SAN MARINO — This is Europe’s smallest recognized soccer nation, population 30,000, and victories in the tiny, mountaintop republic are as rare as the coins and stamps that make it a collector’s haven.
The language, cuisine and Apennine range are shared with Italy, which surrounds San Marino, but cultural similarities do not extend to soccer prowess. Italy has won four World Cups. San Marino has yet to win four games. It has won one, to be exact, in 22 years of official competition. The only thing more uncommon here are traffic lights, of which there are none.
On Tuesday, San Marino will travel to Moldova for a final, undoubtedly futile, qualifying match for the 2012 European Championship. Make that disqualifying match. In nine games so far, San Marino has conceded 49 goals and has yet to score one of its own. In fact, it has not found the net in any competition since 2008.
“Every time we score, it’s a bank holiday,” said Walter Giardi, a liaison with visiting teams for the San Marino soccer federation.
In early September, the Netherlands defeated San Marino, 11-0. The Dutch forward Robin van Persie delivered four goals, half the career total of San Marino’s leading scorer. At the time, the Netherlands was ranked No. 1 by FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, while San Marino was ranked 203rd, in a tie for last with American Samoa, Andorra and Montserrat.
In 2006, San Marino lost, 13-0, to Germany, a three-time World Cup winner. But there are always small things to be grateful for. San Marino has never lost as hopelessly as 31-0, as American Samoa did to Australia a decade ago. Still, it is never easy for a soccer minnow swimming with the whales of Europe. Of 109 matches played since 1990, San Marino has won 1, tied 2 and lost 106, scoring 17 meager goals while surrendering 468.
And yet the team of mostly amateurs carries on, determined if often overwhelmed. San Marino enters the vast majority of its matches not hoping to win but to lose by as few goals as possible. If soccer seldom provides victory, though, it has provided a sense of identity.
“We are a small nation, but football gives us an opportunity to participate in big events with big nations,” said Giampaolo Mazza, 55, coach of San Marino’s national team. “Without football, maybe everybody thinks San Marino is some island in the middle of the Mediterranean.”
Actually, it is a landlocked, rocky speck of a nation, situated near Rimini, Italy. The craggy views are spectacular. San Marino’s three medieval towers rise like a sandstone wedding cake above the Adriatic coast 16 miles to the east. To the west, mountain peaks protrude like rows of shark teeth.
San Marino has one of the world’s highest standards of health care, according to the World Health Organization, and calls itself the oldest sovereign republic, founded in 301. But soccer defeats are inevitable in a microstate that has the population of Gloucester, Mass., and at 24 square miles, is about one-third the size of Washington (Monaco and Vatican City are smaller but are not recognized by FIFA.)
There are only three professional players on San Marino’s national team. The others are students, clerks, fitness instructors. They play for gas money and train about three days a week, often at 9 p.m., after their day jobs. Mazza, the coach, is a physical education teacher who receives no pay for his soccer duties beyond expenses.
On Sept. 6, the day of a home match against Sweden, then ranked 18th in the world, the reserve goalkeeper Federico Valentini was working in a bank when he received a call from the soccer federation. San Marino’s starting keeper, Aldo Simoncini, who plays for Cesena in Italy’s top league, Serie A, was unavailable because of a hamstring injury.
“This is your moment,” Giorgio Leoni, the technical coordinator of San Marino’s national team, told Valentini.
With little time to get nervous, Valentini played assuredly and held Sweden to a 0-0 draw until shortly after a San Marino defender was ejected in the 53rd minute. Sweden scored a flurry of late goals to win, 5-0, against a short-handed opponent. But Valentini acquitted himself well, even parrying a shot from Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the world’s top forwards.
“He was so excited,” Andy Selva, San Marino’s captain, said of Valentini. “We told him we would call him up at the last minute every match.”
It was Selva, 35, a forward, who gave San Marino its lone moment of glory, scoring on a clever free kick to defeat similarly tiny Liechtenstein, 1-0, in an exhibition on April 28, 2004. Eight months earlier, San Marino had tied Liechtenstein, 2-2, the only time it has scored more than a single goal in a match. Now it tasted rare victory.
Selva tapped the free kick to a teammate, who nudged the ball back for Selva to curl it beautifully and elusively inside the left post from 25 yards. His eight international goals represent nearly half of San Marino’s total. No other player has scored more than one.
“My strength is that, when I play, every match is always 0-0,” Selva said.
There was another famous moment for San Marino, even if it came in defeat. On Nov. 16, 1993, in Bologna, Italy, forward Davide Gualtieri intercepted a negligent back pass against England, inventor of the sport, and punched the ball into the net 8.3 seconds after kickoff. San Marino would eventually lose, 7-1, but Gualtieri’s goal remains the fastest ever scored in a World Cup qualifying match.
It came so quickly that the British radio announcer Jonathan Pearce was famously caught in the middle of his opening beer advertisement: “Welcome to Bologna on Capital Gold for England versus San Marino with Tennent’s Pilsner, brewed with Czechoslovakian yeast for that extra Pilsner taste and England are one down.”
If the goal shocked England’s soccer and radio teams, it was no less stunning to Gualtieri and San Marino’s fans, who were unaccustomed to seeing their team with the ball in the opponent’s half of the field.
“We didn’t expect it,” Gualtieri said. “We have so few professionals, the disparity is so great.”
Instantly, he became a hero in Scotland, which has long been a rival to England in soccer and most everything else. When Scotland played in San Marino two years later, Scottish fans offered to buy meals for Gualtieri and gave him a jersey with his name on the back. In place of a number, the jersey said “8 seconds.”
“I still have people coming to my shop asking for my autograph,” said Gualtieri, who runs a computer business.
Sometimes, there have been more extravagant requests.
Depending on who is telling the story, the Czech tabloid newspaper Blesk offered San Marino either about $55,000, or all the beer its players could drink, for a crucial victory over Slovenia in 2009. At the time, the Czech Republic and Slovenia were dueling to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The offer was alluring but unquenchable. San Marino lost, 3-0.
“I knew it was beer I would never drink,” Mazza said.
There are worse things. Mazza does not earn a salary, but neither does he face the enormous pressure of his European brethren. Futility has given him job security. While San Marino changes its head of state every six months, Mazza has been the national soccer coach for 14 years.
“If I lose three or four in a row, I’m still the coach,” Mazza said. “If Fabio Capello loses four in a row in England, they try to kill him.”
To raise its level of soccer, the San Marino soccer federation has built a half-dozen artificial turf fields for year-round play and a number of miniature pitches to encourage youth participation. The winner of its domestic league participates in the early rounds of the European Champions League, the world’s most prestigious club tournament. And eight youth teams with players ages 13 to 18 hone their skills in more competitive Italian leagues.
“Basically, our main goal is to demonstrate that we have dignity,” said Giorgio Crescentini, the president of the San Marino soccer federation. “I think we are on track.”
One shortcut will not be taken, however tempting, he said. In a country where it is difficult to gain citizenship, and naturalization can take 30 or more years, Crescentini said that no passports will be issued to foreigners just to play soccer, as happens elsewhere.
“We haven’t thought about any Brazilians because we know it is impossible,” Crescentini said. “We won’t deviate.”
Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup begins next year. Among the teams in San Marino’s group is England, a familiar foe. San Marino is a 5,000-to-1 shot to qualify, but that quick goal by Gualtieri in 1993 has not been forgotten.
“We don’t laugh at them quite as much as everybody else,” said Henry Milton, a teacher in London. “To us, they have an international pedigree.”
New York Times
by Jeré Longman