‘Defeat is our destiny,’ proclaimed Giampaolo Mazza, the former coach of San Marino’s national team. He knew what he was talking about. In sixteen years at the helm of the perennial losers of European football, Mazza had presided over eighty-five matches and his team lost all but three of them, often with a staggering number of goals conceded.
When he decided to call time on his reign in charge at the end of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, San Marino didn’t seek to cast the net far and wide in their search for his successor. In spite of years glued to the bottom of the world rankings, years of heavy defeats with little hope or intention to achieve anything more than limiting their losses, they chose again to rely on domestic capability. Without a thought for the potential rewards of enticing some outside proficiency, San Marino looked to promote from within.
Mazza was replaced by another local man, Pierangelo Manzaroli, who had been rather successful in coaching the national Under-21 team. ‘It’s a moment I have always dreamed about,’ said the incoming incumbent about his new role. Manzaroli would be on a hiding to nothing, of course, but at least the only way was up.
San Marino have steadfastly stuck to their own for better, or more usually for worse. They have always been coached by a local, and despite their proximity to the footballing behemoth that is Italy, San Marino have consistently shunned the idea of naturalising Italian players with a Sammarinese connection. This is partly for idealistic reasons but also for administrative and legal ones. In a country where it takes ten years for an outsider to qualify for a passport, there are bureaucratic stumbling blocks aplenty preventing such a policy from being implemented. The closeness to Italy does at least allow a Sammarinese coach or player of some potential the opportunity to be involved in a far higher level of football than is available in their homeland, or is available to many in some of the other weakest football countries. They are lucky to be just a few kilometres down the road from a rich, vibrant and very successful football culture.
There have also, over the years, been a handful of Italian Serie A players who have married women from San Marino and expressed an interest in representing their spouse’s nation. Their applications for San Marino passports were swiftly rejected. ‘Of course, if that was possible, we would do it,’ conceded Giorgio Crescentini, president of the San Marino Football Association. ‘We cannot take a player from a different state and give him citizenship because the law will not support it,’ he explained. ‘On the one side I am proud of this special characteristic: we are pure, and perhaps the only ones. This gives us pride. We are weak, but we are pure.’
San Marino’s purity is tempered slightly by the presence of several dual-nationals in the team; sons of Sammarinese and Italian parents. Players falling into that category are automatically citizens of the small mountain republic as well as Italy. If they were playing at a high level of professional football then perhaps they would have a choice to make over which nation to represent internationally. For those in the lower and amateur leagues the decision to represent San Marino is a straightforward one. Citizenship of San Marino is a passport into a world that they would never otherwise be a part of. San Marino’s players can rub shoulders with the superstars of the game, players they would only normally watch on television competing on the grandest of stages and who play at a level far beyond that of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio – the national, entirely amateur, top division.
The players are, save for a couple of rare exceptions, all amateurs with full-time jobs. There are shop workers, accountants, clerks, factory workers, students, as well as one or two earning a living from the game whether in coaching or playing in Italy’s lower leagues. The team have no prima donnas flaunting the wealth and many luxuries that football has brought them. They just have a group of players representing their country with pride, and training in the evenings after work in their spare time.
Just how do they cope with the mental toll of all those defeats, and having to dust themselves off ready to go to work the next day? ‘The most important job in San Marino is the psychological state of the players,’ Mazza said. ‘Our players know we will have negative results so it is important to reconstruct the spirit the day after the game so they can go back to their jobs.’ He was constantly preparing his team to try and limit their defeats as much as possible, both to avoid on-field humiliation and to limit the damage to the players’ mental state. ‘For us the positive remains with the satisfaction of playing famous teams from all around the world,’ he continued. ‘Usually it’s teams we only see on TV and they’re pretty famous. We don’t feel defeated every time we play with the team; we try and get good results even though we know it’s impossible.’
This article is adapted from a section of the book Worst in the World: International Football at the bottom of the FIFA Rankings.