Wembley Stadium today hosts a team for whom hope is futile and failures are epic, a side forever destined to be cast in the role of plucky underdogs who eternally disappoint their long-suffering fans. But enough about England. San Marino are in the house.
Even all-inclusive UEFA president Michel Platini would balk at expanding the European Championships finals enough to give San Marino a serious chance to qualify for the tournament. According to UEFA’s latest coefficients, out of 54 member countries, only one is more incompetent: Gibraltar, a British territory which was only admitted last year and is essentially a rock with an airport and a few fish and chip shops.
Only two of the San Marino squad are professional soccer players – in the Italian third division. Their goalkeeper, The Independent reports, is a computer science student. Their 38-year-old striker, Andy Selva, has retired from club soccer … but continues to play for his national team.
England team news? Well, Fabian Delph is available, John Stones is… oh, who cares? IT’S SAN MARINO. A microstate of 32,000 people that looks like a tiny boil on the inner thigh of the leg-shaped Italian landmass. Smaller population than Wisconsin? Obviously. And also smaller than the University of Wisconsin. Land-mass wise, San Marino is 25 times smaller than Houston. And doubtless it’s much harder to find a good taco.
The Most Serene Republic is joint-bottom of the FIFA world rankings, tied with Bhutan in 208th but with Anguilla firmly in their sights. A 1-119-3 all-time record will do that for you. That unforgettable win came against Liechtenstein in 2004; the ties were against Liechtenstein, Latvia and, amazingly, Turkey.
Dan Marino would probably have more hope of victory. By himself. Aged 53.
England also faced San Marino in World Cup 2014 qualifying, running out 5-0 winners at Wembley and 8-0 on the road. But there is no pleasure, no sense of achievement, to be gained in beating such feeble opponents. For the fans it is simply a chance to watch the team rack up goals; for the players, the match is an opportunity to pad their stats.
In a way, it’s admirable that UEFA sticks to democratic principles and still allows the little guys to have their day in the spotlight. At a time when groups are carefully seeded to help the richest nations qualify for tournaments, here’s a case of a big country being forced to play a pair of qualifiers it could surely do without.
The international fixtures calendar is always under scrutiny given the year-round demands on top players, and while glory is out of the question when facing San Marino, injury certainly isn’t. It’s a surprise that European soccer’s powerbrokers aren’t agitating for a pre-qualifying competition that would, for example, throw the continent’s worst 20 teams into a mixer from which only four or five would survive to be consumed later. At present, Euro 2016 qualifying is comprised of eight groups of six teams and one of five.
All in all, it seems a Group E contest perfectly fit for a Thursday, the day of the week now intractably associated with the cavalcade of UEFA meh that is the Europa League.
Yet even humble San Marino have managed to carve themselves a special place in English soccer infamy. We take you back to November 17, 1993: if ever a 7-1 win can be described as a humiliation, this is it.
Going into the final night of qualifying for USA ’94, England needed to win by seven clear goals and for Poland to beat the Netherlands. But Graham Taylor’s men did not exactly have a sharp start. San Marino attacked from the kick-off and, aided by a hapless Stuart Pearce backpass, computer salesman Davide Gualtieri gave the minnows the lead after 8.3 seconds. It is the fastest goal in World Cup qualifying history.
England went on to thrash their opponents but fell short of the required margin, while the Netherlands won anyway. Taylor, famously depicted as a turnip on the front page of the Sun, resigned a couple of days later.