ARRANGING A TRIP TO SAN MARINO IS QUITE THE CHALLENGE. There is no train station in Europe’s third smallest state, let alone an airport. Large pedestrian-only zones mean that parking spaces are sparse, while buses from nearby Rimini are notoriously infrequent and unreliable.
An enclave tucked into the hills of Italy’s Marche region, San Marino has a population of 32,500 and spans just 24 square miles. At first glance, its status as a sovereign state is extremely puzzling, but you soon learn that the inhabitants of this tiny country are fiercely proud of their independence.
On the rest of the continent, San Marino’s name is predominantly spoken in relation to World Cup or European Championship qualifiers, often uttered with lament by citizens of larger nations who do not appreciate their inclusion in the same groups as giants such as Spain, Germany, France and England. Such an attitude, however, overlooks the role of international football as one of the foremost vehicles in representing a group’s collective identity and way of life.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna – which was set up in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that tore Europe apart –recognising San Marino’s independence as a nation.
While a significant date, it was a consolidation of what had always been rather than a radical change: San Marino’s political separation dates back to 301AD when Marinus, a Christian stonemason, built a church on Mount Titano to escape religious persecutors from Rimini. Marinus went onto found a community of monks who inhabited the land high up in the hills, and San Marino’s long history makes it the oldest sovereign state still intact anywhere in the world today.
The decision of Europe’s statesmen to acknowledge San Marino’s sovereignty in 1815 was not the last time its autonomous existence has come under threat. The drive to unite Italy later on in the 19th century also represented a challenge, with many young revolutionaries keen to bring together the peninsula’s various city-states. Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the key figures in the process, had been granted asylum in San Marino along with some fellow nationalists in the previous years, and his personal gratitude led the unifiers to respect the microstate’s wish to remain divorced from the land surrounding it.
San Marino also acted as a place of refuge during the World Wars of the 1900s, when its self-determination was again put at risk. Between 1940 and 1945, over 100,000 oppressed Italians and Jews were sheltered within San Marino’s borders as Italy was split in two, the north of the country controlled by the Germans and the south by liberal forces sympathetic to the Allied cause.
Given its miniscule size and population, it is remarkable that San Marino emerged largely unscathed from this and the numerous other conflicts and invasions that have continually divided the rest of the continent over the past few centuries.
The history of football within San Marino has been a similarly protracted battle for acceptance. The country’s football federation was founded way back in 1931, but it was not until the mid-1980s that the Sammarinese national team was established; the side played their first ever unofficial match in 1986, losing 1-0 to the Canadian Olympic team, before FIFA certification arrived in 1988.
In the context of their results since that fixture 29 years ago, a defeat by a single-goal margin has to go down as a positive result: san Marino today occupy 192nd place in the World Rankings having managed only one victory and five draws in 134 games. They have scored just 20 goals in that time and only one since October 2008, while defeats such as 13-0 to Germany, 10-0 to Norway and 11-0 to the Netherlands show the clear gulf in class between San Marino and much of the rest of Europe.
Football, we are so often told, is a results business. Thankfully, though, there is much more to the game than mere numbers. San Marino’s record is dreadful, but they do not play football to win and they should therefore not be dismissed on such terms.
“Defeat is our destiny,” admitted former long-serving coach Giampaolo Mazza, who managed the team from 1998 to 2013. Giorgio Crescentini, the president of the football federation, added that the side’s main objective is not to outscore the opposition but to “demonstrate that we have dignity.”
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Football is about more than just winning for the amateurs of San Marino
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There has been widespread frustration at San Marino’s continued presence in the World Cup and European Championship qualifying process on these shores in recent years. Formal recognition from FIFA was not the end of their struggle for approval.
As England prepare to fly south to face the Sammarinese – their plane arriving at Bologna airport, of course – this Saturday, many onlookers have already noted the futility of the match and called for the introduction of a pre-qualifying tournament for Europe’s minnows.
Arguments of this sort, however, misunderstand the purpose of international football for most countries in the world that have no hope of ever winning a major tournament. Many will never even qualify for one, yet the wish to be admitted to official competitions by the governing bodies remains strong, for such acceptance is about more than sport itself. Indeed, International football is at least as much to do with identity and representation as it is to do with winning games.
It is for that exact reason that Massimo Bonini, the midfielder who played 192 times for Juventus and won three scudetti and a European Cup with the Bianconeri, repeatedly rejected Italy call-ups to wait for San Marino to be given FIFA membership. Bonini, the greatest Sammarinese footballer of all time, was fully aware that his decision was denying him the chance to ever play in a World Cup or European Championship, but he chose to delay his international debut until the age of 31 because of feelings of loyalty to the country of his birth.
There is a certain arrogance too to the belief that only certain nations should be able to compete in the qualifying stage as Pierangelo Manzaroli, the current San Marino boss, asserted last year: “If the international schedule is too dense and they want to take some matches away, it is up to UEFA … but we are a member of UEFA and we think we have as much right as anyone else to play against the big teams.”
It is this universality and equality of opportunity that would be lost with the introduction of a pre-qualifying stage. It is often argued that such an amendment would be to the minnows’ own benefit, yet it is always dangerous to speak on others’ behalf, and Manzioli’s support for the current structure is widely shared by those involved in football in other smaller countries like Andorra, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands.
Had such an arrangement existed in the 1990s, Iceland – flying high at the top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group – would have likely been condemned to the pre-qualifying phase and unable to ever test themselves against bigger and better sides in a competitive environment; Turkey, similarly, lost 5-0 and 8-0 to England in 1985 and 1987 respectively, yet reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea a decade-and-half later.
Relative size and resources dictate that there is no chance of San Marino matching the achievements of that pair but, as explained earlier, results are not really the point for many small nations around the globe.
Even in England – a major footballing nation – there was considerable unease last season when it was suggested that Belgian-born Kosovan Adnan Januzaj could play for the Three Lions in the future by virtue of being part of Manchester United’s youth set up since the age of 16. For nearly every state across the world, international football is principally about the accurate representation of a country’s people.
The purity of San Marino’s approach to their national team suggests that they agree with that definition. San Marino Calcio, a club side founded in 1960 that presently plies its trade in Italy’s fourth tier, have 16 Italians, two Spaniards and an Argentine on their book. Despite these footballers being of better quality than the majority of the Sammarinese amateurs, there is no chance of naturalisation: the refusal to give out passports for sporting reasons is an immutable Sammarinese policy.
The squad that will face England at the 7000-capacity Stadio Olimpico on Saturday features Michele Cervellini, a lawyer, Luca Tosi, an office clerk, and Alex Gasperoni, who fits lights in farm buildings. Goalkeeper Federico Valentini, absent from the group selected for this weekend’s clash, was once summoned from the bank where he worked before an encounter with Sweden after first-choice stopper Aldo Simoncini picked up an injury just hours before kick-off.
Lining up against players who do not consider football to be their primary job means that England will not even have to exert full effort to win comfortably on Saturday evening and, as Roy Hodgson’s men stroll to victory, it is almost inevitable that many observers will label the match as meaningless. For 32,500 Sammarinese citizens, however, it is anything but.
By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball