How do minnows stop being muppets?

Inter, schmInter.

If Jose Mourinho really is The Special One, we should ask Silvio Berlusconi to pass a law that the Portuguese genius must spend the next two years coaching the national team in the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. 

Giampaolo Mazza has managed this microstate’s football team since 1998, making him the longest serving national team manager in Europe.

And unlike David Rodrigo, his counterpart at Andorra, he does not confuse the defensive arts with martial arts. San Marino’s part-timers set out to play football. They’re just not – with a population of less than 31,000 – very good at it.

Gualtieri takes 8.3 seconds to net against England, 1993

San Marino were abysmal when Mazza took over in 1998 and, with only one victory in the last decade (a 1-0 triumph over Liechtenstein in a 2004 friendly) they are only slightly less abysmal today.

They are officially the worst European national side. They have amassed a pleasingly round, but statistically insignificant, zero points in the FIFA rankings where they trail in joint 200th place, with the likes of American Samoa (who lost 31-0 to Australia in 2001), Montserrat and Timor-Leste.

In competitive games, San Marino have drawn two World Cup qualifiers (against Turkey in 1993 and Latvia in 2001) and one Mediterranean Cup tie (against Lebanon in 1987). Every other game they have lost. Being drubbed 13-0 by Germany in the Euro 2008 qualifiers set a new record for the Euros – and a new low for San Marino.

It is hard for these small footballing nations to make the transition from utterly atrocious to merely mediocre. Yet Mazza may feel his team are progressing. In the Euro 2008 qualifiers, they only lost to Cyprus, Ireland and Wales by a single goal in their home stadium, the Stadio Olimpico.

It’s easy to sneer at the attendances for San Marino’s home games. For example, Wikipedia estimates that 2,500 of the crowd of 3,294 watching the Ireland game in February 2007 were Irish.

But 794 home fans is 2.6% of the population, equivalent to 1.5m watching England at Wembley. And that day San Marino were level until Stephen Ireland scored in the fifth minute of injury time to secure a victory greeted in one Irish paper with the headline: “Minnows 1 Muppets 2”

Although Sanmarinese midfielder Massimo Bonini won the European Cup with Juventus in 1985, the current squad includes only two professionals in record international goalscorer Andy Selva and keeper Aldo Simoncini.

Selva’s strike rate – eight goals in 41 games – is almost miraculous. In 46 Euro qualifiers the whole team has scored just six goals. A more typical return for a San Marino striker is Marco De Luigi’s haul of no goals in 17 caps. De Luigi deserves some credit for sheer perseverance.

Ireland saves, err, Ireland to break San Marino hearts 

So how do San Marino improve?

Short of The Special One’s surprising arrival, there are no easy answers. The Sanmarinese champions Murata have featured, albeit briefly, in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers and had the Brazilian veteran Aldair and Massimo Agostini - the Italian striker whose Serie A career never really soared even though his nickname was Condor - on their books. (Agostini is now coach.)

In a very small way, the presence of such stars may replicate the effect the arrival of stars such as Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola had in the exciting, but uncultured, Premiership in the 1990s. And the money from forays into the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup will be useful.

And the Sanmarinese game has something English football still lacks: a brand new technical centre, courtesy of a grant from UEFA’s Hat-Trick programme.

The odds on San Marino scoring a hat-trick on the pitch are still incredibly long. But they have shortened slightly.

--------------------------------------------------- More to read...More Professor Champions League blogsBlogs CentralChampions League newsNews, generally