Andorra's footballers suddenly hit the headlines when they arrived to play the World Champions in the Stade de France in mid-October. Until then, not many people were aware that the little Pyrenean state even took part in international football.
Before their match versus the newly-crowned World Champions in the Stade de France, the press were treating Andorra's appearance as a bit of a joke, and certainly did not rate their chances very high. The usual "David and Goliath" stories were given another airing, with hardly any report failing to mention that the entire population of the little Pyrenean state could fit comfortably into the Stade de France. The game was expected to be a stroll for the champions, but in the end they had to work hard for their 2:0 victory, and the visitors came away with a lot of credit. For over an hour, goalkeeper Jesus "Koldo" Alvarez kept the French at bay, and some of his saves were superb.
Against Brazil, too
Back in November 1996 the Andorrans' first international match had been a learning process, as they went down 1:6 against Estonia. But they learned quickly, and their record since then has improved, unlike some of the other newcomers to the world scene, such as Anguilla, Djibouti, Cook Islands or Guam. And another thing that -distinguishes them from these countries is that they have also played Brazil. This was in a friendly match just before the World Cup. While they have not managed to win any of their eleven official matches so far, their results show that they cannot be counted down among the weakest teams any longer.
Andorra became members of UEFA in 1994 and two years later were admitted by FIFA. The first international match played by an Andorran club was in the UEFA Cup in the summer of 1997. They drew attention to themselves and caused a few smiles at the time, when they had to be told that, for one reason or another, "Real Madrid Fans" or "Charlie's Restaurant" were not suitable names for an Andorran club side in a European competition. They finally appeared under the name Club Esportiu Principat.
That such a small state should take the step of entering the world of international football actually makes good sense from the social, sporting and economic side. Tucked in between France and Spain, Andorra is by no means as isolated as a look at the map might indicate, as is shown by the fact that some 12 million visitors find their way there every year. The big attraction is duty-free shopping, which is catered for by countless shops lining the main streets, but the skiing facilities are also very well developed. Not surprisingly, the country's main source of income is its tourism. But the tiny state also has an interesting history, like its larger neighbours. Under a rather curious legal agreement dating back to the 13th century, Andorra was a sort of feudal state under the joint rule of the Bishop of Urgel (Spain) and the French President, called the co-princes. But since 1993 it has enjoyed greater sovereignty and had its own constitution, which maintains the system of co-princes but with reduced powers. It has its own elected parliament and is now an independent democratically-governed state.
Needed: a bigger stadium
But for the return match against France next June, there will not be a big influx of spectators. The "Estadi Comunal" has space for only 1250 fans, nowhere near enough for an event of this importance. Efforts are being made to hold the game in Barcelona or Gran Canaria, but wherever it is played, Andorra will be happy to have another go at the World Champions.
With great footballing countries on either side, it is not surprising that Andorrans are passionate about the game. But like other small nations, they suffer from the inevitable problems that have to be faced if they wish to put up even a reasonable showing at international level. Just the topography of the country makes it hard to find a flat enough area to build a football pitch. In Aixovall, where all league matches are played, as well as in the capital Andorra-la-Vella, the stadiums have just three pitches. Far more serious when it comes to building a team is the strict naturalisation law (25 years residence required).
Not many to choose from
Of the total of just over 60,000 inhabitants, only 9000 have an Andorran passport. Of the players in the league, only 30% can be considered for a place in the national team for that reason. But their Brazilian coach Manoel Miluir Macedo has a fairly experienced core to his team: Goalkeeper "Koldo" (once with Real Madrid) and Julio Lucendo (ex-Barcelona) are Andorran citizens by way of marriage, and some of the younger professional players are with teams in the lower Spanish and Portuguese divisions.
But out of the 300 or so Andorran players in the top category, only about a tenth are up to the required standard. Most of the team come from FC Andorra, which plays just across the border in the Catalonian group of the Spanish third division. But the association's interest is not limited to its current "A" team. They also have U-16, U-18 and U-21 sides who take part in continental competitions whenever possible. In addition Futsal is also popular, not surprising in view of the climate, and here the little state has achieved more than just honourable defeats.