Finding a preview of England vs San Marino which doesn’t mention Davide Gualtieri is a tough task. The former Sammarinese striker scored after 8.3 seconds of the 1993 World Cup qualifier between the two teams. The goal stood as the fastest in the history of the competition for over 22 years. In the run-up to Thursday’s game at Wembley, you could be forgiven for thinking it remains the defining achievement of San Marino’s national team.
Fortunately, for those looking for something other than a 90s nostalgia trip, it isn’t. Last November, San Marino recorded consecutive draws in competitive matches for the first time in their history.
The two goalless games against Lichtenstein and Gibraltar, for a county ranked 29 and 15 places below their respective opponents, represented an accomplishment worthy of the emotional scenes which followed. For Franco Varrella, San Marino’s coach, the results were something of a watershed.
“From a psychological point of view, the players now realise that they are able to play in an organised way and to create some issues – even if they are small issues – for any opponent, rather than starting the game as though they are defeated,” says Varrella.
The change in mentality is a departure from the psyche of the squad which Varrella inherited in January 2018. The former Brescia manager, who played for Juventus’ youth team, quickly identified an air of ambivalence to defeat perhaps unsurprising in a team which has occupied one of the bottom ten spots in the FIFA World Rankings for nearly six years.
“I was surprised, during my first games in charge, by the fact that players took the outcome of any match normally, even if they lost. I wasn’t used to this. I tried to work on their mentality and let them understand that this isn’t normal,” says Varella.
“My staff and I were aware that to achieve something important, I had to plunge into Sammarinese football, and I think I’ve succeeded. I’ve been careful in trying to enter my players’ minds and understand the environment from which they’re coming from. Sammarinese football is not professional, but it can be done professionally. Maybe the recent run of results has proved us right.”Embed from Getty Images
Varrella remains realistic about the San Marino’s ambitions. Despite the results against Lichtenstein and Gibraltar, the resources available to him and his players mean that avoiding heavy defeats, such as the 9-0 loss against Belgium in 2019, is a tough task.
“We’re asked to play against players that, if they stayed focused during the whole match, could perhaps score with each attempt,” says Varrella.
“Bluntly, the technical and athletic values are so different that when we play these kinds of games, our opponents can score anytime. We must try to annoy them; pressing, reducing the time and the space they have.”
Varrella believes that San Marino’s Under-19 and Under-21 teams represent the country’s best chance of moving up the football pyramid and highlights Filippo Fabbri, who plays for Serie D side Correggese, as an example of an emerging crop of young players.
In the short-term, Varrella is seeking continued improvement in San Marino’s performances during what is set to be a tough World Cup qualifying campaign, with games against Andorra, Poland, Hungary and Albania, as well as England.
“What is important to me is that at the end of each game, however many goals we concede, I see the determination of the team and its ability to play in a well organised way,” he says.
“If we are able to show these characteristics in the fixtures with England, Poland, Hungary and Albania, we might have a good opportunity to seek a result against Andorra.”
Whilst COVID restrictions have checked the momentum Varrella’s team built during last November’s Nations League matches, the Italian believes that the prospect of playing at Wembley will help recover some of the lost ground.
“In November, we reached our zenith. Now, because of the pandemic and the general situation, we’re quite far away from that emotional high,” he says.
“What spurs me on is that I’ve seen in the team the determination not to play a cameo role in the cathedral of football that Wembley is. This gives us the chance to recover the mindset that we’ve lost a little in the last few months.”