Aldo Simoncini: The Tragic Hero of San Marino
Life at the bottom rung of international football is tough. For Aldo Simoncini, San Marino’s long-serving and long-suffering goalkeeper, this hardship has been enhanced by his own struggles to make his mark in the game and overcome serious injuries.
‘My life was in danger,’ said Aldo Simoncini, the long-serving goalkeeper of San Marino’s national team. ‘I was told I might not be able to play football ever again.’ A man used to conceding a large number of goals, Simoncini had previously overcome great challenges to take his place in the international arena. As a part-time player and a full-time accountant, it can be claimed that his professional training was the perfect grounding for his other career. Till date, he has conceded 126 goals for his country in a little over forty appearances. This September he again faced England’s finest once more—the fourth time in his international career—in the sparse surroundings of Serravalle’s Stadio Olimpico.
He definitely expected a beating, and unsurprisingly picked the ball out of the net at frequent intervals, six times in total, but there is more to the story of the 29-year-old semi-professional than merely being the hapless and frequently beaten man between the San Marino sticks. As a highly-rated teenager, he was with Modena in Italy’s Serie B, a level exceeded by only one Sammarinese till date—the 1985 European Cup-winning Massimo Bonini of Juventus. The young Simoncini harboured dreams of making it to the big league and enjoying a career as a top flight professional, but fate had other plans.
His aspirations were curtailed by a terrible car accident in 2005, after which he was unsure of even playing the game again, let alone climbing up to a higher level. He had shattered his left pelvis and elbow, and spent many months in recuperation. At the time, doctors weren’t sure whether he’d ever be able to walk normally again.
Any chance of a top-level career was gone. ‘I spent five-six months in bed without moving. When I first got up, I had no muscles left at all. I had lost eight, nine kilograms of muscle mass. It was a very difficult moment.’
Such struggles might have forced some other people into retirement, but Simoncini fought back from that adversity. ‘When I finally got out of bed, I worked hard to recover,’ he said. ‘In the summer of 2006 I started with my first training session. Nothing too serious. Just to get the feeling a bit.’ Barely a few months later, and a year and a half after the accident, he took his place in the San Marino goal for the first time at the raw age of 19. For a man so young, so inexperienced and so physically fragile, it was a daunting task to be making an international debut.
However, for Simoncini, the task was made all the more difficult given the opposition for that Euro 2008 qualifier in September 2006. It was the (at the time) three-time World Champions and recent World Cup semi-finalists, Germany. ‘We lost 13-0 but that didn’t matter to us.’ Simoncini was just thrilled to be playing and representing his country. ‘Even though I had to pick the ball out of the net thirteen times, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I put behind me eighteen months of agony. After being told I might not play again, to be part of such a game was simply unforgettable.’
In spite of his long-term injury lay off, he did still make some inroads towards the professional game in Italy without ever quite reaching the promised land. He made it onto Serie A side Cesena’s book for the 2011–12 season. However, he was only their third-choice goalkeeper and never took the field in the big league. He now plays for AC Libertas in San Marino’s decidedly amateur league against a hotchpotch of local triers. And yet, one shouldn’t forget that he has come face to face with some of the biggest names in the sport at the international level. It’s as if his San Marino citizenship has given Simoncini a passport into a world that doesn’t belong to him—facing the elite of the world game, if not quite as equals, then at least as competitors on the same field.
It’s a world that excites him and one he relishes having even brief contact with. ‘To play against the biggest players in the world is fascinating. We are amateurs, yet we have the opportunity to meet the best players in the world, it’s fantastic.’ As if to emphasize the chasm between the world inhabited by Simoncini and that of his vaunted opponents, he once chose to miss a qualifying match in Ukraine in order to study for an impending accountancy exam.
It’s an odd feeling for a footballer to go into most matches certain of the outcome, and not in a positive way. It requires a certain attitude and strength of character that San Marino’s players have learned to develop over the years. For Simoncini, in particular, as the goalkeeper picking the ball out of his net time and time again, that strength of character must (by necessity) be even more marked. As the man himself said, ‘A San Marino player must have a lot of heart and be willing to suffer.’ San Marino has only won once in its 27 years as a member of FIFA, and conceded goals with alarming regularity. Being a football minnow among Europe’s sharks is a tough existence.
‘We are aware of the difference between our team and our opponents,’ he added. ‘But we never take the field to lose. What is crucial is not to let yourself down when you concede the first goal. You have to maintain the nil-nil as long as you can. A beautiful save can cheer you up.’ In his years as goalkeeper for the team consistently ranked as the worst in the world, he has made plenty of saves to provide him with some brief cheer.
And yet no matter how numerous or impressive his saves are, it must ultimately be slightly soul-destroying seeing your best efforts at stemming an onrushing tide frequently come to nought. ‘I get frustrated from time to time,’ Simoncini admitted. ‘Nobody wants to lose in football, even less by big scores. But we know very well that some opponents are simply out of reach for us. Let’s be honest here, losing by six, seven, eight goals isn’t pleasing for anyone. Not even for me. When I notice that the others go four times faster than us, it pisses me off.’
The San Marino players are, save for a couple of rare exceptions, all amateurs with full-time jobs. Along with Simoncini the accountant, there are shop workers, clerks, factory workers, students, and olive salesmen. There are also one or two earning a living from the game, whether by coaching or by playing in Italy’s lower leagues. The team has no wealthy prima donnas and doesn’t have many football-related luxuries. It just has a group of players representing their country with pride, and training in the evenings after work in their spare time.
The San Marino players are, save for a couple of rare exceptions, all amateurs with full-time jobs. Along with Simoncini the accountant, there are shop workers, clerks, factory workers, students, and olive salesmen.
Just how do they cope with the mental toll of all those defeats, and having to dust themselves off ready to go to work the next day? ‘The most important job in San Marino is the psychological state of the players,’ said the former national team coach Giampaolo Mazza, who, after having led San Marino for over 15 years, was once the longest serving national manager in Europe. ‘Our players know we will have negative results. So it is important to reconstruct the spirit the day after the game so they can go back to their jobs.’ He was constantly preparing his team to try and limit their defeats as much as possible, both to avoid on-field humiliation and to limit the damage to the players’ mental state. ‘For us, the positive remains the satisfaction of playing famous teams from all around the world,’ he continued. ‘Usually it’s teams we only see on TV and they’re pretty famous. We don’t feel defeated every time we play with the team; we try and get good results even though we know it’s impossible.’
Other than being on the receiving end of regular heavy defeats, Simoncini has claimed another unwanted record in his spell in international football (still related to goals conceded, naturally). Along with his twin brother Davide, Aldo Simoncini is part of the only brother combo to have both scored an own goal in the same international match. This deed of particular notoriety came against Sweden in 2010, another in the long line of bruising losses.
‘A professional player wouldn’t be able to tolerate a series of similar defeats—he would surely collapse,’ said Simoncini of the mental toll in a perennially outclassed team. ‘I live it all like it’s a dream, and I put all my effort into it; for me it’s a privilege, and all the matches I’ve played have been a great life experience for me.’ That is a feeling sometimes enhanced by his illustrious opponents. Of England, a regular opponent in recent campaigns, Simoncini commented, ‘They are real gentlemen and they made us feel like we were on the same level.’ And even that big moody genius Zlatan Ibrahimovic was similarly encouraging. Simoncini recalled an incident from another clash with Sweden: ‘One of my teammates asked him to avoid pounding us because we were playing poorly. He said, “Don’t you dare see it that way, just focus on giving it your best shot.” We lost 5-0, but at the end of the match, Zlatan came over to congratulate me.’
In all of his appearances for the national team, Simoncini had known nothing but defeat. He’d been a part of teams that had come close, but had experienced neither victory nor parity in international football in over forty appearances. That would all change in a European Championship qualifier with Estonia on a dark, rain-soaked evening in November 2014. San Marino’s players took to the field in their distinctly provincial-looking national stadium, facing, as they always do, a far higher-ranked opponent. Estonia had beaten Norway just days before, and were understandably confident.
Local optimism from the Sammarinese towards their luckless team was in short supply. The damp atmosphere was suitably soporific as all present knew what they expected to happen—the same thing that had happened on each of the previous 70 times San Marino had played.
However, with only minutes remaining, it was still goalless and San Marino’s hapless band of intrepid footballers stood on the brink of history. Estonia, desperate and dishevelled, crafted two last-gasp opportunities which threatened to spoil to San Marino party. Both were missed. As the final whistle blew moments later, the soaked San Marino players, to a man a study in expressions of disbelief, suddenly found previously hidden energy reserves as the celebrations began.
The man they all ran towards, the man who had done more than any other to achieve this modest success, stood at the goal with his arms aloft and his face raised to the night sky above. It was as though the driving rain was washing away all that had gone before: all those beatings, all those goals conceded, all that pain and humiliation. Aldo Simoncini had made a string of fine saves throughout the game to keep the Estonians at bay and claim San Marino’s third-ever clean sheet. Simoncini had become a national hero. It was a step into the unknown but was, he noted, ‘an incredible feeling.’
4. Talking Baws