Improving the World’s Worst National Team | Part 3: World Cup Qualifying

Andy Selva had led his new-look San Marino side to Nations League promotion with a ream of exciting new Sammarinese youngsters. This, and an impressive 2-2 friendly draw in Russia, saw San Marino flirting with entering the top 200 of the FIFA rankings, sitting in 201st heading into 2021.

The next challenge facing the San Marino legend was far beyond what he’d already achieved as his side entered the World Cup Qualifiers. San Marino, of course, were in the pot of sixth seeds and were drawn in Group F alongside Portugal, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia and Luxembourg, which was far from easy.

But the big news since the last episode was the great hope of Sammarinese football, 15-year-old Davide San Marino, has sealed a massive transfer. The young striker, who has already equalled the all-time San Marino goalscoring record of eight goals after just five matches, left the newly created San Marino Academia to join Italian giants Inter Milan for £275k. He is now playing for their Under 18s side after barely getting a kick for the academy club.

However, 16 of the 23-man San Marino squad is still comprised of the San Marino Academia and more than half of the players are 20 or younger. And, in other news, when the Academia job became available the club’s board immediately approached Selva with an interview offer! But his focus was solely on the national team.

World Cup Qualifiers Round 1

The qualifying group began in March with three games in a week. It began with probably the easiest game of the group at home to Luxembourg. The visitors dominated the game and took a first-half lead thanks to some fairly dodgy set-piece defending. But a half-time tactical tweak saw San Marino respond with an excellent header from Davide San Marino, which saw him become the country’s all-time record goalscorer.

The striker also set a new record for not only the youngest player to compete in a World Cup Qualifying game but also the youngest-ever scorer at the age of just 15 years and 235 days. While a streak of six games unbeaten was, unsurprisingly, a new national record.

That was quickly followed by a much tougher test, and the most difficult yet, away to Bulgaria. The hosts won a dodgy penalty to take an early lead but San Marino remained resilient and equalised after half an hour. Bulgaria continued to dominate and made it count by poking home from a free-kick with 20 minutes remaining but, despite 24 shots to six, only won 2-1, which was a mightily impressive result for San Marino.

The first round of games concluded a few days later in Georgia, who only lost 1-0 to Portugal then beat Luxembourg away and their entire team appeared to be in perfect condition, which seemed unlikely / unfair. Despite that, Davide San Marino got in behind the defence to open the scoring with a delicious chip after eight minutes. A lucky deflection and some dubious goalkeeping got Georgia level after half an hour and San Marino were delighted to go in at 1-1.

That didn’t last for long though as the floodgates suddenly opened at the start of the second half, largely thanks to some highly dubious defending and goalkeeping, and Georgia strolled to a 4-1 win.

World Cup Qualifiers Round 2

There were six months between qualifying games, in which time San Marino played friendlies and only lost 2-0 in Iceland then got a highly creditable 0-0 Estonia. The nation’s efforts saw them climb into the top 200 of the FIFA rankings.

But things were about to get very tough as they tackled the two group favourites. First was a trip to Turkey, which was a fifth successive away match in all competitions. Unsuprisingly, Turkey dominated but San Marino defended superbly to hold them out in the first half. Cengiz Under scored immediately after the break but Turkey still struggled to put chances away and, against all the odds, Davide San Marino made them pay with an equaliser! A shock point was suddenly on the cards but Sammarinese hearts were broken by a cruel injury-time penalty that Hasan Calhanoglu converted. But what an effort to only lost 2-1!

That was swiftly followed by hosting European Championship semi-finalists Portugal, which saw a World Cup Qualifying record 109,832 people flock to the San Marino Coliseum. An edgy start saw yet another penalty swing things and Selva was pretty happy to only lose 3-0.

World Cup Qualifiers Round 3

Recent youth intakes had seen Selva be able to add new youngsters to his squad, including Torino left-back Manuel Mariotti and Napoli winger Davide Ricci. They joined the Sammarinese squad for the next batch of games, which began with the most important of the group away to Luxembourg that turned out to be surprising classic.

Despite a strong start by the visitors, Luxembourg took the lead then doubled it in the first 30 seconds of the second half. But two goals in a minute by national hero Davide San Marino suddenly got his side back on level terms. Luxembourg looked to have nicked it with an 88th minute only for striker Francesco Casali to come off the bench and poke home a dramatic equaliser and seal a vital point in the 94th minute. What a game!

Another big test saw San Marino quickly welcome Bulgaria to town, in what the Bulgarian media labelled “the biggest mis-match of the year.” That looked excactly right as Bulgaria scored inside 40 seconds, but from there San Marino defended magnificently. Their task wasn’t made easier as Nicola Pasolini got sent off on 56 minutes and continued to frustrate Bulgaria, who only won 1-0 even when Emanuele Maresca also got send off to send his side down to nine men!

World Cup Qualifiers Round 4

The final round of games began with a home clash with Georgia and the San Marino squad had an average age of just 19! That included 15-year-old Samuele Zafferani, who plays for Sammarinese champions La Fiorita, making his debut in holding midfield. Despite their youthful side, San Marino put in another impressive effort. Georgia well and truly dominated, of course, but a Davide San Marino penalty briefly had the hosts level early in the first half and a late goal from Casali made it interesting as they lost 3-2.

That left two very difficult games to conclude the group, starting with the daunting prospect of Portugal away, with Cristiano Ronaldo back in the Portuguese side. Selva finally utilised his massively defensive tactic and it worked for half an hour until Giacomo Ercolani got a controversial red card. Despite Portugal having 20 shots to none, it was somehow 0-0 at half-time. But, unsurprisingly, the goals weren’t far away as Joao Cancelo, Bernardo Silva and Ronaldo scored three quickfire goals. They somehow only won 4-0 despite having 42 shots and San Marino again going down to nine men. And look at that final formation…

Frustratingly, Luxembourg somehow drew 0-0 in Bulgaria, which moved them off the bottom. The group concluded at home to Turkey, who’d already won it with eight wins out of nine. Anbd they’re obviously on a level way beyond anything San Marino can dream of as they strolled to a 3-0 win after 28 shots to five.

That Luxembourg draw in Bulgaria was an absolute killer, sending San Marino to the bottom of the group. But San Marino definitely beyond expectations and they got their fair share of bad luck. But the performances, considering the age of the group of players, offers plenty of hope for the future. Top performances came from goalkeeper Thomas Vannucci, who averaged 7.03 in seven games, and Davide San Marino, who now has 14 goals in 17 games and is still only 16.

Can San Marino improve on this in 2022? Join us next Wednesday to find out!

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