San Marino's team of accountants, bank clerks and barmen welcome England for a World Cup qualifier on Friday
Giampaolo Mazza is a most unusual football manager. "The result is not what matters to us," says San Marino's coach. "If it was I would not have been in this job for 15 years. We are usually certain to lose so it's just a question of how many we concede." The sight of the 57-year-old routinely asking opposing players for their shirts following defeats may raise eyebrows but Mazza is a secondary school PE teacher by day and his souvenir-hunting is all in a good cause. "My students always want shirts after we play internationals, so I try to get some for them," he explains.
"The big difference between San Marino and other nations is that me and my players have jobs as well as playing football. We train in the evenings. It is a tremendous achievement for us to be playing international football. Our population is just 33,000."
An enclaved micro-state surrounded by Italy and situated on the north-east side of the Apennine mountains close to the Adriatic coastline, their home is sometimes referred to as "the most serene Republic of San Marino".
Composed entirely of hilly terrain with no natural level ground and guarded by the Crossbow Corps – a ceremonial band of 80 Sammarinese volunteers – it is one place in world football where players, fans and management alike really know how to lose magnanimously.
Since the national team's establishment in 1986, San Marino have endured a history of heavy beatings. They have won only one game – a friendly in 2004 in which fellow micro-state Liechtenstein were beaten 1-0. Competitively, they have drawn twice, against Latvia and Turkey, in World Cup qualifying fixtures. The shame involved in failing to thrash San Marino was such that Latvia's then coach, Gary Johnson, resigned immediately after his country's draw with Mazza's side in 2001. "We partied until the early hours that night," says the Sammarinese coach. "Although it wasn't so much fun for poor Gary Johnson."
Between 2008 and 2012 San Marino went 20 games without scoring a goal and they currently sit alongside Bhutan and the Turks & Caicos Islands at the bottom of Fifa's world rankings. Their record – 13-0 – reverse arrived in 2006 at home to a typically ruthless Germany.
"It doesn't mean there's no pressure," said Mazza, whose role model is the former England head coach Fabio Capello. "We have only had three coaches in our history but, even if results are not very good, the federation are still looking for an improvement in performances."
Everyone hopes it will come against England on Friday in the Stadio Olimpico, San Marino's municipally owned, 7,000-capacity home in Serravalle. A tighter scoreline than the 5-0 defeat they suffered at Wembley last autumn would represent something of a moral victory on a night when Mazza will renew old acquaintance with Roy Hodgson. "I met England's manager at a coaching conference," he says. "He wished me luck."
Hodgson is enough of a football romantic to admire a desperately under-resourced peer who aims to counter Wayne Rooney and company with a squad comprised of accountants, bank clerks, teachers, students, electricians, barmen, a gym owner and an olive oil worker.
Although the midfielder Mirko Palazzi earns a living at Rimini, in the fourth tier of Italian football, Andy Selva, the 36-year-old striker, is the only San Marino international to have played professionally throughout a career which once took him to Verona but is now winding down at Serie D side Fidene.
"England are a super team and we are almost all amateurs," Selva says. "The difference is ridiculous, it makes it really impossible but we have enormous dreams and want to avoid ridicule. Our challenge is to improve with every game and learn from every hard defeat."
By scoring not only his country's famous winner against Liechtenstein but recording a very respectable tally, in the circumstances, of eight international goals in 57 appearances for San Marino, Selva has quite a bit to be proud of. Particularly as his team have managed only 18 goals in the past 20 years.
Psychologically, things are tougher for Aldo Simoncini, Mazza's goalkeeper. An accountant, Simoncini knows his international balance sheet makes alarming reading – 122 goals conceded in 29 appearances – but, in his gloves, even Joe Hart would struggle to keep clean sheets.
It seems a long time since November 1993 and England's World Cup qualifier against San Marino in Bologna in which Davide Gualtieri scored after 8.3 seconds – still the fastest goal registered in such a fixture – having capitalised on Stuart Pearce's unwise backpass. Although Graham Taylor's side eventually prevailed 7-1, they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States and a Mirror headline screamed "End of the World". Taylor resigned six days later.
"I sometimes go on YouTube and look at my goal," says Gualtieri, who now works in an electronics shop, selling computers. "Watching it cheers me up – I had hair then."
He may have gone bald in the intervening two decades but Gualtieri still possesses the England shirt Pearce gave him, still remembers how cross England's left-back and his team-mates were to have conceded that goal.
As Hodgson's class of 2013 aim to keep a dignity-preserving clean sheet, Mazza could be forgiven for wishing he had Massimo Bonini on his side. Now 53, Bonini is proof that not all Sammarinese footballers are that shabby. A top-class midfielder, he shone alongside Michel Platini at Juventus, winning abundant trophies and repeatedly rejecting overtures from Italy to "defect" and swap international allegiance to the Azzurri.
Bonini is sanguine about the current travails of Mazza's side. "You have to consider that almost every player has another profession that comes first before football and normally trains at night," he says. "San Marino have got good endurance for the first 45 minutes. Then they collapse after an hour. That's normal if you're not a professional side … But playing international football is a good advert for tourism to our country."