol within the Russia-backed unrecognised state of Transnistria. Regardless, FC Sheriff has consistently represented Moldova internationally as the sport’s local powerhouse, winning 20 of the last 22 league titles. The club relies on the financial muscle of Sheriff, a company allegedly named after its owners’ KGB nickname.
A few days before the match, Moldova’s President released details of a plot to oust the country’s democratically elected government and replace it with a Russian puppet regime. Central to the plan was the arrival of plotters masquerading as Partizan fans who would seize buildings, kidnap ministers and install several local Putinites in power. This isn’t the first time Moldova faces such a threat; since Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine, there have been reports of attempts to destabilise the small country to further Moscow’s military objectives to Chisinau’s east. Instead, Moldova became an EU candidate.
Putin would not have trouble recruiting putschists from among the Grobari, Partizan’s fan firm. Moldovan media found social media posts revealing some of the visitors’ links to far-right pro-Putin groups in Serbia, where stadiums often see nationalist banners (or even tifos decrying opposition to the current invasion.) Russia has backed Serbia’s claim to Kosovo, a cause which unites Partizan’s hooligans with their sworn enemies over at Red Star Belgrade. The Grobari had to sit a few other games out before this one – once after they displayed an antisemitic banner against Tottenham Hotspur.
In the run-up to this match, twelve visitors were detained at Chisinau’s airport upon arrival and later deported, prompting an angry response from Serbia’s government. Partizan told the rest of their fans not to travel as the match was ordered to be played behind closed doors. On the night, Partizan scraped a 1-0 victory despite centre-back Igor Vujačić seeing red. No one knows if the would-be plotters turned up for the second leg to witness an FC Sheriff comeback from one down to a 1-3 victory.