When you find yourself doing the same task five, ten and sometimes even 13 times during a game, it can get easy to lose count. Especially if that repetitive routine boils down to fishing the ball out of your own net. Such a wearying job would sap the enthusiasm of even the most upbeat player, but it does not seem to have chipped away at the motivation and competitive spirit of Aldo Simoncini.
Simoncini is a goalkeeper like any other, save for the minor detail that he guards the net for San Marino, one of the smallest nations in Europe and among the lowliest teams in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Heavy defeats tend to come with the territory. "I was born in San Marino and I gave everything to win my place in the side and defend my country's colours," he told FIFA.com, swatting away the idea that his is a thankless role. "Of course I experience more difficulties than the goalkeepers of more prestigious nations, but I accept that without problem."
The figures attest to his commitment, with Simoncini yet to taste victory in over 40 appearances and a decade of service. Nor does he hesitate for a second when called up by La Serenissima for another bout between the posts. "Nobody likes to lose, ourselves included, but we're fully aware of our limitations," he explained. "We're all players of a certain level, and we know there's a gap between ourselves and the teams we have to face. There's too big a difference between the life we lead and that of our opponents, who are mostly professionals whereas we have to work in the daytime before going to training."
For Simoncini, that means buckling down to his duties as a computer engineer between 8.00am and 4.00pm, before stepping away from his keyboard and slipping on the goalkeeping gloves at 7.00pm. At weekends, he then keeps goal for Libertas in the Sammarinese league – all of which feeds his appetite for the rarefied demands of international action. "The quality of our championship isn't very high, so it's always more gratifying to come up against teams with top-class players."
He has now shared the pitch with a long list of illustrious names, and his highlights include swapping shirts with his idol, Gianluigi Buffon, crossing paths with Manuel Neuer and, above all, trying to defy the best forwards in the game. "I've been up against several high-quality players, but Wayne Rooney was undoubtedly the most impressive," he explained. He has fond memories of the whole England side, in fact, recalling "a team of gentlemen who treated us with respect by playing against us as if we were on the same level" – in contrast to some other less gracious opponents who have showed nowhere near the same consideration.
Simoncini has no illusions about San Marino's hopes of ever gracing a major tournament, with the country numbering just 33,000 inhabitants and possessing a pool of around 50 players capable of representing the national team. In terms of motivation, he and his team-mates – who include his twin brother Davide – have to look beyond mere results. "Games always start at 0-0 and we try to do the best we can," he said, always conscious of the probability of defeat but never stepping on to a pitch resigned to losing.
Four days after he turned 30 on Tuesday, the goalkeeper will again bring that attitude to bear when San Marino begin their qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ against Azerbaijan at the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle. "Our opponents are favourites on paper, but this is without doubt the game where we'll have to take a few more risks than usual," he said. "But that doesn't mean we'll finish ahead of them in the table – there's still a gap." The challenge will not get easier, either, with San Marino also drawn against the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway and world champions Germany in Group C.
The price to pay
The Germany games will stir a few vivid memories for the No1, who won his maiden cap against *Die Nationalmannschaft *on an unforgettable debut in 2006. "We didn't manage to do much against them and they blew us away, yet they also showed us a lot of respect because they played their game right up to the end," Simoncini explained, the match having ended in a heavy 13-0 loss – still the nation's record defeat. "We did everything within our power, but we know that's the price you sometimes pay against big teams."
Despite the result, Simoncini found much to be grateful for during the game. Not only was he representing his country for the first time, his very presence brought an end to a long and torturous two-year ordeal – his career having hung in the balance after a serious car accident that left him with a fractured elbow and pelvis. Completely unable to move for four months, he was told he may never play football again, or even regain the ability to walk properly. "It's true that it was a little special for me, but I don't think my team-mates have very fond memories of it. And though I was happy to be back playing, I could have done without the 13 goals."
Who could blame him, but Simoncini never shirked his duty. Instead, he collected the ball from the net each time and readied himself for the next attack – just as he has done ever since, without losing an ounce of motivation.