San Marino: Life as the underdog

San Marino, for those who are unaware, is a microstate enclaved by Italy. Located east of Florence, it has an area of less than 25 square miles and a population of less than 35,000. Nevertheless, despite their lack of space and people, the proud republic has its own football league and national team that has gained somewhat of a cult following amongst avid football fans. Their international matches may end in defeat more often than not but when you play in the most competitive continent on Earth, surely it would be hasty to expect too much more.

The first official international football match that San Marino took part in was a home tie against Switzerland. It was November 1990 and the microstate suffered a 4-0 defeat. Since then any successes have been few and far between. Many people may be aware of San Marino because of their poor international football record, some may be familiar with them because of the popular PC game, Football Manager but for slightly older readers they have caused the odd surprise during their short history.


San Marino, in more than 25 years have played over 140 official matches. They have won just once and drawn on four occasions, every other time they have taken to the field, they have lost, often heavily. Their first mini success was against Turkey during the 1994 World Cup qualification campaign. After a 4-1 defeat away, they secured their first ever positive result when they drew 0-0 in the home tie. They also stunned England fans in the same year when they took a 1-0 lead after just eight seconds but went on to lose the match 7-1.


Following that goalless draw with Turkey, the San Marino fans may have been quietly optimistic that a few more draws would follow in the coming years and maybe even their first win as they adapt to international football. What followed was quite different, they had to endure eight years between 1993 and 2001 of nothing but defeats. That eight year losing streak was brought to an end as they managed their first ever point away from home in a 1-1 draw with Latvia. Nicola Albani scored the all-important equalising goal in what was arguably the best result of their history.


A 2-2 draw with Liechtenstein in 2003 meant that their away record was briefly superior to their home record. I say briefly because in 2004, San Marino registered their first and, at the time of writing, only win in their history. A 1-0 home victory in the return friendly against Liechtenstein will forever be in history as their first ever international win. The man who got the goal that day is the all-time leading goalscorer for the national team, Andy Selva.

Selva is arguably one of the biggest talents ever to come out of Sammarinese football. His record of eight international goals accounts for more than a third of the goals the nation has ever scored. Although the majority of Sammarinese footballers are amateur, Selva is one of the few to play at a professional level following his time in the Italian Serie C. His CV boasts decent goal scoring records for Italian clubs such as Sassuolo and Verona and his international record includes three goals against Belgium.


Other players such as Mirko Palazzi, Mattia Stefanelli and Matteo Vitaioli have been on the books of Italian clubs as youngsters or played in Serie D during their careers but more often than not the national team is made up of players who have other jobs as their income source whether it be as a lawyer, student or shop worker. When they pull on that San Marino shirt though, they are representing their country and trying to put their names in Sammarinese history. Filippo Berardi is arguably the biggest future prospect for San Marino, the 19 year old is currently part of the youth team at Torino and he could have the biggest chance of filling Selva’s shoes.

Following their victory over Liechtenstein in 2004 they were back on the losing trail, but this time for a ten year streak. That baron run of form was ended in 2014 when a goalless draw with Estonia earned them their first ever point in European Championship qualification and took them off the bottom of the FIFA World Rankings.


Although they are commonly referred to as an easy team to beat, they have caused their fair share of disruption and drama. Englishman, Gary Johnson actually resigned as the manager of Latvia following that 2001 draw whilst the media in Ireland were less than complimentary of their team in 2007 when they laboured to a 2-1 victory over San Marino thanks to a last gasp winner.


Over the years I have heard various football pundits and analysts argue that countries such as San Marino should not be permitted a place in World Cup and European Championship qualification. These people would prefer the smaller nations to go into a pre-qualifying tournament to earn the right to compete with the big boys. Personally I am against that idea. Whether you are from San Marino, Andorra, England or Germany, every footballer wants to represent their country. Should certain countries be penalised because they have a small population or a lack of resources? Not too long ago countries like Wales, Northern Ireland and Iceland may have been lumped in with a group of countries who should enter a pre-qualifying competition and look where they are now.


It may not always be fun for San Marino players or fans to lose by six or seven goals but it is about their right to represent their country. They get the opportunity to play in great stadiums for their away matches and the locals get the chance to welcome top footballing nations to their home for the other matches. For a nation with a population half the size of Guernsey and with little or no professional footballers often on the pitch, almost every match is a David versus Goliath situation for them but every now and again, they cause an upset.


Success for San Marino is not winning a World Cup or even qualifying for one, success would be adding to that solitary win that they currently have. Even in defeat they can often hold their heads high. 2-1 defeats over the years to nations such as Belgium, Wales and Ireland are quite a remarkable achievement when you compare the two sides on paper. Will San Marino ever improve? Hopefully, but it will be tough. Amateur footballers don’t have the fitness of the professionals, nevermind the talent. Will I continue to look for their result every single time they play in the hope that they got a win or a draw? Absolutely.


Everyone loves and underdog story and that is why San Marino have a cult following. They haven’t sold out their players but offering out citizenship to Italian players not good enough for Italy. They use Sammarinese players and Sammarinese managers because for them it is about pride rather than glory. Who knows, maybe a golden generation of Sammarinese players is just around the corner and if it is, I will be delighted to witness it.



Want to read about some more footballing minnows? Click here