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San Marino to Gibraltar – Europe’s International Minnows

The 15th of November 2006. I’ve generally got quite a good memory of dates of specific football matches, but I’ll admit I had to use trusty Wikipedia to find out this one.

The Republic of Ireland five, San Marino nil. I was still finding my feet in the world of football understanding, having begun the obsession about a year prior to this game. Beforehand, my Dad had to explain to me that by showing up, the Irish side had already won the game in effect. It was only a question of how many, and that the San Marino team were so embarrassingly bad that their Wikipedia site has a tab dedicated to and named as “List of matches not lost by San Marino.” It’s a tab that contains the scorers and scorelines of only three competitive games, all of which were draws.

I liked this idea. How nice was it going into a game knowing that your team were going to look like the crème de la crème of world football compared to the dross in front of them? Ninety minutes of putting multiple goals past a powerless opposition, all in an effort to set a new record for the country’s biggest ever winning margin? At the time, very nice, even if I have changed my mind a bit since.

San Marino had already been swept aside 13-0 at home to Germany, only two months before the Landsdowne Road clash (their biggest ever loss). They were firmly at the bottom of the European footballing barrel, ending up with a record of two goals scored and 57 conceded across the 12-game qualification campaign.

Steve Staunton’s side win 5-0.

Three months later, Ireland travelled to the landlocked microstate expecting a similar scoreline. They ended up seconds away from what would’ve possibly been the national side’s most embarrassing result in the history of the state.

San Marino’s 86th-minute equaliser is among one of the worst goals you’ll ever see conceded by an international side. Not least one including four full-time defenders who were starting every week in the Premier League.

Stephen Ireland saved Ireland’s blushes in a jersey two sizes too big for him, and the Sammarinese (yes, that’s what they’re called) fell heartbroken as they lost the chance to take their greatest ever scalp.

The 13th of October 2018. Gibraltar travel to Armenia. An Armenian team that contained Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Five minutes into the second half, Joseph Chipolina converts a penalty for Gibraltar and sets up a glorious victory for the Gibraltarians (yes again, that’s what they’re called).

Unlike their Mediterranean counterparts in 2007, Gibraltar hold on and take the three points. A win over the Armenians at home would’ve been considered an incredible result, never mind away from home and behind the iron curtain.

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That winning feeling ??

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I don’t like international football too much. I think it attracts more people who don’t ‘get it,’ to use an impossible-to-define cliché, and its format lacks substance, even with the new Nations League which we’re all finally starting to get bored of already.

I find it hard to get excited about Ireland in the same way that many English fans do for the Three Lions. But like every section of football worldwide, the beauty of the game for me is hidden in quirks and niches that only true supporters seem to ‘get.’

There is something wildly romantic about the Liechtensteins and San Marinos of this world. Whether it’s their generic kits which often look like an early 1990’s throwback, their  Minescule stadiums which sometimes aren’t even located in the country itself, or the fact that their midfield playmaker makes a living selling olive oil.

There is little romanticism about their football. We only tend to see them when they pull off a David v Goliath type of result, which happens about once every ten years for each side. We don’t see them getting pummeled 6-0 away to Slovakia, or not managing to get a shot on target at home to Finland, as those games don’t interest anyone.

The once in a generation results such as Gibraltar’s last Saturday show rare moments of genuine humanity now often-lost in modern football.

At the risk of sounding condescending (not that San Marino aren’t used to having the piss taken out of them), the innocence and simplicity of seeing a country send out eleven part-timers as their best representatives against quite literally the best international sides in the world is something special. Even if it does mean losing 13-0 against the Germans.

The result isn’t what counts. As my Dad once said, that is a formality. But all those formalities make that one win, or even that one draw, so incredible when it does arrive.

What does count is football, as well as the democracy and legitimacy of the international game? Never should the part-timers have their opportunity to take on the high-rollers of the Premier League and La Liga taken away from them, as many have called for in the past.

Just because they’re losing 13-0, doesn’t mean they’re not a part of something special.

All the best.