Although it's far from being a soccer power, and does not even purport to be one, there is at least one field in which Moldova puts Israel to shame - an advanced and detailed Web site as befits a member nation of UEFA.

Moldovan soccer is advancing slowly but the main signs of progress can be seen in the club setup.

During the days of the Soviet empire, there was one decent team named Nistru Kishinyov, which played in the Soviet second division of the day, and would probably have been good enough to play in the Israeli premier league.

Today, the leading team is Sheriff Tiraspol, which has won the championship for the past two seasons.

Sheriff is a reasonably good club that registered probably its best achievement a month ago when it won the Commonwealth Cup, beating Latvia's FC Skonto 2-1 in the final. The competition is open to the champions of each of the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Sheriff left the champions of Russia and Ukraine in its wake before beating Skonto.

The club is also the richest in Moldova, with a budget of $3 million, three times more than Zimbru Chisinau, which held the league title for nine consecutive years prior to Sheriff's rise to the top.

The budget for the other teams in the Moldovan league range from $300,000-$500,000, giving an indication of the financial situation in the country.

The rivalry between Sheriff and Zimbru is much more than just a sporting one. Zimbru represents the capital, Chisinau, the political center of the country with a clear affinity for its neighbor, Romania, from which it was annexed to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.

Moldovans and Romanians speak the same language, and talk of union between the two countries has been mooted more than once.

Sheriff, which hails from Tiraspol, the capital of the Respublica Fridenstrovya, has a predominantly Russian ethnic population with a great affinity for the giant nation to the north.

When Moldova gained its independence in 1991, there was a military conflict between the two sides, with the Romanians and the Russians backing their respective factions.

Things are much more calm, although there is still little love lost between the two sides and the sporting rivalry often spills over into ethnic tensions.

Sheriff, coached by former Romanian great Gabriel Balint, reached the second round of Champions League qualifying play before being ousted by Grazer AK of Austria.

Zimbru knocked Goteborg of Sweden out of the UEFA Cup, but then fell to Real Betis of Spain.

Both clubs have reason for optimism, particularly Sheriff, which has a huge budget in Moldovan terms, good scouts to fish out talent, and a 14,000-seat stadium.

For the national team, the situation is less bright, however. Since its formation in 1991, Moldova has disappointed greatly.

In the last qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup finals, Moldova registered one win in 10 outings, with three draws and six defeats. Only six goals were scored, while 20 were conceded in a group that was not one of the strongest, with Sweden, Turkey, Slovakia, Macedonia and Azerbaijan.

Hapoel Tel Aviv striker Sergei Clescenco, who was chosen as the best Moldovan player for the past three seasons, scored two of those six goals.