Kenny Archer: Proud San Marino entitled to their place on the international soccer stage

San Marino's Davide Gualtieri (centre) is congratulated by team mate Guerra after scoring against England during the world cup qualifier in Bologna in November 1993

WALKING up the Lisburn Road on that ‘night in November’, almost 30 years ago now, the atmosphere was tense.

Northern Ireland were out to prevent arch-rivals the Republic of Ireland qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the USA.

So the joy on the face of an RUC man standing at the back of Land Rover, was something of a surprise - but the delight in his voice was entirely explicable when he gleefully told us:

“San Marino have scored!”

Being in Belfast, we sensed a wind-up, but the unbelievable was true. San Marino were indeed ahead.

Better still, they were beating England.

Graham Taylor’s team came back to win 7-1, but results elsewhere meant they failed to qualify for USA ’94 - whereas Jack Charlton’s Ireland did, courtesy of a great goal from the late Alan McLoughlin to level matters at Windsor Park.

The vitriolic events at Windsor Park will never be forgotten, but nor will that moment of schadenfreude enjoyed by everyone but the English.

Seizing on a short Stuart Pearce back-pass, Davide Gualtieri slotted past David Seaman, for a finish timed at just 8.3 seconds.

That proved to be his only goal in just nine appearances for San Marino, but his name and his fame lives on.

That record for the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup qualifier stood for 22 years, and even then Christian Benteke’s opener for Belgium came against Gibraltar.

That was one, extremely rare highpoint for San Marino football, who host Northern Ireland in the opening Euro 2024 qualifier on Thursday night.

It’s getting on for 19 years since San Marino’s last victory. Their only victory. And even that was only in a friendly. Against Liechtenstein.

Fittingly their forward, captain, and record goalscorer (with eight in total) Andy Selva was the man who netted in the fifth minute for that famous triumph.

They’ve had little to celebrate since then, though.

San Marino went almost four years, and more than 20 matches, without scoring, between October 2008 and August 2012.

They did draw two of their 10 matches last year, under manager Fabrizio Costantini, a local man appointed at the end of 2021. A goalless draw at home to the Seychelles, and then 1-1 away to Saint Lucia, which was only their second goal of 2022. Lorenzo Lazzari secured that share of the spoils in the fourth minute of added time.

Yet they also only lost 1-0 at home to Iceland and away to Malta, and by 2-0 on their trip to Estonia, so victory for the visitors on Thursday cannot be taken absolutely for granted.

Admittedly, even Northern Ireland, who often struggle to score, have netted 14 times in their four previous meetings with San Marino, without conceding a single goal.

The Sammarinese have not only failed to win any of their 14 Nations League matches, they’ve failed to score a single goal, conceding 28.

They’ve only scored 20 goals in 152 qualifiers, conceding 696, and average of 4.5 goals against per game; only twice have they netted more than once (2-2 against Liechtenstein in a 2003 friendly and in a 2-3 home loss to Malta in 2012).

Infamously, they scored against the Republic of Ireland in a Euro 2008 qualifier 16 years ago. Michael Marani netted late on to level, threatening a sensational result, but Stephen Ireland poked in a winner in the fifth minute of added time to spare the Irish blushes (to some extent).

Yet none of this is to sneer in any way.

With the smallest population of any country competing in Uefa – their populace of 34,000 is similar to that of Ballymena – the fifth smallest country in the world’s soccer side has traditionally been the team ranked lowest in Europe, apart from some brief rises from that lowly slot.

Many have asked, and continue to ask, ‘What’s the point of the San Marino football team?’

There is certainly a strong argument for some form of pre-qualifying process, involving them and a few other of the lowest ranked sides, before they take part against better teams. The problem would be fitting that into an increasingly congested international fixture calendar.

However, there’s also the view that San Marino is entitled to its place on the football scene, and there’s undoubtedly pride of place.

The lady emailing from my hotel in the capital signed off with this message: “I send you my kindest regards from the oldest republic in the world.”

The future Saint Marinus, a stonemason from the island of Rab, now part of modern-day Croatia, set up an independent monastic community on Monte Titano, inland from Rimini, in AD 301.

The borders of San Marino borders have remained unchanged for 560 years, and it has survived brief occupations by a Borgia Pope, a Papal Legate, and the greedy gaze of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Coming from a little place myself, not even a village – no pub, no church of any stripe, the last shop closed many years ago - I empathise with San Marino’s sense of self-worth, despite its small stature.

Besides, it will do me good to be in the ‘The Most Serene Republic of San Marino’, the translation of this tiny state’s official title.

Italy, which surrounds it, is a mere toddler in comparison to the venerable San Marino.

Off the pitch San Marino goes for a ‘joint managers’ approach, or joint-captains – its legislature, the Grand and General Council, has to elect two heads of state twice a year, these ‘captains regent’ serving concurrently and holding equal power for terms of six months. Ireland has only caught on to that approach recently.

On the pitch, I don’t want San Marino to enjoy any celebrations tomorrow night – but they’re entitled to take on Northern Ireland and even bigger guns in the future.