Ask a friend about sport and San Marino and you’re most likely to get two responses. The first would be the Grand Prix that was held there until 2007 (although it technically was not held in San Marino, but in Imola, which is a geographical stone’s throw from the principality – but then having two Italian Grand Prix would be a strange move). The second would concern their international football team, which was dead last in the world rankings in 2009.
Some of San Marino’s “famous” results include a 10-0 annihilation at the hands of Norway and a similar 13-0 scoreline against the Germans less than four years ago (they still scored first against England though). With one win in a FIFA recognised game in nearly 20 years, they represent formidable opposition to no-one and an almost certain victory to every side they face. The natural conclusion, your friend would tell you, is simply: San Marino are useless at football. San Marino never win, so thus have never and will never achieve anything. This, however is not strictly true. Despite having its own domestic league, the principality also has a team that plays in the lower reaches of the Italian leagues. Although the club has never risen too far above the status of a place with just 30,000 residents, it has had its moments.
In 1960, some 30 years before its national team was recognised by FIFA, San Marino Calcio was formed as the one club from the tiny republic allowed to play in the Italian league structure. The obvious analogy would be with Monaco, who have a similar arrangement with the French federation despite themselves being an independent state. Their climb up the calcio pyramid was slow and often involved taking one step back in order to advance by two. After years of fluctuating between Serie D and Eccellenza, San Marino were finally promoted to Serie C2 in 1988. The state finally had a club in the professional ranks, something which had been the intention 28 years earlier.
San Marino’s first season in the fourth tier saw them finish 17th and narrowly avoid relegation by way of the play-off lottery. The club was less fortunate in 1989-90 however, finishing second last again but this time falling through the trapdoor. It would then spend another decade floundering in the fourth and fifth tiers. Its revival, however, began with the appointment of San Marino national manager Giampaolo Mazza as coach. After promotion to Serie C2B was achieved in 2000, the club also acquired the services of San Marino international striker Andy Selva, who has a record of eight goals for his country to date. Three years of consolidation was followed by the three which were the most important in the side’s 50-year history.
2003/04 saw impressive home form guide the team to fourth place in Serie C2B and the promotion play-offs for the first time. Though it lost over two legs to Gualdo, better was to come for San Marino in the following season. With the addition of ex-Lucchesse and Palermo stopper Mirko Taccola to shore up the defence, San Marino turned the Stadio Olimpico into a fortress, with only AS Cisco Lodigiani beating them on its own ground. Though the same opposition would beat Mazza’s side in the play-offs, that summer saw Venezia, Fidelis Andria, Reggiana, Benevento and SPAL all relegated for financial problems or irregularities, as well as Lodigiani being merged into what is now known as Cisco Roma. San Marino was one of the ‘lucky losers’ as a result, and took its place in the Italian third tier for the first time in 2005/06.
The step up was huge and would provide the team with some huge games in relative terms. The colossus of Genoa was in Serie C1A at the time, having been demoted for impropriety and attempted match-fixing. Padova and Salernitana were also clubs which had spent time in Serie A in the 1990’s. The club’s new status meant that the season started in a glamorous note. No shame need be felt by Cagliari eventually running out 3-1 winners in a Coppa Italia first round tie in Seravelle. Genoa were docked three points as further penalty at the start of that season, and a good start meant that San Marino remained above Rossoblu for the first six weeks of the campaign. However, four successive home defeats in the middle of the season saw them caught in amongst a cluster of sides who were cut adrift at the bottom. The eleven goals of the on-loan Frederico Piovaccari was a gallant effort, but would not be enough to save them from the play-off system which seemed to have become an annual occurrence. Fortunately, a tense 1-0 aggregate victory over Pro Sesto saw the Lombardy club sink and Sanmarinese nosebleeds run for at least another season.
2006-07 saw the club become a victim of its own geographical status. Residing somewhere near the mid-point of the peninsula, San Marino were moved across to Serie C1B to make the logistical numbers game work. There would be no glamour Coppa Italia game this time and no happy ending. Though there were some tremendous one-off results, most notably a 4-0 demolition of Salernitana, a side that loses 18 of its 34 games is always going to struggle. That an astonishing 16 of them were by a single goal can only have added to the sense of frustration. San Marino eventually finished 17th, one place worse than the previous season, and AC Martina proved too good for it in the relegation play-off, winning 3-1 on aggregate.
It is much to the team’s credit that such a small republic has managed to remain in Serie C2 ever since, as Italian football is full of clubs whose fortunes have oscillated between euphoria and despair. The play-off misery continued, however, when Bassano Virtus 55 overcame a two-goal deficit to win the second leg 3-1 and go through by virtue of its higher finish in the regular league season. The following year they were there again, but this time to save themselves from slipping into Serie D for the first time since 1999. Fortunately, victory over Poggibonsi 3-2 on aggregate saved them from undoing a decade’s good work. At the time of writing this piece, they have had a great season thus far in 2009/10. They are seven points clear of Gubbio in sixth, but after a recent stutter have fallen five points behind pacesetters Luchesse with eight games to go. Now, would scientists call that a pattern, or merely a trend? Hopefully the team can recover its form and take the customary end-of-season roulette which is the play-offs out of their calendar for the first time in seven years.