San Marino, a History of Football Atop the Mount Titano

Somewhere in the middle of Italy, surrounded by the Belpaese territory, lies a microstate with a strong identity and a long-lasting history, even when it comes to football. And no, we are not talking about the Vatican City. This is San Marino, a minuscule country perched atop the Appennine Mountains and boasting a strong passion for calcio.

Only the most hardcore football fans may know San Marino outside of their own and the Italian borders. Those who start to follow football early in the Summer already, when the Preliminary Rounds of European competitions take place. Or those whose National Teams ends up facing San Marino in some Euro or World Cup Qualifiers game.

Or maybe those Formula One fans who witnessed for many years the iconic Gran Premio di San Marino – perhaps ignoring that the racetrack is in Imola, a town part of the Italian territory.

That is understandable indeed, as it would be difficult to fit a racetrack in the hilly territory surrounding the Mount Titano and covering an area of just 61 square kms. San Marino is a spot of land sandwiched between the Emilia Romagna and the Marche Regions and a sovereign state, priding themselves with an independence status dating back to 301 AD – which makes them the oldest Republic still in existence.

In an Italian peninsula whose geography and political borders changed many times across the centuries, San Marino remained where it is, untouched and unchanged. The borders of the so-called Serenissima Repubblica have stayed the same since the 15th Century, surviving invasions and annexation attempts.

Despite the presence of their hulking Italian neighbor and the inevitable influence it has – the Sammarinese obviously speak Italian – the Most Serene Republic has always managed to maintain total autonomy and keep their identity strong and clear. Even when it comes to football.

La Rocca, also known as Guaita or First Tower, is the oldest and the major of the three towers that dominate the City of San Marino – a true landmark in the Most Serene Republic (Photo: ©Franco Guiducci)

Calcio is a big deal in San Marino – as big as a deal can be in a country that can draw from just a few thousands potential players to build their national side and is strongly determined to make only use of those.

Only Sammarinese people have access to the local Nazionale and there is little room for naturalized players to join their ranks. Despite the numbers of Italian footballers who could technically apply for a Sammarinese citizenship for marriage or residence reasons – Sergio Floccari of SPAL being a prime example – it is not easy to get a local passport, even for sporting reasons (and differently than in other bigger countries…)

That probably contributes to explain how come the San Marino National Team has had a slower evolution than other European microstates of comparable size like Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, or the Faeroe Islands, despite having been one of the first to join UEFA.

The boys from the Mount Titano joined the UEFA and FIFA ranks in 1988 and have been regularly competing in the Euro or World Cup Qualifiers. The results, as one could image, have mostly seen the Sammarinese on the receiving end, despite an encouraging start.

In March 1993, on their way to World Cup USA 1994, San Marino held Turkey to a goalless draw at their Olympic Stadium in Serravalle. But it was a few months later that the Sammarinese gained international resonance as striker Davide Gualtieri shocked England by scoring after just 8.3 seconds, besting people like Stuart Pearce and David Seaman in the process. It was the fastest goal ever recorded in a FIFA competition for national sides.

Little mattered that the English would eventually put seven past the home side. History was made, and San Marino had their part in it. The record would hold until 2016.

8.3 seconds of glory: San Marino’s Davide Gualtieri’s goal to England remained the faster ever recorded in a FIFA competition for national sides until 2016 (Photo: ©FSGC)

But things have not been so exciting since then. Over the course of 33 years, San Marino have put together only 24 goals. Their only win came in a 2004 friendly match against Liechtenstein, courtesy of a lone goal from local football hero Andy Selva. The Sammarinese had to wait until to 2014 to gain their first point ever in a Euro Cup Qualifiers as they held Estonia to a nil-nil tie.

The rest of the games have mostly seen the Sammarinese on the receiving end of some unilateral hammering, culminating in a 0-13 loss to Germany – who never miss the chance for a good football beating when they see room for one (ask any Brazil or Barcelona fan for confirmation).

Germany also involuntarily contributed to San Marino’s other moment of international notoriety aside from Gualtieri’s lightning-fast goal. It happened in 2016 when, after another 0-8 thrashing, Thomas Muller opined that games like that were nonsensical mismatches that only exposed players to the risk of injuries.

While the remarks prompted many voices in the football world to take San Marino’s stand and support their right to be fully part of the Qualifiers process, it is possible that the UEFA must have felt the need to grant the likes of San Marino and co. a more balanced competition when they established the Nations League.

Since joining the lowest division of the Nations League, San Marino are yet to win a game but have recently managed to put together their first two-game non-losing streak in official competitions, tying to Liechtenstein and Gibraltar in succession. They held the Anglo-Spanish selection to a goalless draw despite playing with one man less for the whole second half.

Such numbers and result need to be put in perspective. The Sammarinese Football Association (FSGC) can draw from a little more than 33000 inhabitants to form their selection. San Marino footballers mostly play in the local non-professional campionato or in the minor divisions of the neighboring Italy.

Only three players from the current roster – strikers Nicola Nanni and Filippo Berardi, as well as goalkeeper Elia Benedettini – play professional football in Italy, and still not above the Serie C (the third level).

Filippo Berardi, who plays for Italian Serie C side Vibonese, broke a two-year scoring drought for San Marino with this goal to Kazakhstan on November 16, 2019 (Photo: ©FSGC)

The rest divide their time between their day jobs and training and games for one of 15 clubs affiliated to the San Marino Association – whose level can be approximately comparable to that of an Italian fifth or sixth division team – or Italian clubs from the regional leagues in the Emilia Romagna area. And although the campionato and the domestic cup Coppa Titano mean a great deal to the Sammarinese, the forces they draw from are still limited to the small local population – also because a good deal of the players in the campionato Sammarinese indeed come from the neighboring Italy.

Mostly Italians were also the players of the San Marino Calcio, a club namely based in the Republic that competed in the Italian leagues and went as far as spending a few seasons in the Serie C1. But despite being San Marino-based, the club would never win much local attention across their 60-year-long history. They eventually merged into Italian club Cattolica and disappeared.

Paradoxically, San Marino were able to produce their best players when they were still not officially recognized by UEFA and thus did not have a proper selection. The top player raised atop the Mount Titano is Massimo Bonini, a no-nonsense midfielder whose blonde hair could be seen playing alongside the likes of Marco Tardelli and Michel Platini across the 1980s in Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus.

As a youngster, Bonini collected nine caps for the Italian U-21 selection, back when Sammarinese players were eligible to play for Italy. When San Marino finally had their national side, Bonini was already past his prime but still managed to play 19 times for his home country. He was, obviously, the team’s captain and eventually also had a two-year spell as a coach.

The only other Sammarinese player to have ever scraped a few presences in the Italian Serie A is Marco Macina – a typical football what if story. Raised in the Bologna youth academy together with Roberto Mancini, he was considered a sort of his “twin” and by many scouts believed to be even more talented than the current Azzurri coach. But he would get lost along the way, also due to recurring injuries, and retire at just 25.

After a remarkable career at Juventus, Sammarinese player Massimo Bonini defended the color of his national side, playing against the likes of Paul Ince in the 1994 World Cup Qualifiers (Photo: ©FSGC)

The future for San Marino lies in increasing the competitiveness of the local league while nurturing local talents who can boost both the Nazionale and the home club results. For this, playing in the Nations League against opponents of the same level can surely help – and so is helping to play in the preliminary rounds of the European competitions.

Since 2000, San Marino teams have been admitted to UEFA trophies for clubs. It started with one spot in the UEFA Cup Qualifiers being granted to the Campionato Sammarinese winner, while as of today three clubs from the Most Serene Republic play every summer in the Preliminary Round lottery between Champions League and Europa League.

Such participation sparked a peculiar, short-lasting habit of Sammarinese teams: Drafting some football old glories to help local clubs in the Qualifiers ordeal. It happened in 2007, when league champions Murata signed 41-year-old Brazilian World Champion Aldair to help them overcome Finnish club Tampere United in a Champions League bout.

La Fiorita did the same, drafting current Italian Players’ Association president Damiano Tommasi for four seasons in a row. None of these bizarre experiments would work, however.

It went much better to Tre Fiori, who in 2018 became the first club from San Marino to advance to the next stage of a European Preliminary Round as they topped Bala Town of Wales on a 3-1 aggregate score. Tre Fiori did not draft any “big name,” but still resorted to some clever signings from Italian minor leagues to strengthen their roster for the occasion.

It was a move that paid its dividends, and perhaps a sign that the Sammarinese will get there at some point, one little step at a time, continuing to count on their passion and enthusiasm.

European glory! Tre Fiori players celebrate after beating Welsh side Bala Town 3-1 on aggregate – the first time a Sammarinese club won an European competition preliminary round match-up (Photo: ©FSGC)