"There are no more small teams in football". An often heard cliché which coaches and journalists alike love to use, usually to either be polite to an in theory easy opponent, or to seek for excuses when having lost a game that everyone expected them to win.
Are there really no small teams anymore, the type of teams who lose every game with 10-0 or even worse? Of course there are! Examples enough really. American Samoa: never won any FIFA-sanctioned game, lost 31-0 to Australia in a world cup qualifier and then the goalkeeper prevented the scoreline to go into the 40’s. Tonga: a few days before that 31-0, they already lost 24-0 to that same Australia. Guam: only won one game ever which was recognised by FIFA, but also lost 21-0 to North Korea only 5 years ago (and if I can remember well on top of my head China came close to beating them with the same score as well). Mongolia: their only victories recognised by FIFA are against that same Guam, but meanwhile they also lost in humiliating scores against several other opponents, even including the national team of the Maledives which are smaller than the Mongolian capital city.
No small teams anymore? Of course there’s enough of them. In Europe, it has to be said, they’ve become an exception. OK, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Estonia, … are still teams everyone expects to win against, but they rarely get embarrasing scorelines and every campaign they usually also collect a few points. Even the times when for example Iceland or Luxembourg lost every game with at least 5 goals difference is history. Still, there’s a few minnows left and today I will introduce two of them.
Why pay attention to such teams who play worse than the average English non-league team? Because I do respect the sporting spirit of those teams. Most of these players are amateurs who have a regular daytime job varying from policeman, postman or salesman to IT specialist or working for the fire department. They train after the working hours and play for very obscure teams only the obsessed football fan has ever heard of. The national team usually doesn’t pay them, and they need to use their holidays at work to play the games. Every game they lose again, but still these guys continue to take days off work to play games they know in advance they’re likely going to lose. They start every game with determination and energy, out of love for the game. In a way, isn’t that the real spirit of football? You gotta respect their energy and determination in a time when most professional players wouldn’t even bother to play if there was no sum of money waiting as reward.
This week the qualifiers for the Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine kicked off for real (only one game was played already in August). The defending world and European champions Spain faced Liechtenstein. Vice-champions of the world, The Netherlands, travelled to San Marino. The nrs 1 and 2 of the world both facing two of the weakest teams in Europe, the contrast could not have been bigger. Time to put these minnows in the spotlight for once, beginning with Liechtenstein and San Marino.
San Marino. A very tiny city state (more or less) surrounded entirely by Italy. The tiny country was one of the many city states and smaller states that eventually united to form Italy. San Marino was the ONLY of those many small countries that chose not to become part of the united Italy and remain independent. Hence it is now a very tiny state of 61 square kilometers. With approx. 31000 citizens they have the lowest population numbers of all Council of Europe countries and of all UEFA members. With such a tiny population, it can be expected that you won’t like form a world class football team.
Nonetheless football is played in San Marino: despite its small size the country has its own amateur football league. The domestic champions enter the very first stage of the Champions League qualifiers, and the country also sends representatives to the Europa League. In addition to the own league, one more or less professional team called San Marino Calcio exists, but they play (as only Sanmarinese team) in the lower divisions of the Italian football league. A second San Marinese team played in Italy while also playing in the San Marinese league ; a few years ago they resigned from the Italian league to fully focus on the domestic league, leaving San Marino Calcio as only team playing cross-border in the Italian leagues.
This is a view of San Marino:
And here you can locate it on the map (look just above Florence on the map):
The capital (for what it’s worth) of the tiny country is Serravalle. And there is also the location of the country’s national stadium. The Stadio Olimpico has a capacity of 5387, and hosts both the national team games as well as the home games of San Marino Calcio and several domestic league games. This is a good picture of the stadium although apparently it has been upgraded lately so possibly it is slightly bigger (or less small, as you wish) now than this picture shows:
Football in San Marino has been played already long time. The FA was formed already in 1931. However, for many decades the San Marinese players were counted as Italian. Only in 1986 a Sanmarinese team was formed for the first time, playing an unofficial friendly against a Canadian olympic side. This game was lost 0-1, for Sanmarinese standards a good result. This did encourage the San Marino FA to finally seek membership of FIFA and UEFA, and their first official FIFA-sanctioned game was played 14/11/1990. This was two years after UEFA and FIFA granted them membership. Switzerland came to the tiny country and beat the amateur outfit 0-4.
The first campaign for San Marino were the qualifiers for the Euro 1992. They lost all games, and every away game was lost by a minimum of 4-0. Throughout the whole campaign, they scored only 1 single goal: a penalty goal in the home game against Romania, which they lost 1-3.
The qualifiers of the World Cup 1994 were interesting for football fans in San Marino for several reasons. First of all the team grasped its first ever point in a competitive game. Turkey was held to a 0-0 draw in Serravalle on 10/3/1993, although it took a missed penalty from the Turks to hold on to this historic first point. Also, San Marino made the record books in this campaign: in the last game of the qualifiers, on 17/11/1993, San Marino faced England which desperately needed a win to not miss the World Cup. However, it was San Marino who took a 1-0 lead when Davide Gualtieri scored after only 8.3 seconds. San Marino would lose the game 1-7 but the record of fastest goal in a world cup qualifier is still standing. At least San Marino is in the record books something to be proud of as well. To add to English misery that night, the 1-7 wasn’t enough as their remaining opponents for the world cup ticket also won their game and England would not be present at the world cup 1994 in the USA. One of the teams that did qualify out of that group was Norway, who in this campaign beat San Marino 10-0.
Obviously San Marino didn’t stand a chance to qualify for the Euro 1996, but the qualifiers for the world cup 1998 were again a total disaster. All games were lost by at least 3-0 and the Sanmarinese players did not score a single goal. The Euro 2000 qualifiers saw San Marino end up with 0 points again.
The qualifiers for the world cup 2002 were not that bad for the Sanmarinese standards. A 1-1 away to Liechtenstein in April 2001 even earned them a first ever point in an away game (and was reason enough for the embarrassed Latvian coach to resign). That the Sanmarinese also lost 10-1 against Belgium in that campaign was probably less important to them compared to that away point in the Baltics (PS: Belgian fans with a good memory may remember a great Andy Selva free kick when it was already 10-0, somewhat saving whatever remained of Sanmarinese honour in that game).
The qualifiers for the Euro 2004, Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 were a drama again, as the Sanmarinese lost all games in those campaigns. In the latter two campaigns they ended up with respectively 57 and 47 goals against them. The Euro 2008 qualifiers included their saddest moment, when Germany came to Serravalle and won 0-13. A new "record" and a scoreline that was embarrassing even for Sanmarinese norms. In the world cup 2010 qualifiers, a 10-0 loss in Poland was another moment of embarrasment (as far as San Marino players didn’t get used to this sort of scores after a few years).
Was it really all that bad? Well, in the 22 years of FIFA and UEFA membership San Marino NEVER won any competitive game. Draws against Turkey and Latvia were their best achievements in world cup or European Cup qualifiers, a draw against Lebanon in a tournament not organised by a continental federation was another "highlight". San Marino, since being a UEFA and FIFA member, won one single game although it was a friendly game: on 28/4/2004, Liechtenstein was beaten 1-0 thanks to an Andy Selva goal. Ironically that another minnow was needed to achieve a victory for once.
Knowing all of the above, starting the Euro 2012 qualifiers losing "only" 0-5 to the vice-champions of the world, isn’t even such a bad result.
In their history, San Marino had one truly great player: Massimo Bonini. He played for Juventus several seasons and even played almost 200 games for them. Also, he played more Serie A football in the outfit of Bologna. With Juve he won several international trophies of which 2 European Cups. He is obviously the only Sanmarinese player to ever achieve such a fact.
Bonini could have easily been a regular in the Italian national team, as back then San Marino was not a member of FIFA or UEFA yet. However, he felt too much emotionally attached to San Marino to want to become a citizen of Italy. In the end he refused call-ups from Italy and finally, when San Marino became a member of UEFA, he played 19 times in the beautiful marine blue national jersey before retiring. A true legend of San Marinese football, he also was national coach of them for a while.
The other hero of San Marinese football is Andy Selva. He is one of the few professionals, playing in Italian division II or III most of his career. He is the top scorer of the Sanmarinese team and also the only one to have scored more than 2 goals in the national shirt. It was Selva who scored the historical goal against Liechtenstein which lead to the only FIFA-sanctioned victory for San Marino so far.
Worth mentioning as well is that San Marino is one of the very few nations to have played a game against Vatican City. Yes, the Vatican has a national team, although not affiliated to FIFA or UEFA and thus playing friendly games only. They don’t play very often as their players are mostly Swiss Guards protecting the papal residence, and not often having time to play football. In one of their very few games, a San Marinese B-team was the opponent. You’d expect, even when playing with some reserves, that at least the Vatican team would be easily beaten, but even this game San Marino couldn’t win: a 0-0 was the result.
So clearly, San Marino are the "whipping boys" of European football. However, if you think they are the only team that has a history with embarrassing defeats, think twice. Yesterday, world champions Spain started their qualifying route to Euro 2012 (where they have their European title to defend) against another minnow: Liechtenstein.
Liechtenstein is a bit bigger than San Marino, but with 160 square km still very small. The country, entirely within the Alps, has about 35000 inhabitants. The tiny country, which has Vaduz as capital, is stuck between Switzerland and Austria. It is the only country in the world which is not only landlocked itself, but which is surrounded also by two countries that are landlocked themselves (Switzerland and Austria). To reach the sea from Liechtenstein, you have to cross 2 borders minimum.
While I admit this map could have been drawn by an 8 year old kid, it does indicate the precise location of Liechtenstein very well:
Probably it is too small to even properly indicate it on a European map anyway. More semi-useless statistics: it is the only Germanophone country that has no border with Germany, and its capital Vaduz is considered a tax haven which mainly attracts banks.
Liechtenstein is a quite new member of UEFA and FIFA, their first competitive campaign was the qualification for Euro 1996. They had affiliated to UEFA and FIFA before though, however without enroling for qualification tournaments. Their first ever game was an unofficial one against Malta in 1981. The game, for obscure reasons played in Seoul (South Korea) ended in a 1-1. Their first proper international was on 9/3/1982 when the Swiss neighbours won 0-1 in Vaduz. A quite good result for a tiny country like Liechtenstein.
Liechtenstein is an oddity within UEFA as being the ONLY member state without own league. Simply because there aren’t enough clubs, UEFA (who require countries to have an own league in order to keep their national teams) granted an exception to Liechtenstein. All 7 existing clubs play in the lower leagues of the Swiss football. The most succesful Swiss club is FC Vaduz, currently playing in the Swiss second division after having played at the highest level during the 2008-2009 season. The only way to play in Europe for Liechtensteiner clubs, is winning the domestic cup, which gives access to the Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup) qualifiers. Ever since 1998, FC Vaduz won the cup every year and thus played in Europe quite often, however rarely surviving their first qualifying round.
In the mid-nineties the Liechtensteiner FA decided it was ready to enrol its national team in a qualifier for a big tournament. So Liechtenstein made its competitive debut in the Euro 1996 qualifiers. It wasn’t a big success, although one result caught attention all over Europe: on 3/6/1995 the Republic of Ireland (which played at the World Cup 1994) failed to beat Liechtenstein, and were held to a 0-0 draw in Vaduz. Total embarrasment for the Irish, while the Liechtensteiner players celebrated this as if it was a victory.
Less succesful results were common as well, most games were lost easily although very high scorelines like San Marino experiences often are not that common for Liechtenstein. Their sad highlight when it comes to big losses came at 9/11/1996 when FYR Macedonia won 1-11 in Vaduz. However, in the qualifiers for Euro 2000, Liechtenstein booked its first ever competitive victory : 2-1 against Azerbaijan on 14/10/1998.
However, these positive results were rare exceptions, in general Liechtenstein were whipping boys, leading a British writer named Charlie Connelly to even write a book about the team: during the World Cup 2002 qualifiers he followed all the teams games for his book "Stamping Grounds: Liechtenstein’s Quest for the World Cup". Mr Connelly probably couldn’t have been happier as Liechtenstein lost all 8 games and failed to score a single goal. Probably exactly what he was hoping for in order to make his book sell.
However, throughout the years, the team improved slightly. Not that they’ll be candidates to qualify for the Euro 2012, but it was like the book inspired the Liechtensteiner to assure they would no longer be seen as whipping boys. Defeats are still common practice, but the days that every game was lost 6-0 seem to be over.
The qualifiers for the World Cup 2006 were even quite a success for the blue-and-reds. Thanks to the draw putting them in the same group as other minnows Luxembourg, the team suddenly saw its chance to get some positive results. And this worked out even better than they dreamt of. Liechtenstein surprised the world on 9/10/2004 when vice-European champions Portugal were held 2-2 in Vaduz. A sensational result that inspired the Liechtensteiner amateurs well, as 4 days later they won 0-4 in Luxembourg. Their first ever away win. More points came on the telly: the blue-and-reds clearly won the battle of the minnows against Luxembourg as they also beat them at home with 3-0 and held Slowakia to a 0-0 (that they lost 7-0 in Bratislava was the one really humiliating result of the campaign). Narrow losses against Estonia (1-2 in Vaduz and 2-0 in Tallinn) , Russia (1-2 at home, 2-0 in Russia) and Portugal (only 2-1 away) further proved that the days of 10-0 defeats were over. Finishing with 8 points, this was a succesful campaign for Liechtenstein. Charlie Connelly probably was happy to have written his book in time, because in this campaign there was little opportunity to make fun of the team and his book would have been worthless.
The qualifiers for Euro 2008 were not too bad neither: on 23/3/2007 Liechtenstein beat Latvia 1-0, their first ever victory against a team which had qualified for a major tournament before. In that same qualifying campaign they managed a 1-1 away in Iceland and sent the Icelandic team home with a 3-0 defeat in Vaduz (17/10/2007). Again 7 points on the tally.
Liechtenstein play their home games in the Rheinpark Stadion in Vaduz, which is also the home ground of FC Vaduz. The ground has several covered stands and can host 6127 people. It is idylically located in the Alps, with the oddity of having some grass hills between the stands (if you don’t mind muddy trousers you can opt to sit there).
Another pic from the ground (at FC Vaduz’ official website http://www.fcvaduz.li/stadion/bilder.html more can be found)
The Liechtensteiner team is made up mostly out of amateur players with the addition of a handful of semi-pro’s or professionals (often taken from FC Vaduz). An example is goalkeeper Peter Jehle, who prevented a larger defeat in yesterday’s game against Spain (0-4 but it could have been worse without some Jehle heroics). Jehle explains the good team spirit thanks to Liechtenstein’s small size. "A lot of us went to the same school, known each other since childhood," he explains on why there is a real team spirit and why it remains an honour to play for Liechtenstein no matter what the results.
The most famous player of the team is without a doubt Mario Frick. Although born on Swiss soil, he is the most-capped player in the short history of Liechtenstein’s international football, and he is the top scorer. He is so far the only Liechtensteiner to have played Serie A football.
The confrontation with the world champions and runners-up of the last World Cup proved too hard for minnows San Marino and Liechtenstein. The Netherlands won 0-5 in San Marino and Spain beat Liechtenstein 0-4 (a very strong Peter Jehle in the Liechtenstein goal prevented an old school embarrassing scoreline). As expected, but we cannot call it very humiliating scorelines neither.
Likely at some point sooner or later an article on the other minnows will follow. Because while they are rarely beaten with scorelines like San Marino, the national teams of the Faroe Islands, Andorra, Malta and Luxembourg still count as minnows in my books.