SERRAVALLE, San Marino -- "Highway to Hell" rings out around San Marino Stadium as the world's worst football team prepares to face Slovenia in a Euro 2024 qualifier. The stadium DJ clearly has a sense of humour, unless the playlist is part of some cunning plan to strike fear into the hearts and minds of Slovenia's players.
San Marino sits 207th out of 207 in the FIFA men's rankings -- they climbed up from 208th spot in September because Eritrea, previously above them, was removed from the list after four years without a game -- and they have been rooted to rock-bottom since November 2018. The only fear being felt by Slovenia is probably about suffering the ignominy of being one of a few teams that hasn't beaten San Marino.
April 2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of their last -- and only -- victory, when Andy Selva's sixth-minute goal sealed a 1-0 home win in a friendly against Liechtenstein in front of just 200 supporters. While it is a harsh label to apply to a team from a tiny country of 33,000 inhabitants, it is an inescapable fact that San Marino are the worst football team in the world.
If you have 11 minutes and 48 seconds to spare, you can watch every goal San Marino have ever scored since their first game in 1990, with all 28 of them neatly packaged together in one YouTube video. Alas, on this September night there is no win, and no more goals, for La Serenissima as Slovenia run out 4-0 winners in front of 844 spectators to extend San Marino's winless run to 132 games.
The only excitement comes off the pitch, when supporters watching the game for free in the woodland behind the goal inadvertently set fire to bushes with pyrotechnic flares, causing the final 20 minutes to be played out with thick smoke drifting across the field.
If it is a "Highway to Hell," San Marino seem to be stuck on a never-ending journey, desperately searching for a way to find that elusive victory to end their nightmare run of failure.
But is it really even failure?
San Marino, a landlocked, mountainous microstate, is the world's fifth-smallest country. It has no airport, not even a train station, and its football team is a collection of part-time players who get to face some of the game's biggest stars while holding down day jobs: the recent squad included a mechanic, delivery driver and a worker in a jewellery factory. San Marino's coach, Fabrizio Costantini, works in a furniture warehouse.
When they fly to Belfast to face Northern Ireland in another qualifier this Saturday, Costantini and his players will be forced to take Friday off work so they can travel. All this losing hurts, but there is also a deep sense of pride within the squad that they're able to represent their country. These are just normal guys living a dream.
"It's not the same for us because we are not professionals," San Marino captain Matteo Vitaioli, a graphic designer, tells ESPN. "I have to work, my teammates have to work, but that's normal for us. The most important thing is to have the heart and passion to succeed and fill the gap.
"It's difficult, but of course we are proud, even if we are at the bottom of the FIFA ranking. We are here: we are one of the smallest countries in the world, but we play with 100 percent and it is just us, no other nationalities. Even Italy uses players from other countries, but we are just San Marino, so we are very proud of that."
As the Slovenia team bus pulls away and heads for nearby Rimini, Italy, where they'll fly back to Ljubljana, San Marino's players head to their cars. It's almost midnight on Sunday; many of them are expected at work the following morning.
TRISTAN CESELKOVSKI IS 16 YEARS OLD and is sitting on a bench on Via della Fratta with his father, Boris. Tristan is wearing a full San Marino kit. It's matchday in San Marino, but Tristan is the only person wearing the team's colours, making him stand out immediately among the tourists who have come to take in the stunning views of the Adriatic coast from the top of Monte Titano or visit the 14th century Church of San Francesco.
But Tristan is no ordinary supporter. He and his father have just arrived in San Marino after a 540-mile drive from their home in Vienna. The journey took 8½ hours, and they will be heading back after the game. "He's my son and he loves San Marino, so it's what you have to do," Boris tells ESPN with a laugh and shrug of the shoulders.
"San Marino are my favourite team," Tristan says. "I know they don't win, but it's the way the players never give up. They always play with passion and I have always wanted to watch them play."
The San Marino team is a strange phenomenon. Walking around San Marino in search of supporters is no easy task because, for locals at least, there is simply no sense of connection to the players who represent their tiny country. "You won't find any San Marino fans here," a waiter named Matteo at Birrificio Abusivo, the bar that sells the only beer brewed in the micronation, tells ESPN. "You only know that San Marino are playing because the fans of the other team come into town to drink."
San Marino -- or the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, to use its full name -- is serene as in "sovereign" rather than "calm and stable," although it is both of those things, too.
It was once one of many similar city-states on the Italian peninsula, dating back to its founding in 301 A.D. But while bigger city-states, including Venice and Genoa, were all part of the unification of Italy in 1861, San Marino retained its independence and sovereignty because, as legend has it, the country offered refuge to unification movement leader Giuseppe Garibaldi and his troops during conflict with the Austrian Empire and Papal States. When Garibaldi succeeded in unifying Italy, San Marino was granted its wish of independence in an 1862 treaty and has kept it ever since, even to the extent of remaining neutral during World War II.
It also managed to retain its own currency, the Sammarinese lira, until it was replaced by the euro in 2002, and Italian is the only language spoken, which is useful considering San Marino is surrounded by Italy on all sides and neighbours Rimini, the five-star resort on the Adriatic Coast. It's also small, covering just 24 square miles, and has the same population as Helena, the capital of Montana.
Imagine Helena having its own team, playing games against the U.S. or Mexico, and you get the picture.
Finding a San Marino shirt among the shops selling clothes, fragrances and guns -- there are lots of places to purchase firearms in San Marino -- is also a challenge. It turns out just two shops stock the pale blue home shirt. "We don't sell many," a shopkeeper at one, Roberto, tells ESPN. "It's usually visiting supporters who ask, but I did sell one this morning to the Ukrainian match officials. They came in looking for it specifically."
At the other sportswear shop, they even sell San Marino's dark blue away kit. This weekend, the store was busier selling Ducati and Yamaha merchandise to the bikers in town for the San Marino MotoGP, but the owner, Michele, says business is good when big teams play San Marino.
"I sell lots of shirts to English, Spanish and German fans," she tells ESPN. "The San Marino shirt is a novelty. Nobody from San Marino buys them, but it seems as though foreign visitors like it because the team is not so good."
There is a souvenir stand at the stadium although there is an element of farce as Martina and Francesco, who work for the San Marino Football Federation, attempt to sell shirts, scarves and pendants to supporters. Their wooden cabin is positioned in a dark corner away from the stadium, facing away from the coach park used by Slovenia fans. There is no electricity in the cabin; everything is in darkness until Francesco uses the spotlight on his phone to highlight the merchandise.
"I'm usually the team liaison officer," Martina tells ESPN. "But I help out with the shop at games. It's not so busy tonight, but we had long queues when England played here."
San Marino do have a small and loyal fanbase, but the emphasis is on the word "small." Inside the stadium, Tristan and Boris have met up with a tiny group of San Marino's most ardent supporters: Josef Junker, Nicolo Vallone and Daniele Dei.
Daniele is from Modena, 150 miles away. He watches every home game and does one away trip each year, while Josef has travelled from his home in Bavaria to watch every home game for the past 10 years. "My first game was 20 years ago," Josef tells ESPN. "I am German, but I am not a fan of the Germany team. They are too arrogant. I come to watch San Marino because of the honesty and the amateur element of it. It's real football.
"Why do I come? To see San Marino draw and score: those moments are special. And hopefully, someday soon, a win." It perhaps sums up the nation's hard-luck story that super-fan Josef was not among the 200 who saw them beat Liechtenstein in 2004.
SAN MARINO PLAYED THEIR LAST HOME GAME, against Kazakhstan in June, 200 miles away in Parma, Italy, to upgrade the playing surface at San Marino Stadium so it met UEFA standards.
"It's too good now," one of the San Marino officials tells ESPN. "It makes it even harder for the players to compete against the top teams." The suited official then points to an overgrown field next to the stadium car park and jokes, "We prefer it to be like that."
The problem for San Marino is that it is not only the top teams against whom they struggle. Since the start of last year, they have also lost to Cape Verde, Malta (twice) and St. Lucia. Yet despite the recurring nightmare of playing and losing (sometimes heavily), there is an absence of cynicism or weariness among the players when asked whether they grow tired of experiencing defeat virtually every game.
Perhaps it is down to their everyday reality of their lives: they're working men who get to live the dream of playing football against some of the world's best players before going back to reality the following day. There are no hard-bitten, professional egos among them. They are simply enthusiastic amateurs who want to do their best, no matter the opposition.
Defender Roberto di Maio, who at the age of 40 in March became the oldest footballer in Europe to make his international debut, admits every game is a test of physical and mental capabilities. "Of course, it's complicated because we're facing such skillful nations," Di Maio, who works for the federation, tells ESPN. "We are 90 minutes-plus under pressure every time, so it's difficult. We have to stay focused all the time.
"Sometimes it's good when we're facing not-so-good teams. Others, like for example Denmark, whom we faced in September, they're very tough to play. You have to stay focused all the time. No mistakes."
As San Marino's goalkeeper, Elia Benedettini, who works for his parents' transport company, has one of the toughest jobs in sport. He concedes goals in most games -- he has managed two shutouts, against the Seychelles and Gibraltar, in 45 games -- and it took Slovenia just four minutes to open the scoring in this match. But the 28-year-old, who has played as high as Serie B in Italy, does not regard his role as a thankless task.
"I know it's difficult," he says. "But it's always a good feeling to play in a San Marino shirt, no matter the results. It's a dream to play in these matches, even though it's tough. I think it is a beautiful experience and all of our opponents, even the big stars, treat us with respect."
Playing against San Marino is not easy either, despite the reality that it usually results in three points for the opposition. Germany inflicted San Marino's heaviest defeat with a 13-0 win in September 2006, while England recorded a 10-0 victory in November 2021. Yet San Marino famously scored the then-fastest-ever international goal when Davide Gualtieri put the team ahead after just seven seconds against England in November 1993. That game still ended in a 7-1 defeat.
Former Manchester City and England defender Joleon Lescott, who played in an 8-0 win in San Marino in March 2013, told ESPN that games against them come with unique challenges.
"When you play against San Marino, you just have to get to 2-0 as quickly as possible," he says. "The last thing you want is to be in a situation where they could score and make things difficult for you. If you concede against them, or fail to win, it's a historical moment and the kind of history that you will never be allowed to forget. You have to treat the game with absolute focus and just score as early as you can."
When told of Lescott's admission that even England players worry about facing San Marino, defender Simone Franciosi, a student by day, smiles. "If great players from England are maybe, I would say, a little bit stressed about facing San Marino, it's good news," he says. "It's great news. Thank you!
"Our objective is always the same: keep it 0-0 for as long as possible to feed the pressure, but sure, it's not easy. We don't play to lose; we always want to win, but I have just started my international career and I know it will be tough to win these games."
Regardless of the likely outcome of every game they play, none of the San Marino players suggests that representing their country is a burden and Di Maio is perhaps the best example of the joy that it brings. Born in Naples, he is the only non-Sammarinese in Costantini's squad, having waited 13 years for his San Marino nationality. He's now making up for lost time.
"There are some special laws in San Marino," he says. "I waited 13 years and married a San Marino girl, so I have my nationality now. It's a very long time, but I succeeded.
"As long as I have fun, I want to play again. Again, again. If the mind is good, the body will follow the mind, so of course I can go on. It's fun for me, even to have four goals to zero. But the most important thing for us is to compete and we do that.
"There are so many players here who, tomorrow, will go to work, but they have a job and we have to applaud these guys because they are perfect."
Battistini's colleagues -- he's a mechanic by trade -- also acknowledged that sense of awe at being able to keep up. "He's never here at work, always playing, but we need him here too because he is so good!"
Vitaioli wears the captain's armband against Slovenia and is back in his studio as a designer by 9 o'clock the following morning. That's the reality for this group of players. "It's normal for us," he says. "We all play for semi-professional clubs in San Marino, some of us in Italy, but when we work, we're just normal guys in the office or the factory."
His workmates are still impressed -- "He knows how to do everything -- both to play soccer and being a great designer" -- but Vitaioli has a more grounded perspective.
"Nobody sees us as stars," he says with a smile.
SAN MARINO ARE READY TO WIN. Twenty years without a victory is an unwanted milestone that is fast approaching, but the team is improving -- Costantini's side has conceded just 21 goals in six Euro 2024 qualifiers -- and they can see light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. When the UEFA Nations League resumes in 2024, San Marino will be in League D alongside fellow minnows Andorra, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein, the only team they've ever beaten.
The losses in their Euro 2024 group have been expected, but by making themselves more organised defensively, there is a genuine hope that the tactical work will pay off when playing against teams of a similar standard.
"The Nations League is a big chance for us," San Marino Football Federation president Marco Tura tells ESPN. "That's the opportunity for us to draw or even win. This is our competition, so it's like tailor-made for us. We want to practice good and perform good and if the feeling is good for the players on the pitch, maybe it would be a dream for us to succeed, to draw or win, which is our goal."
Costantini, who has been in charge since November 2021, agrees that the Nations League offers San Marino their best chance to win for 20 years.
"We should focus on preparing for the best of our opportunities with the Nations League next year," he says. "Because in that tournament we will have the opportunity to share the pitch with the teams that aren't better than us in terms of physical approach, athletic skills and technical ones. They are closer to our level and we will have the opportunity to get the result."
Selva remains the only player to have scored a winning goal for San Marino. He is the country's all-time top scorer with eight international goals during an 18-year career and speaking to The Times (UK) in 2021, he recalled the feeling of beating Liechtenstein in 2004.
"The emotion was indescribable," Selva says. "We felt something different on the pitch during that game. We were very focused, there was an electricity in the air. We felt that sooner or later the result would come, and that maybe that was the right time. For a team used to always losing, getting a win, even in a friendly, is something so beautiful. Those moments will remain in history for every player."
Lorenzo Lazzari, San Marino's centre-forward and a full-time student, dreams of emulating Selva and scoring his country's first winning goal for two decades. The 20-year-old was born two months after that solitary victory, but he already holds the distinction of being the last player to score for San Marino, seven games ago, in a 1-1 draw against St. Lucia in November 2022.
Lazzari made his San Marino debut as a second-half substitute in that game and he became an instant hero by equalising in the fourth minute of stoppage time. "It was a big emotion for me," Lazzari tells ESPN. "It was even unbelievable. I didn't expect it, so it was special for me.
"Of course it's difficult to play as a striker for San Marino, but it's a dream to score and it'll be a dream even bigger than the one in St. Lucia if I can score a winning goal."
AS THE SAN MARINO PLAYERS WALK OFF THE PITCH at the end of their latest defeat, this time against Slovenia, the bond between themselves and their small band of supporters is evident. Members of the team seek out young fans in the crowd to whom they can pass on their kit -- even down to the shorts and socks. The players are determined to win; the fans are equally desperate to witness it.
"It's amazing for us to have supporters all around the world," goalkeeper Benedettini says. "Even on social media, we get some messages from Argentina, Brazil, which is, for us, something crazy.
"But there are the fans who are here too. There are not so many, but we appreciate them and for those guys that are supporting us all the time, maybe next year we will do something special and dedicate it to them."
Sooner or later, San Marino will be ready to celebrate. They might even get the locals along to the party, too.