The dubious distinction of being the worst footballing nation in Europe belongs to San Marino. Bottom of European Group 3 in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the part-timers have conceded 15 goals and scored just one in five qualifying fixtures to date, and languish 201st in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
These stark facts would normally elicit sympathy and condolences from lovers of the game, but coach Giampaolo Mazza and his men actually command enormous respect. The San Marino FA lists just 1,000 registered players in the statelet of 30,000 inhabitants, rendering their efforts on the international stage more than praiseworthy.
Mazza, a sports teacher by day, took the Serenissima helm in 1998. Speaking to FIFA.com, he recalls his first game in charge as if it were yesterday. "My first match as coach was against Israel on 10 October 1998, when we lost 5-0 in European championship qualifying. We were beaten 4-1 by Austria three days later, but despite the defeats, I still have fond memories of my debut. Coaching this team is an adventure, and it was terrific to start in such an important tournament," Mazza smiles.
Many years and matches have come and gone since then, but certain moments stand out as unforgettable for the 52-year-old. "I always think back with pleasure on our 2002 World Cup qualifier away to Latvia, when we drew 1-1," Mazza revealed. "That’s the only time to date San Marino have taken a point in an official competition. We partied through to the early hours."
Denied the honour
Mazza himself never pulled on a San Marino jersey. He spent most of his playing career in the Italian third division with San Marino Calcio, before hanging up his boots in 1987. The coach expresses a certain regret at never having earned a cap for his country, although he feels that very fact might have helped him master his current role.
"I never had the honour of representing San Marino," he said, "but I reckon that just makes me even more passionate about the coaching job. It’s fantastic for my players to run out in Europe’s finest stadiums against world-renowned opponents in FIFA and UEFA tournaments."
Mazza’s day-to-day life involves teaching the basics of sport, but his job as national coach differs very little from the rhythm and practices followed by the likes of Germany’s Joachim Low, Raymond Domenech of France, or Spain supremo Vicente Del Bosque.
"I watch my players in domestic league action just like any other national coach. I regularly check up on their fitness and injury situation. As they’re not professionals, my staff and I try and help them solve any problems," he explains, naming his role models as legendary Italian bosses Marcello Lippi, Giovanni Trapattoni, Fabio Capello and Arrigo Sacchi.
Indeed, San Marino have come on well over the past year. Their UEFA EURO 2008 preliminaries featured the indignity of an all-time heaviest defeat, a 13-0 home thrashing by Germany, but qualifying for 2010 has been encouraging so far, albeit with no points to show for it.
"We’re in a very difficult and evenly-matched group," Mazza said. "Being realistic about our ability, our initial results have been acceptable. We’ve not let in that many goals, which shows we’ve improved physically and tactically. My players really throw themselves into it when they come up against big-name opponents."
Focus the key
San Marino visit fourth-placed Poland on 4 April. "Obviously, it will be difficult for us in Poland," the coach admitted. "We want to give a decent account of ourselves, even in really tough fixtures like this one. Naturally, we’re hoping for a first qualifying point, although we’re always aware of our limited resources."
The priority ahead of such fixtures is ensuring the players are fully motivated and focused. "My main task as the coach is to work on the psychological side, because I have to make sure my players are up for it and mentally strong," he said. "The fact we have very little chance of a result doesn’t matter in the slightest. You have to remain totally focused out on the field of play, regardless of the score."
Mazza’s most important player is Andy Selva, San Marino’s leading scorer with eight international goals, and the rock on which the coach builds his teams. "We have a very young team, and they’ll definitely grow and develop with time. But Andy Selva remains our best player. He’s the only professional and plays in the Italian Serie B."
Selva might yet have a pivotal role to play when it comes to the shakedown in an exceptionally tight Group 3. Mazza knows who he thinks will come out on top. He said: "I reckon the Czech Republic and Poland are the front-runners, but I wouldn’t rule out a surprise in this very unpredictable group."