With the recent successful exploits of the San Marino team in grabbing a 0-0 draw with Estonia which saw them rise from the pits of global football despair known as the foot of the FIFA world rankings to the giddy heights of somewhere not far above the bottom, also known as joint 180th, it seemed appropriate to reward the most prominent hero of that achievement in a Hall of Fame.
The inaugural inductee into the newly formed World in the World Hall of Fame is the San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini, whose string of fine saves that had kept scores low in previous matches now saw San Marino claim a first ever competitive clean sheet.
Simoncini, a 28 year old semi professional who also moonlights as an accountant, has something of an interesting back story. As a teenager he played for Modena in Italy’s Serie B, a level only the great Massimo Bonini once of Juventus has exceeded as a Sammarinese, and was highly rated. But his dreams of making it into the professional ranks were ended by a terrible car accident after which he was unsure of even playing the game again, let alone climbing to higher levels. At the time the doctors weren’t even sure he’d be able to walk normally again.
But he fought back from that adversity. “When I finally got out of bed, I worked hard to recover. In the summer of 2006 I started with my first training session. Nothing too serious. Just to get the feeling a bit.”
Barely a few months later, and nearly two years after the accident he first took his place between the Sammarinese sticks for the first time at the raw age of 19. The opposition for that Euro 2008 qualifier in September 2006? Only the (at the time) three time World Champions and recent World Cup semi finalists Germany. “We lost 13-0 but that didn’t matter to us…” Simoncini was just thrilled to be playing and representing his country. “Even though I had to pick the ball out of the net 13 times, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I put behind me 18 months of agony. After being told I might not play again, to be part of such a game was simply unforgettable.”
In spite of his long term injury lay off he did still make some inroads towards the professional game in Italy. He made it onto Serie A side Cesena’s books for the 2011/12 season though he never took the field in the big league. And yet at international level he has come face to face with some of the biggest names in the sport. As neatly described by one online article “he’s come into contact with a world that doesn’t belong to him.” But it’s a world that excites him and one he relishes being able to have even brief contact with. “To play against the biggest players in the world is fascinating, We are amateurs yet we have the opportunity to meet the best players in the world, it’s fantastic.”
As with any other player who never quite made the grade, there are plenty of what-ifs and regrets and thought about what might have been. “I’ve never had a chance in the football teams that truly count, and although I play against people like Van Persie and Rooney, I’ve never been signed to teams that play in professional leagues. If this is not a paradox, I don’t know what is.”
It’s an odd feeling for a footballer to go into most matches certain of the outcome, and not in a good way. It requires a certain attitude and strength of character that San Marino’s players have learned to develop over the years. For Simoncini in particular, as the goalkeeper being repeatedly beaten, that strength of character must be even more marked. As the man himself says, “A San Marino player must have a lot of heart and be willing to suffer.”
“I get frustrated from time to time,” he admitted. “Nobody wants to lose in football, even less by big scores. But we know very well that some opponents are simply out of reach for us. Let’s be honest here, losing by 6, 7, 8 goals isn’t pleasing for anyone. Not even for me. When I notice that the others go four times faster than us, it pisses me off.”
“We are aware of the difference between our team and our opponents, but we never take the field to lose. What is crucial is not to let yourself down when you concede the first goal. You have to maintain the nil-nil as long as you can. A beautiful save can cheer you up.”
His pelvis and elbow were shattered and he spent four months in recovery in hospital. “My life was in danger. I was told I might not be able to play football ever again,” he later recalled in a BBC interview. Any chance of a top level career was gone. “I spent five-six months in bed without moving. When I first got up, I had no muscles left at all. I had lost eight-nine kilograms of muscle mass. It was a very difficult moment.” Well, quite.
A professional player wouldn’t be able to tolerate a series of similar defeats – he would surely collapse. I live it all lik it’s a dream, and I put all my effort into it; for me it’s a privilege, and all the matches I’ve played have been a great life experience for me.”
It’s not all a positive life enhancing experience of course though. Aside from vastly superior opposition, Simoncini also felt that the officials were less than helpful t times. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe they take us seriously. They whistle just as if the result was a formality, and it’s really irritating.” And while some opponents take a similar attitude, others were far more respectful. Of England, a regular opponent in recent campaigns, Simoncini commented, “they are real gentlemen and they made us feel like we were on the same level.”
And even that big moody genius Zlatan Ibrahimovic was similarly encouraging. Simoncini recalled an incident from a clash with Sweden: “One of my teammates asked him to avoid pounding us because we were playing poorly. He said, ‘Don’t you dare see it that way, just focus on giving it your best shot.’ We lost 5-0, but at the end of the match Zlatan came over to congratulate me.”
But none of that compares to the impressive clean sheet, thanks to many fine saves, against Estonia last month and the resulting 0-0 draw, something he described as “an incredible feeling.” He added that “the reward for our sacrifices and all of the hard work we have done was a great satisfaction to me and my teammates.”
Prior to his historic clean sheet, Simoncini has claimed various unwanted records in his spell between the San Marino sticks, generally for things relating to goals conceded of course. One claim to fame is that he, along with his twin brother Davide, is part of the only brother combo to have each scored an own goal in the same international match; against Sweden in 2010. Quite the achievement, but now he has achieved something of greater note. The goalkeeping hero in San Marino’s historic draw, and the inaugural place in our Worst in the World hall of fame.
This is a new idea so Simoncini is the only Hall of Fame inductee at present, but more names will be added to this list and receive this prestigious honour, about which they will no doubt be thrilled to bits (as I’m sure Simoncini would be if he ever knew of his induction).
And more importantly, the pride in representing a nation is the same for a country such as San Marino as it for others. “We always play to represent our country. We always give our all and make life difficult for our opponents. We lose almost all the time, but we try.”