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Beers and pizza for 1st San Marino goal in 5 years

September 11, 2013

Alessandro Della Valle was back in his office at a ceramics retailer on Wednesday, his international football career a little less unsung.

The night before, he’d scored the first goal in five long years for tiny San Marino, a punch bag of European football.

The 2014 World Cup qualifier against Poland ended as they almost always do for the speck of a republic — with a loss. Only, for once, the score wasn’t something massive to nil.

With his first-half header from a free kick, Della Valle made the final score a somewhat less embarrassing 5-1, earning the amateur player the admiration of co-workers when he rolled back into the office.

“They welcomed me like a national hero. It was strange,” he said in a phone interview.

Landlocked San Marino sits atop a hill in central Italy near Rimini and the Adriatic coast. It has a population of only 32,000, with just 1,586 of them registered as footballers, according to governing body FIFA.

Along with the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands east of Cuba, San Marino sits at the very bottom of FIFA’s world rankings.

Mirko Palazzi is the only professional player on the otherwise completely amateur team that lost to Poland, said Alan Gasperoni, who volunteers his spare time to act as the team’s press officer.

San Marino has never won a competitive encounter. Its only victory, 1-0 against Liechtenstein in 2004, was in a friendly.

Della Valle’s goal was his first for the national team, only the 15th ever for San Marino in official competition, and the first since Andy Selva scored in a 3-1 loss to Slovakia in 2010 World Cup qualifying.

“Just scoring at all for our team is a dream, but for a defender it’s something nearly unimaginable. So it was incredible,” said the 31-year-old.

His joy was short-lived. Poland captain Jakub Blaszczykowski put his team back ahead just one minute after Della Valle leveled the score at 1-1.

But after the match, Della Valle’s equalizer ensured the beer and pizza shared by the San Marino team went down a little easier.

Another European lightweight, Luxembourg, had an even better night Tuesday, with a 3-2 win over Northern Ireland, 31 places above it in FIFA’s rankings.

San Marino is rock-bottom of its European qualifying group Group H, with eight losses in as many games. But thanks to Della Valle, its goal difference is now marginally less horrific: 1 goal scored, with 43 conceded.

He scored one of those, too — an own goal that got England rolling to its 8-0 spanking of San Marino in March. Della Valle also had the thrill of captaining San Marino before a crowd of 86,000 at Wembley last October. England — which leads the group with 16 points — won that game 5-0.

“When you walk out first at Wembley and there are 85,000 fans it’s something that takes your breath away and for the first 15 minutes your head is swirling,” he said. Tuesday’s goal “was more an explosion of joy.”

Della Valle dedicated the goal to Federico Crescentini, his former San Marino teammate who drowned at age 24 while vacationing in Mexico in 2006, said Gasperoni.

San Marino next plays Moldova away and then receives Ukraine, co-host of the 2012 European Championship with Poland. Ukraine won 9-0 when San Marino traveled to Lviv last week.

But just as every dog dreams of having its day, San Marino clings to the hope that it will win a competitive match eventually. San Marino’s Under-21 team led the way with a 1-0 win against Wales in European qualifying this month. That was the first competitive victory for any San Marino national team since its Under-17s beat Andorra 2-1 in 2002.

“We can’t think to win against Poland, Ukraine, England, the Netherlands, big, big teams,” said Gasperoni. “But in Europe, there are also small teams and if we play against Malta, Armenia, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, probably we can win.”


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed.

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