life in a small town

words and photography: jessica pepper-peterson

For the last few years, photographer Jessica Pepper-Peterson has been spending time in the idyllic Italian microstate San Marino, documenting the lives of their National Football Team, one of the smallest in the UEFA. They regularly get matched up against much bigger and better opponents, but don't have the manpower or resources to secure a win. Nevertheless, its players are dedicated, squeezing in practices whenever they can. Maybe one day they'll qualify for the World Cup, but until then they continue to get better and play with dignity. We spoke to Pepper-Peterson about her time in San Marino, and how a group of amateurs ended up playing on a professional level in the first place.

 

How did you initially encounter the San Marino team? I first got involved with the San Marino National Team as the producer on a documentary project about them called We Are San Marino. I contacted the team in the summer of 2014 to see if they would be interested in allowing our film crew to follow them through the European Qualifiers. I began photographing to capture behind the scenes but it quickly turned into a passion project for me. We followed them through their training, daily life and 10 qualifying matches. It’s a dream come true for these players to play for their National Team, at a level they maybe would have never reached otherwise. They are not part of the professional soccer world. They don’t play for money. For them it’s about representing their country and proving that they deserve to participate in these games.

What, specifically, did you find interesting about them? It’s a classic underdog story of a small team trying to create a place for themselves among the giants of the game. They are in such a unique position to be a National Team competing against the best teams in Europe coming from a country with a population of 31,000. But they are at a complete disadvantage having to choose a winning team out of such a tiny pool. The one advantage it does create is that the players on the San Marino team are incredibly unified. They are childhood friends who grew up playing together after school. There are three sets of brothers on the team but honestly they all feel like a family. They know each other’s strengths and weakness probably better than most National Teams. This is incredibly important for their mentality going into and recovering from a difficult game.

What drew you to the area? I have been living in Italy working as a photographer for the past 10 years. I knew of San Marino as a small country on a hill near the seaside town of Rimini. It’s actually the oldest independent Republic in the world. They managed to maintain their independence through every war and every attempt at unification and this gives them immense pride. As you’re driving down the A14 from Bologna towards the seaside you can see San Marino in the distance. It’s three towers appear on top of the mountain, Monte Titano. The country is made up of nine little villages. It doesn’t appear much different than any other Italian town in the area. The food, the language, their love of soccer, are all the same. You have to really spend time in the country and with it’s people to feel the difference. That said, the National Team of San Marino does not have a huge following. Some people are disillusioned by the Federation, which has had the same leaders creating little change in decades. Others simply say they don’t want to go to the stadium just to watch the team lose. 

How do the players balance their team commitments against their daily lives? During qualification season the team practices 4-5 times a week with an increase as the game gets closer. Everyone on the National Team also plays for a team in the San Marino league with the exception of a few who play on amateur teams in Italy and two players who play at a more professional level in Italy. So even when the National Team isn’t practicing they are kept busy with their teams. The teams in the San Marino league also compete in the qualifiers for the Champions League and the Europa League. Everyone, including the technical staff, has day jobs. Only two players at the moment play professionally: Mirko Palazzi for Gualdo Tadino a Serie D team in Umbria and Elia Benedettini who just got picked up as the goalkeeper for the Serie B team Novara. The rest of the team is made up of factory workers, students, a pharmacist, accountants, office employees and a bar owner. Some work on a shift schedule giving them strange hours, other’s work a typical 9-6 day. They come straight to practice after leaving work. 

As a small team that competes on a large level, can you talk about their mentality? Are they hopeful? Resigned to losing? When the qualifying matches started in September 2014, San Marino had a new coach after several seasons under the same management. Pierangelo Manzaroli was bumped up from coaching the Under 21 National Team after having made some enormous improvements with them. His coaching was just as mental as it was physical. It takes a lot of mental strength to go out onto the field and play a game you have no chance of winning in front of 80,000 spectators—like there were at Wembley. There is a lot of talk about creating a proactive team that can attack and not just defend. They need to have a lot of courage to go out on that field and defend their flag. Sometimes he can see that before big games they are a little nervous and hesitant during practice so his goal is to change that.

The coaches try to keep the players on a fitness regimen in between games and tracks their progress using GPS vests. Manzaroli recognizes that they cannot compete on a physical level with team like England and Switzerland, but he wants them at the top of their game no matter what. A huge challenge is playing back-to-back matches with only a couple days for recovery when you don’t have a lot of extra players. It’s a hard decision for a coach on how to use his limited resources.

The last qualifying season brought some really difficult defeats but also a few amazing successes. The team tied 0-0 against Estonia after 61 straight defeats. That tie bumped them up several spots from last place in the FIFA rating. Aldo Simoncini, the starting goalkeeper, made some unbelievable saves, like Rodriguez’s penalty in the final minutes of the Switzerland game. Matteo Vitaioli scored a penalty goal in the game against Lithuania, San Marino’s first away goal in 14 years.

When you ask the players what it is that they hope for when they go out on the field, they almost always answer that they want to play a strong game and eventually score points in the qualifying matches like everyone else. They go into each game trying to keep the score 0-0 as long as possible. There's a big difference between losing a game 3-0 or losing 6-0. They know they won’t be the next Leicester, but will never stop trying. Occasionally a big team may underestimate them and that’s when they can go on the attack.

 

What were you hoping to capture when you went into it? We were really hoping to capture the heart and soul of this team and I think we did. We wanted to get behind the scenes and it really understand what it takes to go into a game like this. What I didn’t expect was to see how emotional these competitions are for them and to see how much they rely on each other as teammates.

Aldo Simoncini, the goalkeeper, was a key focus for us in the beginning because he has arguably the hardest job on the team. He’s an extremely level headed guy with a complicated past. A few years ago, at a high point in his career, he was in a serious car accident that left him with a broken pelvis unsure of whether he would every play again. He fought his way back to the top after recovery and his ability to do that should tell you what kind of player he is. Marcello Teodorani, the goalkeeping coach, explained that part of what makes a great goaly is the belief that you can save that ball. Lots of goalies stop themselves but Aldo just goes for it every time. The rest of the team really looks up to him with an enormous amount of respect.

Andy Selva, the captain who recently passed the title to Matteo Vitaioli, is a really important figure in the history of the team. He is one of the only players from San Marino that ever made it professionally with a Serie A team. That experience is fundamental when teaching the younger players how to approach a big game playing against players they watch each Sunday on TV. Now that he is retiring as captain he has switched his focus to coaching the youth leagues in San Marino. He believes that improving the quality of the coaching when their young might produce some more Serie A players for San Marino.

San Marino doesn't really have the best chance of winning anything in the near future. If winning isn't what's driving them, what is? Imagine growing up playing soccer every day, knowing that one day you might have to possibility to play for your National Team and compete against all those other team and players that you watch on TV and idolize. Unlike any other country, if you train hard and play well and choose this as your path there is a very real possibility that you will make it. The players on the San Marino team live and breathe soccer. It has always been their passion. Having the opportunity to go and compete on the world stage, against the best teams and the most famous players, in the biggest stadiums,  is what drives them. To be part of something so much bigger than them and live the lives of professionals for a few days.

 

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