Aldo Simoncini is a man used to conceding goals in great numbers. Since making his international debut for San Marino in 2006 he’s been a constant his national team for much of the 12 years since, in what must be one of international football’s most thankless tasks.
But there is more to Simoncini’s tale than merely being the hapless and frequently beaten man between the San Marino sticks. As a highly rated teenager he had played for Modena in Italy’s Serie B, a level that only one Sammarinese has ever exceeded: the 1985 European Cup winning Massimo Bonini of Juventus. In Modena, the young Simoncini harboured dreams of making it to Serie A, but fate had other plans in store.
In 2005, aged 18, he was involved in a serious car accident after which he was unsure of even walking normally again, let alone play football at a higher level. He shattered his left pelvis and elbow and spent many months in hospital recuperating. “My life was in danger. I was told I might not be able to play football ever again,” he later recalled in a BBC interview. 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.”
Such struggles might have forced some other people into retirement, but Simoncini fought back from that adversity, returning to limited training the following summer. 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, inexperienced and physically fragile, to be making an international debut was difficult enough. But for Simoncini, the task was made tougher still given the opposition for that Euro 2008 qualifier was 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 13 times, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I put behind me 18 months of agony. After being told I might not play again, to be part of such a game was simply unforgettable.”
Back in the club game he did still make some inroads towards the professional levels in Italy without ever quite reaching the promised land. He made it onto Serie A side Cesena’s books for the 2011/12 season though he was only their third-choice goalkeeper and never took the field in the big league. He now plays for Tre Fiori in San Marino’s decidedly amateur league against a hotchpotch of local triers. And yet at international level he has come face to face with some of the biggest names in the sport. He’s frequently on a hiding to nothing of course, but his San Marino citizenship has given Simoncini a passport into a world that doesn’t belong to him. He faces 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 emphasise the chasm between the world inhabited by Simoncini and that of his vaunted opponents, he once chose to miss a qualifying match in Ukraine to study for an impending accountancy exam.
It’s an odd feeling for a footballer to go into most matches certain of a negative outcome. It requires a strength of character that San Marino’s players have learned to develop over the years. For Simoncini 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. You have to maintain the nil-nil as long as you can. A beautiful save can cheer you up.”
And yet no matter how numerous or impressive his saves are, it must ultimately be 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. When I notice that the others go four times faster than us, it pisses me off.”
This is, of course, the reality for a team of part-timers. San Marino must make the best of a group of players who train in the evenings after work in their spare time but represent their country with pride. “A professional player wouldn’t be able to tolerate a series of similar defeats – he would surely collapse,” said Simoncini of the mental toll of 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.”
And yet in his appearances for the national team, Simoncini had for years 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. That would all change in a European Championship qualifier with Estonia on a dark, rain-soaked evening in November 2014. As they always do, San Marino’s players were facing 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 atmosphere, as damp as the autumnal air, 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.
But, with only minutes remaining, it was still goalless, and San Marino’s band of intrepid footballers stood on the brink of history. Estonia crafted two late, desperate opportunities which threatened to spoil to San Marino’s 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, was stood in his goalmouth 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. Aldo Simoncini had made a string of fine saves throughout the game to keep the Estonians at bay and claim only San Marino’s third ever clean sheet. He’d become a national hero. It was a step into the unknown but was, he noted, “an incredible feeling.”
Part of our Number Ones series