After San Marino’s 8-0 defeat to England last month the debate raged over the validity of them as a sporting opponent in Europe, as it has after every thumping defeat the country has suffered since joining FIFA in 1988.
Many pundits believe that a separate qualifying tournament should be created for San Marino, along with the other poorly performing countries such as Liechtenstein, Moldova and Andorra. But it could be argued that the quality of the national football team could be improved from within, rather than requiring the assistance of the footballing authorities.
A brilliant example of a country taking matters into its own hands and setting about developing their footballing system is American Samoa. The country from the South Pacific is of a relative size to San Marino and for years dwelled with them at the bottom of FIFA’s ranking table. However the tiny island managed to drag itself up to the dizzying heights of 196, 11 places above San Marino.
In 2011, the American Samoan FA and United States FA went into negotiations to establish ways in which football on the island could be improved and it was decided that the American Samoa national team would be managed by Thomas Rongen, USA under-20 manager.
Rongen had experience of developing talent in an international squad with the under-20 squad and had spent many years coaching in the MLS with some of America’s best footballing talents. His professional manner and methods were implemented quickly, resulting in American Samoa winning its first every competitive fixture against Tonga 2-1. They would go on to draw 1-1 with the Cook Islands and lose only 1-0 to Samoa in just his first three games.
Working with a squad who had never experienced success, and had been through the humiliation of the world’s biggest international defeat (a 31-0 loss to Australia), meant that the team’s mentality needed fixing, as Rongen explains.
“I worked on the mental side as much as I did on the technical, tactical and fitness side and I was able to put a team on the field that became competitive and believed they could win a game”.
The nation’s FA also enrolled itself in as many FIFA development courses as it could, taking part in sixteen courses between 2011 and 2013 ranging in subjects from women’s football to futsal coaching.
Compare their situation to San Marino. Rather than put a professional, experienced coach in charge, they have Giampaolo Mazza at the helm. He was capped for the San Marino national team before retiring to become a PE teacher at a local school and manage his homeland in 1998. The FA was equally as unambitious with their coaching development, only enrolling in two futsal courses in 2010.
San Marino must have as many mental scars as the American Samoan team did (members of the team involved in the 31-0 defeat to Australia turned to drug and alcohol abuse in the aftermath) yet their FA have been forward thinking and tried to fix their situation. Pundits may say that no one would take the job but I think it is impossible that the most wealthy region of FIFA (in terms of footballing heritage and financially) could not come to an agreement where personnel could transfer skills and share resources.
Clubs and national teams spend too much time complaining about authorities and the lack of assistance and help with problems such as racism, irresponsible owners and cheating rather than taking on the challenge themselves. In terms of developing footballing talent, San Marino needs to tackle the issue head on and sort its problems out organically, rather than having to suffer the arrogance and condemnation of ITV’s most irritating commentators and pundit team.