Tiny San Marino faces the 'impossible' vs. England


ROME (AP) -As far as tiny San Marino is concerned, Friday's match at England has already been won.

That's because all 90,000 tickets to Wembley Stadium have been sold out for the World Cup qualifier.

"That's already a small victory for us," San Marino coach Giampaolo Mazza said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We're a nation of just 32,000, so we would only fill a third of the stadium. And we have 100 fans going to the game, which represents a record for an away match. We know exactly who's coming, because in a nation this small everybody knows everybody."

For a team without any competitive victories in its 22-year history, it's the small things that count.

And while Mazza conceded winning the match is "impossible," it's worth remembering that in a 1993 loss to England, Davide Gualtieri scored for San Marino after eight seconds for what still remains the quickest goal ever scored in a World Cup qualifier or finals. England went on to win 7-1 but needed eight goals and therefore didn't qualify for the 1994 World Cup. England manager Graham Taylor resigned shortly after that game.

"We're not talking about 1993. But easy matches don't exist in football. You never know," said San Marino's 36-year-old captain Andy Selva, who holds the San Marino record with eight goals.

There have been other small successes for San Marino. Like in 2007, when Ireland coach Steve Staunton was mercilessly pilloried in the media after his squad needed an injury-time goal for a 2-1 win in Euro 2008 qualifying.

"Obviously England is a huge squad but we're going to give our all. This is a huge test for us," Selva said. "Wembley is the temple of football and it will be an honor to play there."

Known as the oldest republic in the world, San Marino is nestled atop a hill in central Italy near Rimini and the Adriatic coast.

Since making its competitive debut in 1990, San Marino has competed in qualifying for every European Championship and World Cup, but has never won a match in either competition. Its only win came over Liechtenstein in a friendly in 2004 - 1-0.

San Marino opened qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with a 6-0 home loss to Montenegro and is joint last in Group H with Moldova, which it hosts four days after the England match.

With Selva nursing a calf injury, Mazza said he will start with his captain on the bench at Wembley to keep him fresh for the Moldova game.

While he previously played for bigger clubs like Padova, Sassuolo and Verona, Selva is now with semi-pro Serie D side Sidene. The only full professional on the squad is defender Mirko Palazzi, who plays for Rimini in Italy's third division.

"Obviously it's an impossible match for us, considering the difference in skill level," Mazza said. "But we're used to these types of games."

After joking that he plans to employ a 9-1 formation, Mazza said he will use a 5-4-1 to contain England's star forward Wayne Rooney. And he's not relying on England being distracted due to the fallout of John Terry's racism case, with the center back having retired from national team duty and Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole jeopardizing his England future by posting an unwise Twitter message criticizing the Football Association.

"England is used to these things," Mazza said. "We have a hard time believing that there's racism in a country as multi-ethnic as England."

The one positive note for San Marino is that England captain Steven Gerrard is suspended.

Considering the records of nations like San Marino, Liechtenstein, Andorra and the Faeroe Islands, there has been discussion of creating a preliminary qualifying group for smaller European nations.

For the 2014 World Cup, Africa, Asia, CONCACAF (North and Central America) and Oceania each have preliminary rounds for the weakest teams. Only UEFA and CONMEBOL (South America) have everyone in the same qualifying program - and in CONMEBOL that's just nine teams playing in one group.

Europe is the exception in having one, big set of qualifying groups.

"(UEFA president Michel) Platini has always said that UEFA is a big family and we hope he keeps it that way," Mazza said. "That would be like saying (Usain) Bolt doesn't have to run qualifying against athletes who finish two seconds behind him in heats at the Olympics. ... Everybody deserves a chance.

"Wembley is sold out, so it's not having any influence economically," Mazza added. "Our vote in UEFA is worth just as much as England's."

Copyright 2016 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

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