There’s no getting away from it – San Marino are the worst-ranked nation in football, according to FIFA.
Their credentials? The small enclave in north-central Italy has played 205 games in its relatively short history, losing all but 10 of those. In fact, San Marino have only ever won one game – a 1-0 friendly against Liechtenstein back in 2004.
La Serenissima have scored just 30 goals in their 37-year existence, conceding 832 in return. On seven different occasions they have shipped 10, and have lost by four or more goals 99 times.
San Marino have only ever picked up three points in a combined 152 competitive qualifiers, once went 3,853 days without avoiding a defeat, and on 14 occasions have managed to go a whole year without scoring.
Right, now we’ve got that out the way, let’s take a look at why if you can take the numbers away, they might just be the best team in the world as they prepare to welcome Finland on Monday night.
San Marino’s sole victory came against Liechtenstein in 2004, with record goal scorer Andy Selva on target that night
In 37 years since first forming in 1986 the enclave in north-central Italy have only scored 30 times
San Marino play their final Euro 2024 qualifying match against Finland at home on Monday
Your browser does not support iframes.
‘They must be aware that they’re representing a small country on a worldwide stage, facing overwhelming opponents,’ Marco Tura, president of the Sammarinese football federation, tells Mail Sport. ‘It is something of a David and Goliath story.’
San Marino have just spent 16 straight hours travelling to Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, a tick over 5,300km east of their mountainous home nestled inside the confines of north-central Italy.
This penultimate game of the qualifying campaign comes on an interesting anniversary for San Marino. Thirty years ago to the day, Davide Gualtieri momentarily shocked the world, scoring 8.3 seconds into a World Cup qualifier with Graham Taylor’s England for the then-fastest ever goal in World Cup qualifying.
The game would end 7-1, but Gualtieri’s goal lives on as a key moment in the history of San Marino, which tells you all you need to know about this micro-state half the size of Stockport.
In Astana they would secure what in many books is a disappointing result – a 3-1 defeat – but the scenes that greeted Simone Franciosi’s 60th-minute header to make it 2-1 tell you just how successful a trip it was.
The 22-year-old gambled after a goalkeeping error and duly headed home from a yard out, taking him to joint-third in the all-time goal scoring lists. It was his first ever strike.
Franciosi barely made it out of the box to celebrate the historic achievement before he was set upon by his team-mates, throwing him to the floor and piling in to share in the moment.
They might not score very often, but boy do San Marino make up for it with their celebrations. It’s a moment he’ll never forget, that 3-1 defeat potentially the greatest game of his career.
Sammarinese football federation president Marco Tura admitted his side face a constant ‘David and Goliath’ story
Cult hero Davide Gualtieri’s strike 8.3 seconds into the game shocked both England and the world
It is a very different outlook on the game. The cynic might say it’s only to be expected for a side that doesn’t enjoy much success in the traditional sense. But the romantic would tell you that, maybe, that’s for the better.
San Marino play with such an evident joy and pride that you can’t help remembering the first lesson you’re taught as a child: ‘It’s not about winning, but having fun’.
Of course, the ultimate goal is victory, but there is an endearing self-awareness that surrounds this team that is utterly infectious. Perhaps it’s a survival tactic, perhaps it is just an absolute infatuation with the game; you can’t help but choose to believe the latter.
Before a ball is even kicked they are on the back foot. The entire 33,000-strong population of San Marino could fit inside Everton’s Goodison Park with around 6,000 seats to spare. The chances of producing a generation of world-beaters like England, France or Spain might be able to boast? Slim at best.
‘Football in San Marino is semi-professional,’ Tura continues. ‘There is a huge passion for the world game, similar to what you might find in Italy – even if within Italian borders that passion is driven by a professional framework that delivers a different final product to what he have.
‘In this specific moment, our players are playing at the same level of professional and skilled opponents, even if in the face of what is likely a defeat. So, if we’re talking about a closely-contested loss, like against Denmark (1-2 October 17), it will be fine to us.’
For the players, who are the ones ultimately taking to the field in the face of these overwhelming odds, motivation must be hard to come by, or so it seems to an outsider looking in.
None know better the pain of defeat than La Serenissima’s record appearance-maker and captain Matteo Vitaioli, who has never won an international match, and yet his pride in representing his country on 90 occasions is undeniable.
Matteo Vitaioli (right) is the captain of the San Marino national team – representing his side on 90 occasions
San Marino played out a fiery clash with Denmark that ended in a 2-1 defeat at home last month
‘Sacrifices,’ Vitaioli says. ‘This word encompasses all the on-pitch and off-pitch matching methods we can rely on. To keep on training in the evening, after our work shifts, we should renounce to spend some time with friends, families and wives, not to mention our sons or daughters.
‘Free time is often dedicated to arriving in our best condition to this important fixtures. We do it willingly, with pleasure, to represent our country on the international stage.’
He mentions the sacrifices that he has made to play for San Marino, but what is most immediately noticeable is his passion and pride to represent his home on the international stage.
‘It is hard to choose – I am lucky enough to mention at least two important memories,’ he tells Mail Sport when asked for his favourite memory in a San Marino shirt. ‘First, the goal scored in Lithuania in 2015. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a deserved draw in that match, ended 1-2 with a last-minute goal.’
That goal happened to be the first away goal scored in 12 years, a pile-driver of a free-kick from the edge of the box that flew past goalkeeper Vytautas Cerniauskas to spark scenes that would put even those on Friday to shame.
‘Then, the 0-0 draw obtained at home against Estonia. That has been an extraordinary collective memory that will remain in the mind for many years. To represent the team must be an honour for everybody that is called for an international match, to me has always been something I am proud of – and the chance to wear the captain’s armband has only enhanced that feeling.’
And that sums up so much of what makes San Marino so heart-warmingly admirable; rather than focus on the negatives they find a way to take pride in their achievements, celebrating a 0-0 draw like it’s a win.
When not leading his side out in the face of overwhelming odds, Vitaioli works as a graphic designer, for one of the enclave’s most important companies producing packaging for food items. That’s right – San Marino’s captain has a 9-5 just like you and me.
Football in San Marino is semi-professional and as such most players also hold a day job
‘The main motivation is the opportunity to represent our country in certain competitions, playing in historical stadiums like as Wembley, and share the pitch with top-class football players that we can normally only watch on television,’ he says.
‘It’s both an honour and a burden, because you have to be at 100 per cent of your abilities, knowing even then that it most probably won’t be enough.
‘But the pride to have the chance to bring San Marino in front of such an audience is worth the sacrifices.’
La Serenissima arrived in Kazakhstan on the Wednesday at 4am, which means that the squad will have had to take at least three days off work to play the game on Friday evening.
In a world where players have never seemed further from us mere mortals, earning north of £300,000-a-week and seemingly living on a different planet, the importance of this accessibility cannot be understated.
‘I love the idea that the players are people like me,’ says super-fan Daniele Dei. ‘Imagine you and I had a 5-a-side team that played every Wednesday for fun. That is what San Marino are doing, only they’re playing against Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski!’
Dei is part of La Brigata Mai Una Gioia – or ‘The Brigade That Has Never Once Seen Joy’ – a group of San Marino fans formed back in 2012 by Massimo Visemoli and as you have probably worked out by now, have never seen their team win a match.
He was due to watch the U21s take on Italy before a personal matter called halt to his plans, but despite it being past 10pm, he still makes time to talk about his beloved San Marino.
‘Not everyone could accept those odds, against the biggest and best players in the world, but to me they are my heroes,’ he continues.
Daniele Dei is part of San Marino’s sole fan group, La Brigata Mai Una Gioia (The Brigade That Has Never Seen Joy) formed by Massimo Visemoli in 2012
San Marino’s U21s were beaten 7-0 by their sole neighbours, Italy on Friday night in Serravalle
‘When we went to Belfast (3-0, October 14), we took the chartered flight with the team. We spoke to them and stayed with them – now my daughter is in love with the goalkeeper Elia Benedettini!
‘When you stay with them, you realise that they are people just like you. It’s impossible to find a situation like this with, for example, the Italian or German national team, because professional players are like gods. But San Marino players are workers like us; postmen, factory workers, doctors – they are people like you.’
Dei has been part of La Brigata for four or five years by his own reckoning, travelling as far as Belfast and Ljubljana backing his team. Just like every other person with an affiliation with La Serenissima, his zeal, devotion and joy are utterly infectious.
It may come as a surprise then to learn that he’s not even from San Marino. Dei is Italian, based in Modena around 175km to the north-west of the micro-state, but he makes the four-hour round trip to see San Marino in action whenever he can.
Being a fan of such a small team brings an enviable intimacy between players and fans, and just as with Vitaioli, asking Dei his favourite moments of following the team elicits an emotional response as we approach what is clearly his favourite topic of conversation.
‘The last game – the goal from Golinucci against Denmark was unbelievable, I remember it well from the corner,’ he replies as he begins to close his eyes – transported back to that moment a month prior – a smile quickly stretching from ear to ear.
After the game with Denmark in October, La Brigata posed with members of the squad
Alessandro Golinucci’s goal against Denmark made it 1-1 and turned the San Marino Stadium into an inferno
‘Golinucci hit it and it went in. I had to close my eyes and count to five to check that it was really a goal, and when I saw all the team celebrating in the middle of the field, the stadium was jumping it was like an inferno!
‘There was a guy with me who has been watching San Marino for 10 years and it was the first time he had seen them score! So it was emotion al for him, at this moment we were 1-1 with Denmark!
‘Against Denmark they lost, but for the first time in my life it was the first time I saw them in a position where they could get a draw, they played the match of their lives.’
But Dei is not done, quickly adding: ‘Another was when Filippo Berardi scored against Kazakhstan in 2019 to make it 3-1 and it was the first San Marino goal I ever saw. One of the group broke his nose celebrating. That one goal sent us crazy!
‘My friends told me that after the 0-0 draw against Estonia in 2014 they had a party that lasted all night. They didn’t go to sleep they just stayed up all night having a party for a 0-0 draw with Estonia – it’s crazy!’
‘Estonia are not England or Italy or Portugal, but to draw 0-0, it was a miracle.’
After 45 minutes, we come to the thorny topic of predictions for the clash against Finland. It is the final match of qualification, and needless to say there is nothing tangible left for San Marino to play for.
‘With Finland I don’t know,’ Dei says, for the first time unsure. ‘The gap is still a big gap; we lost 6-0 in Finland. But I don’t think Finland will make the Euros, so it depends on the mentality.
The strike was the first goal that many fans would have seen in person supporting San Marino
‘We can dream for a draw, but in all seriousness I think it’s impossible for us. Against Finland there is a possibility not to win or draw, but there is a chance to do something good in the game.’
San Marino may not have the acclaim or stature of their rivals, but they have more than enough heart to make up for it, and you cannot help but admire the enduring pride and endeavour of this tiny little nation in the face of odds that seem constantly stacked against them.
That San Marino can continue to find the positives despite what is perhaps the worst record in the game is something that we can all learn from the next time our teams hit a setback.
For that reason among so many others there will be at least one new fan cheering them on on Monday night.
IT’S ALL KICKING OFF!
It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football.
It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.
Your browser does not support iframes.