I am and always will be a footballing romantic. It is my firm belief that football was built by the people for the people. In this day and age, we seem to be getting further and further away from those ideals. Everything that makes football great, seems to be vanishing in a haze of corporate greed and controversy. Money is King and the gap between the elite and everybody else has never been bigger. it is now, very much a corporate industry, and I think the normal person on the street has been forgotten.
Teams are being bought up by money-hungry millionaires and being used as if they were their own personal toys. Todd Boehly’s purchase of Chelsea and his out-of-control spending represents something sad in football for me. Then there is the controversial ownership of Newcastle United, the financial might of PSG, and Manchester City, and talk of European Super Leagues, and World Cups every two years. It just doesn’t sit well with me.
I have sometimes become slightly depressed by the thought of the modern game. Maybe it’s an age thing. Perhaps I’m just becoming cynical. However, amongst this doom-mongering, there was one story late last year, that give me hope. Restored my faith that football is still a game for the people. It reassured me that a sense of community still exists and that our game is still beautiful. I think it was one of the most heartwarming initiatives I have seen in football for a long time. Ahead of the festive season in 2022, The San Marino Football Federation (FSGC) launched a campaign to gift a baby-sized national team kit to every baby born in the country between now and the end of 2023. Perhaps as I grow older, I’m more of a sentimentalist, but for me, this is more what football should be about.
The association kicked off their initiative as winter approached, with the first baby-size shirts delivered ahead of Christmas. This was seen by the FSGC as a symbolic act of communion in a Republic of only 34,000 inhabitants. Along with the kit, the FSGC is also giving each newborn a small parchment with a symbolic message dedicated to the newborn and the family. The first kit was given to a baby girl on December 21, 2022.
‘The delivery is a small gesture that we want to do to all future San Marino newborns,’ said FSGC secretary general Luigi Zafferani. ‘Our shirt is a symbol of the Republic and of the nation. In a special moment such as that of birth, the Federation does not want to be invasive but simply to give newborns a small souvenir. With the hope maybe one day, when they are older, of being able to push and support the national team even at the stadium.’
Like so many in the UK, my first memory of San Marino as a footballing nation was watching them take on the might of England in the 1993 World Cup qualifying campaign. Under Graham Taylor, England had endured a turgid run of form, that saw them needing to beat San Marino by seven clear goals and hope Poland would also beat the Netherlands to qualify for USA 94. Just a few years earlier, England had stood on the edge of greatness as they took on West Germany for a place in the 1990 World Cup Final, only to be denied by the cruel mistress that is penalty kicks. Surely, one night in Bologna against San Marino wouldn’t end in heartbreak?
England were naturally confident of dispatching their opponents and scoring the required seven goals. San Marino, after all, had already conceded 39 goals in their first nine qualifying games. As the game kicked off, I’ll never forget what happened next. There In the Stadio Renato Dall’ Ara in Bologna, San Marino kicked off, darting forward, looking to create an opening. As they progressed upfield, they were met by the imposing figure of Stuart Pearce, who dispossessed the attack. The ever-dependable defender proceeded to nonchalantly slide the ball back towards David Seaman. It was then one of the greatest plot twists in football took place. It was a moment England hadn’t counted on, but it was a moment, Davide Gualtieri, had spent his life dreaming about. Appearing from nowhere, he pickpocketed and stole England’s hopes, as he gloriously poked the ball past the advancing Seamen. History had been made. The camera panned to a team which featured the likes of, Shearer, Ince, Platt and Gascoigne. Each one of them pale with horror. It took until the 21st minute for England to score before they went on to win 7-1. But it was all in vain. The moment of brilliance from Gualtieri ensured that England would not be going to USA 94, and one of the most incredible nights in the history of San Marino was born.
It was a true David and Goliath moment. A moment that will forever live with everybody who witnessed it. It remains to this day one of the greatest achievements in their history. From that night on, I was seduced by the idyllic romanticism of San Marino. Today they are statistically the lowest-ranked national team in world football. They have their detractors. But for me, San Marino represents what football should be about. Hope and dreams. International football for them is the opportunity of a lifetime. It is a chance for them to rub shoulders against the cream of football. Why should they be denied the right to compete against the best? Footballing snobs may disagree with their involvement, fearing that it harms the competitive nature of football. Do me a favour? Each player that takes the field, regardless of their current stature, grew up with the same dream. To play football and compete at the highest possible level. They have earned the right to do so.
When I first read of the campaign being launched by the San Marino Football Federation, thoughts of that evening in Bologna came flooding back to me. I truly believe that initiatives like this, show that the FSGC is working tirelessly to create a community and build a family. This is what football should be about. It was with pleasure that The Atlantic Dispatch caught up with Andrea Zoppis the Deputy Licensing Manager at FSGC to discuss the campaign, and what the future holds for football in San Marino.
GIVING PEOPLE THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE PART OF FOOTBALL IN SAN MARINO
We don’t want to occupy the special moments of a family, but we want to leave one more memory in their mind: the National Team is part of the culture of San Marino and an ambassador of the country in the world, so it is important that all “Sammarinesi” can feel part of it. We hope that parents (and of course the babies) could appreciate this initiative and look at the San Marino FA as something that is close to the families, and we can say that the Feedback is very positive.
These campaigns are fundamental to creating engagement with the community of San Marino and creating a larger involvement with our football and National Team. In a little country like San Marino, it is crucial to attract all people and to make football as accessible as possible, in innovative and different ways. For this reason, we are running many different campaigns with different targets of people.
In September 2022 we launched a similar campaign for children that started with elementary schools, giving them a present of the National Team jersey and a ticket for the next National Team match: They are the future of San Marino, and our football and they could have a great memory of that moment.
We also have in place a strategy for Football and Social Responsibility, published in September 2022. This strategy includes our aim to reach people and to give them the opportunity to be part of football in San Marino. In fact, we are also working with the oldest people, recently we launched a particular programme of walking football to give people aged over 50 with Diabetes Type 2 the opportunity of a safe physical activity, with benefits for their social life and for their health.
We have also a collaboration with the Special Olympics and we organise activities with our specialised coaches during the year, involving people with mental disabilities to play football. The accessibility is not referred only to players, but also to supporters, and over the years, we have made our National Stadium accessible for all, with particular services for blind or deaf supporters, and supporters on wheelchairs.
OUR DREAM IS TO SEE OUR NATIONAL STADIUM FULL OF OUR SUPPORTERS
It is very important that we know that this is a long process, but we have started with different initiatives to try to involve more people across San Marino with our National Team. The National Team is an expression of San Marino in the world, and an ambassador. We want people who watch the team to see the same values that they consider fundamental in San Marino. Our dream is to see our National Stadium full of our supporters during the home matches of the National Team, and all these initiatives and campaigns are going in this direction, to create engagement and affection for our Team and our football.
In 2021 we have launched a new official strategy in our FA, with the Mission to protect and promote the values of the game in San Marino and to make our football accessible for all. In this strategy, we fixed 5 main goals on different themes, and the improvement of the level of our National Team and of our clubs and women’s academy are three of them. We are working to improve the technical level, with an enlargement of the base and with the professionalization of coaches and responsible, the creation of new opportunities and abroad experiences for our players and with bigger support to the managerial structure of our clubs.
SAN MARINO OFFERS THE SAME OPPORTUNITIES AS SOME OF THE BIGGEST COUNTRIES IN SPORT
In San Marino the people are not so attracted by our National Team and the stadium is often quite empty during the National Team matches if the opposite team is not one of the biggest in Europe, due to the results of our team. With a population of only 35,000 people, it is difficult to compete with National Teams with much bigger populations. In the last few years, we have started work to make our football and National Team more attractive and to improve the culture of sport for our people.
The long-term aim of our National Team, included in our Strategy, is to leave the last place in the FIFA rankings and to develop the Youth National Team; for clubs, the objectives are to strengthen them on and off the pitch, providing all the structures and opportunities to improve their staff and to walk on the road of professionalism. The image is also important and in the last few years, we are working a lot to improve the visibility of The National Team and our clubs, to provide new commercial opportunities and principally to create more engagement with people and supporters from San Marino and other countries.
I’m Italian and I have lived in San Marino for eight years, so I had the opportunity to see this country from an external point of view. San Marino has almost the same opportunities and offers as the biggest countries in terms of Sports, Schools, Healthcare, and Tourism, all concentrated in 61 square kilometres. Each child and each person could think that is feasible to reach the top in national top sports and in other sectors, and they have more stimulus to work for that. It is a little country with few inhabitants, but with a wonderful landscape and historical centre.
As our chat with Andrea comes to an end, he mentions that San Marino is most definitely a place that people should visit. He’s not wrong. One of the oldest Republics in the world, having been established in the year 301 AD, it is a place with a long and fascinating history, and its well-preserved medieval fortresses, castles, and towers are a testament to this. Perched atop a rocky promontory, San Marino commands breathtaking views of the surrounding hills and valleys, with the sparkling Adriatic Sea visible in the distance. It is a country with a beautiful and historic past and with football deep-rooted in its veins, it could have a beautiful future.
Thank you very much to the gentleman that is Andrea Zoppis for his time.