England vs. San Marino: Remembering What Happened And Predicting What Will

Michael Regan - Getty Images

England will play, and beat, San Marino. But don't let the foregone conclusion put you off - this fixture mattered before, and will matter again.

On Friday night, England, ranked fifth in the world by the good people of FIFA, play San Marino, who are joint-bottom of the whole pile, along with Bhutan and the Turks & Caicos Islands. As The Guardian pointed out yesterday, the odds of a Sammarinese victory are, at least with some bookmakers, longer than those of finding the Loch Ness monster.

But an arrogantly dismissive England victory isn't the only certainty of the game. There are certain conventions that will - that must - when these two sides meet. Firstly, San Marino are not a fully professional team. Most of their players have other jobs on the side, which to much of the world is a perfectly respectable way to live your life: work all week, play international football at the weekend. Not a bad existence, all things told.

To English commentators, though, this idea is intensely distracting. The very notion that somebody who works in a bank has ended up on the same pitch as Wayne Rooney is a source of endless fascination. It's particularly hilarious when one of these mortals rouses themselves to achieve something passable: "Look! He's just been nutmegged by a greengrocer!" Of course, some of this is straightforward pun-searching - "and San Marino have two accountants, Jamie, so they shouldn't lose track of the score" - but at times it can get a bit weird, as though there's a concern that the left-back might accidentally forget which hat he's meant to be wearing and try to sell Theo Walcott pet insurance.

Secondly, there's the history. Last time the two sides met was 17 November, 1993. England's ill-starred qualification campaign for the 1994 World Cup was limping to its ignoble end. Defeats against Norway and the Netherlands - that latter notable for some dubious refereeing decisions and that Ronald Koeman free-flick - meant that England went into the game needing not only to beat the Sammarinese by seven clear goals, but also hoping that the Netherlands would contrive to lose in Poland.

It was a long shot, and it got even longer when, mere moments after England kicked off, Davide Gualtieri (with a little help from Stuart Pearce) did this:

Davide Gualtieri against england for San Marino scoring the fastest world cup goal (via mikeo34)

That goal remains the quickest ever scored in World Cup qualifying, and also one of the funniest. Not only is it a fine slice of elegant farce in its own right, but the speed of it - 8.3 seconds, to be precise - inspired the following wonderful piece of commentary from Jonathan Pearce, now of the BBC, but then still working on local radio:

Welcome to Bologna on Capital Gold for England versus San Marino with Tennent's Pilsner, brewed with Czechoslovakian yeast for that extra Pilsner taste and England are one down.

One suspects that can't have done much for sales. San Marino held the lead for a further 20 minutes, which for a team with (at the time) precisely no victories in international football was more or less remarkable. England eventually remembered who they were and how the world was meant to work, and, after Paul Ince equalised, went on to win 7-1. They'd fallen one goal short of their aim, but it didn't matter anyway. The Dutch had won in Poland, and Graham Taylor's days of turnips and turbulence were over.

Thirdly and finally, there's the aftermath. England will win, probably handsomely, and as is always the case after any such mismatch, some brows will be furrowed and some hands wrung. Is this really what international football should be like? Is this really worth everybody's time? Is it doing anybody any good? Should we have some kind of pre-qualifying stage, so that, y'know, proper football teams don't have to bother themselves with such formalities?

These suggestions should be resisted. (A good longer piece on this is here.) International football is supposed to be, at heart, different to the restless, relentless meritocracies of the club game. The results might be a foregone conclusion, and the games might not be the world's most entertaining experiences for the fans of the bigger teams, but there's something precious and worth preserving about the fact that any country, if they can find eleven people that are happy to sing the song, wear the shirt, and kick (or try to kick) the ball in the right direction, can call themselves a football team, and can force some multi-millionaires to find time in their busy schedules to deal with them as such. A world without the possibility of Davide Gualteiri's goal, and Jonathan Pearce's commentary, would be a shabbier, smaller place.

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