What's it like to play for San Marino? The players tell FFT there's nothing to lose

San Marino may have only ever won one game, but Paul Watson finds there’s no doom and gloom as they face England... 

“Defeat is our destiny.”

No, not a quotation from Sartre or Camus, but the words of former San Marino coach Giampaolo Mazza.

The statistics back Mazza up: San Marino have only tasted victory once, against Liechtenstein in April 2004. They have managed three precious draws, but lost a staggering 119 times. Surely that can’t be good for morale.

However, as San Marino’s band of semi-professionals prepare for their big day at Wembley, the mood in the camp is decidedly upbeat. Having tasted (almost) nothing but defeat, San Marino’s players have developed a deeper relationship with losing. Just as the old adage suggests that eskimos have many words for snow, San Marino players know there are many types of defeat.

“The last time we played at Wembley I said I thought it’d be 4-1 to England. I’m hoping that’ll be the score this time,” striker Danilo Rinaldi tells FFT. Rinaldi had a chance at glory on that day two years ago, but he snatched a shot wide. It was San Marino’s only opening and they went on to lose 5-0 – a respectable defeat given that they were steamrollered 8-0 at home by the Three Lions.

Taming the Lions

“I’m not scared of facing England,” Rinaldi insists. “It’s nice to play against the top national teams, knowing that you are playing against the best there is.”

Fellow striker Adolfo Hirsch, who works in a furniture warehouse by day, has been lethal in San Marino’s championship so far this season for Folgore. He is yet to face England but doesn’t seem worried; on the contrary, he seems to revel in how outgunned his side appear to be.

“Their best and most frightening player is Wayne Rooney,” the 28-year-old declares. “But every one of their players is phenomenal. I’m really excited at the possibility of taking on such good players. It would be great to grab a drawn but it’s also an achievement to lose a close game and put in a decent performance.”

Striker Rinaldi played against England in World Cup qualifying

In an odd twist, both Rinaldi and Hirsch were born in Argentina but have dual nationality. The Sammarinese passport is the gift that keeps giving for players who would never have had a sniff of international football were it not for the existence of the micro state.

“I’m proud to be from San Marino and it has allowed me to play in great games against the best teams in Europe,” Rinaldi says. “We aren’t professionals so every day we have to show our desire by working outside of our team training. It’s tough from a physical and psychological point of view to play big nations, but at least we don’t have the pressure of having to win.”

“Wearing the national shirt is the greatest honour a player can dream of,” agrees Hirsch. “Football in San Marino is like a different world to Italy, but it is growing with each year.”

Eight seconds of ecstasy

Every San Marino player who takes to the field against England will dream of following in the footsteps of Davide Gualtieri, who inflicted one of England’s darkest moments when he scored the fastest goal in World Cup qualification to briefly give his nation the lead in 1993. England won 7-1, but that didn’t take away from San Marino’s triumph. These days Gualtieri works in a computer shop, but his golden moment will never be forgotten in the tiny enclave – or by Graham Taylor.

While San Marino’s entire population could fit in Wembley Stadium three times over, and home games are often watched by under 1,000, their support extends beyond the nation formally known as The Most Serene Republic of San Marino. Fans all over the world have warmed to the ultimate underdogs and one of their most vocal supporters’ groups is actually based in Italy.

“We don’t support Italy – we can’t stand the way the professional game is played,” Massimo Visemoli of the Brigata Mai 1 Gioia club explains.

“I’ve been supporting San Marino since the mid-1990s and my first live game was San Marino vs Scotland in 2000. They represent the purity of football as a hobby, playing for the love of the game. Sadly it seems that many people in San Marino would rather support Italy, but we’ll always be cheering them on.”

Gualtieri shocks England in 1993

Caging the minnows

Barring a miraculous performance from the minnows, San Marino’s squad will barely have taken off for Bologna (the closest airport since there isn’t one in San Marino) before pundits start suggesting games like England-San Marino should be avoided in future. Calls for a pre-qualification competition will again be raised, but San Marino’s fans are unsurprisingly not in support of that idea.

“We joined UEFA and FIFA as a free nation,” Visemoli says. “If we only got to play the weakest teams we might score more goals and maybe win or draw some matches but it’d be like putting the team in a cage – they would never get better.”

The best argument against non-qualification in recent times came from Andorra giving Wales the scare of their lives at the start of September. It was a performance to give all minnows hope.

Hodgson's opposite number Manzaroli has already achieved one huge result

And if anyone can achieve the seemingly impossible and lead San Marino, if not to victory then to more impressive defeats, it’s Pierangelo Manzaroli, the man who replaced Mazza. Manzaroli has already made history by guiding San Marino’s U21s to a 1-0 win over Wales last September – a victory that came completely out of the blue and gave a massive boost to everyone involved in the country's football.

So far the senior side have lost 3-0 to Albania and 2-0 to Lithuania under Manzaroli, results that tentatively suggest progress.

“We’re getting better,” Hirsch warns. “We will be looking to improve on the game against Lithuania. If we play well then the result can take care of itself.”

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