While the tiny nation may lack Monaco’s royalty or a head of state with the global profile enjoyed by the Vatican’s leader, it can count on a distinguished statesman of its own in national football team coach Giampaolo Mazza, whose spell in charge has coincided with one change in leadership in the Principality and two in the Vatican, the second of them to be completed in the next few days.
“I am the longest-serving national team boss in Europe and maybe even in the world,” he told FIFA.com. “I’ve been in the San Marino job since 1998 and I’ve never been a slave to results.”
Which is perhaps just as well, given that in 78 official matches in charge of La Serenissima the former midfielder has presided over a solitary win and two draws, the remaining 75 games all ending in losses. Despite those statistics, Mazza is as motivated as ever, even though he goes into every game knowing that defeat is a virtual certainty.
“We are aware of our level and losing is pretty normal for us,” acknowledged the 57-year-old coach. “You have to remember that we are one of the smallest countries in Europe, with a population of just 32,000. I’ve got no more than about 50 players to call on, perhaps even a few less.”
Yet in spite of their limited resources, San Marino regularly rub shoulders with the Europe’s footballing powerhouses. “The fact we’re an independent state means we can compete in all the global competitions, which is a great honour in itself,” commented Mazza, who coached seven club sides before taking on the national-team job.
He added: “Getting results is virtually impossible, but we always try to improve bit by bit. In the last few years I’ve seen improvements in our standard of play and commitment levels, even if the results don’t necessarily show that. But we’re working hard for all the youngsters we’ve got, so that they can compete against players they usually only see on TV. That’s where we get our pleasure from, despite the results.”
That much could be seen on last October’s trip to England, in Group H of the European qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, when the San Marino players left the pitch happy and proud to have taken on the likes of Michael Carrick, Theo Walcott and Wayne Rooney, in spite of the 5-0 scoreline.
“You get the same satisfaction every time, just as we did in that game at Wembley in front of 87,000 fans,” enthused the laid-back Mazza, happy not to have to bear the pressure of getting results. “It’s that kind of satisfaction that gives me the strength and the desire to keep on going, even if we’re not winning games.”
England provide San Marino’s opposition in their next qualifier a week on Friday. While under no illusions about the return match, their stoic coach at least has no concerns weighing over him.
“What I tell my players more than anything is not to be scared,” he said. “We’ve played against all the great teams and my instructions have always been the same. I ask my players to concentrate hard and to give their all for 90 minutes without worrying about the result. As long as we show the same desire, it doesn’t matter if we lose 1-0, 4-0 or 7-0. The result is not the priority.”
Though that observation may be surprising at first sight, when you to consider that it comes from the coach of a team currently sitting 207th and last in FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, it is understandable.
Offering a humorous take on their position in the global pecking order, Mazza joked: “The Ranking is not that important for us, and anyway our statistics and results are so bad that we just don’t worry about them.”
Inspired by the Italian school of coaching and figures of the stature of Arrigo Sacchi, Roberto Mancini, Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti, he added: “You also have to remember that Europe is a very strong confederation, which makes it hard for us. I’m sure we’d be able to get [more positive] results if we played in a different confederation.”
The essence of sport
Reflecting on the task of taking on superior opposition in almost every game, Mazza, who is also a physical education teacher, said: “If we wanted to see how much we have progressed, we’d have to play against teams at our level. Unfortunately, when it comes to the draws for the major competitions we’re all in the same bowl, which means we each play in different groups and against much stronger sides.”
Though the odds are heavily stacked against the likes of San Marino, their coach is not in favour of a change in the qualifying format or of the “minnows” playing each other in a preliminary round, as suggested by Arsene Wenger and others.
“I’ve spoken to Arsene about it,” said Mazza in response. “Sport doesn’t cater for things like that. At the Olympics, champions like Usain Bolt have to go through heats against less-talented athletes. The essence of sport, and of FIFA in particular, lies in giving everyone the chance to compete. That’s what sport’s all about.”
San Marino are well aware they will never grace a major finals, but that does not prevent them from setting achievable objectives, as Mazza explained: “Obviously qualification is not a goal of ours because we know it’s impossible. Our only hope is to come away with one or two good results, while our major objective is to win an official match.”
San Marino’s most notable feats during Mazza’s stewardship are a friendly defeat of Liechtenstein, a goalless draw with Turkey in the qualifiers for USA 1994 and a 1-1 draw with Latvia in a qualification match for Korea/Japan 2002. The hunt for another scalp to add to that list continues with England’s visit next week, the latest opportunity for the redoubtable Mazza to defy the odds stacked against him.