The arrival of new coach Pierangelo Manzaroli must have been a breath of fresh air to the San Marino squad. After 16 years under the previous coach, a change of leader and a gentle change in outlook was surely a refreshing switch. Locked into their endless cycle of defeat, the arrival of a new coach who many of them had worked with successfully in the under-21 side, who famously beat Wales 2-1 in a European qualifier, would herald a renewed level of hope.
The impending Euro 2016 qualifying campaign would provide the evidence of whether or not Manzaroli’s San Marino could alter the course of their fortunes in any way, or continue as they had done before. The new era had begun inauspiciously though; losing 3-0 in a friendly clash with Albania but it was in the competitive arena of the European qualifying matches where any improvement would really be judged.
It began with a narrow 2-0 loss to Lithuania that in reality could have been more but for the saves of Aldo Simoncini in goal. More defeats, albeit expected ones, followed against England and Switzerland but the margin of those defeats suggested that not much had changed for San Marino. However, the team had been set up and had played in an ever-so-slightly more progressive manner than before.
What began rather tentatively against Lithuania, where they only managed a significant effort on goal in the dying minutes, had become altogether more adventurous by the time Switzerland visited Serravalle. Nothing exemplified this more than a marauding run forwards from San Marino’s right-back, Giovanni Bonini, in the opening seconds. He surged into the Swiss penalty area and latched onto a neat diagonal pass from the midfielder Alex Gasperoni. His effort on goal was saved by the Swiss goalkeeper, but such ambition from the off, and from a defender no less, was startling. Their attacks were sporadic throughout, but they were at least attempting something positive. They lost the game, as they were always likely to against that pedigree of opposition, but it signified a step in the right direction in terms of their approach at least. Next up would be Estonia at home a month later in November 2014.
Estonia had beaten Norway just days before and were in buoyant mood, expecting the usual win over Europe’s weakest minnows. As the action unfolded with the ball skidding quickly off the damp surface, chances were, unusually, not appearing at just one end of the pitch. Remarkably, San Marino were asserting themselves all over the pitch and pushing forwards when the opportunity arose. There were still numerous Estonian efforts on goal to repel, but as the game progressed from first half to second and the night got still darker and wetter, the score-line remained blank.
With only minutes remaining San Marino stood on the brink of history. The last twenty minutes had seen many chances come and go, but stunningly many of them were for San Marino. They couldn’t quite find the breakthrough that would have nudged them in front and into delirium, but they were a threat – time and time again. But as the minutes ticked by, the nerves began to jangle. Estonia had forced many a save from Simoncini in the San Marino goal and their threat was ever present.
The increasingly desperate Estonian forwards piled forwards in an effort to spare the blushes they could surely already feel beginning to envelop them and forced two excellent late chances, both falling to their veteran striker Ingermar Teever. The first was missed from dangerously close in on goal, hit high and away when a more composed finish would surely have won it for Estonia. Then in injury time, he met a corner with a towering header while the San Marino defenders stood statuesque with petrified paralysis. The header glanced wide, leaving the visiting players clutching their heads in despair and the home team breathing huge sighs of relief.
As the final whistle blew moments later, the soaked San Marino players, to a man a study in expressions of disbelief, suddenly found previously hidden energy reserves as the celebrations began. The man they all ran towards, the man who had done more than any other to achieve this modest success, was stood in his goalmouth with his arms aloft and his face raised to the night sky above. It was as though the driving rain was washing away all that had gone before: all those beatings, all those goals conceded, all that pain and humiliation. Aldo Simoncini had made a string of fine saves throughout the game to keep the Estonians at bay and claim only San Marino’s third ever clean sheet. Simoncini had become a national hero. It was a step into the unknown but was, he noted, ‘an incredible feeling.’
It was only a 0-0 draw but it earned San Marino sufficient ranking points to lift them well clear of the bottom of the FIFA table. That single result, coming against a team ranked no less than one hundred and twenty places higher than them, and coming in a competitive regional qualifier in the strong UEFA confederation rather than in a friendly match, saw San Marino’s ranking points tally rocket from a stone cold zero up to a frankly startling fifty-five. This newly-acquired total was enough to see them climb twenty-eight places in the rankings taking them up to joint-180th alongside such greats of the game as Bermuda and Cambodia. Not only that, but they were no longer the worst team in Europe having leapfrogged Andorra, another nation similarly reliant on domestic coaching expertise.
San Marino had been stuck at the foot of FIFA’s rankings for a depressingly long time, seeing the likes of Montserrat, the Turks & Caicos Islands, Guam and American Samoa come and go from the worst in the world club they had cohabited from time to time. Now it was San Marino’s turn to leave their lowly ranking behind, all thanks to that improbable draw.
It may well prove little more than another freak result – a flash in the pan – before they regress to their mean once more and start another long line of defeats. But none of that would take away from what they had achieved and the feelings it had invoked.
This article is adapted from a section of the book Worst in the World: International Football at the bottom of the FIFA Rankings.