San Marino have scored only one competitive goal in front of their own supporters in the last 11 years. And Massimo Visemoli missed it.
Visemoli has been to almost every San Marino home game since the beginning of 2013, but when Poland came to town for a World Cup qualifier in September of that year, circumstances meant that he was watching from his sofa at home when Alessandro Della Valle struck in the 22nd minute to cancel out Piotr Zielinski's opener for the Poles.
It didn't matter that Poland ended up cantering to a 5-1 victory. Della Valle's effort—a header from a right-wing free-kick—was the first competitive goal that San Marino had scored in five years, and it sparked scenes of joyous celebration at Serravalle's diminutive Stadio Olimpico. When your team scores goals at a rate of six per decade, you don't want to miss one.
"I've never seen my team score a goal," Visemoli says ruefully. "The only ones they've scored were away. The only one at home, in 2013, was in the only game in six years that I missed. Maybe I'm just unlucky."
Visemoli, 35, hails from a village 175 kilometres away from San Marino in the Italian province of Modena. He had no personal connection to the tiny microstate, which has a population of just 33,000, but became captivated by the romanticism of the national team's attempts to compete with Europe's grandest sides during the 1990s. "During the day they had to work as accountants or builders or barmen and during the evening, they'd be playing England or Germany, against the biggest players in Europe," he explains.
Along with a group of fellow San Marino sympathisers, Visemoli set up a fan group in 2012 and christened it the Brigata Mai Una Gioia ("The Never One Joy Brigade") in a self-deprecating nod to the grim existence of following a side that is currently ranked 209th and joint-last in the FIFA world ranking. The group has over 200 members, but generally only 10 or 11 people attend matches at a time. Massed behind their blue-and-white group banner, they valiantly cheer on a team that has lost 157 of the 162 games it has ever contested.
Romed Hasler can sympathise with their predicament. A devoted fan of the Liechtenstein national team (currently 181st in the FIFA rankings), he has travelled "all over Europe" watching his side since the late 1990s and has seen them emerge victorious on only a handful of occasions.
Another microstate, located in Alpine central Europe, Liechtenstein has a population comparable to San Marino's (38,000), which can make following the national team a bit of a lonely affair. Hasler has watched games in a whole host of countries—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Slovakia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Portugal, Northern Ireland—and has very often been one of only two or three Liechtenstein supporters (if not fewer) in attendance.
"If we have a game against [North] Macedonia or somewhere like that, you'll probably be the only one there," he says. "That's quite regular. One time I went to Gibraltar with a friend, and we were the only two people there."
Hasler, who was born in Liechtenstein but now lives in Switzerland, has seen more than his fair share of heavy defeats. A 7-0 loss away to Slovakia in September 2004 ("brutal") and a record 11-1 home defeat by then-Macedonia in November 1996 ("really brutal") stand out in particularly sharp relief in his memory. But when your team can sometimes go years without tasting victory, it is the near-misses, rather than the utter annihilations, that really sting.
Hasler, 35, vividly recalls two occasions when Liechtenstein came within seconds of securing famous draws—away to Scotland in September 2010 and away to neighbours Switzerland in June 2004—only to concede stoppage-time winners in both matches (in the case of the Scotland game, a face-saving 97th-minute header by Stephen McManus for the hosts).
Terrence Jolley, a Gibraltar fan, once saw his team ship seven unanswered goals in a Euro 2016 qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, but he says a 1-0 loss to the same opponents on home soil earlier this year was harder to stomach because "we didn't deserve to lose."
As the chairman of the Faroe Islands' Skansin supporters' group, Johan Asmundsson has witnessed his team take beatings from the great and good of European football for decades, yet when he is asked to single out his most painful recent memory, he opts for a 2-1 loss to fellow minnows Malta in Euro 2020 qualifying last March. "That one against Malta was the worst in a long time," he says.
The flip side of supporting a team that loses the vast majority of its matches is that when things unexpectedly go well, the rarity of such moments makes them all the more special.
When San Marino claimed a goalless draw at home to Estonia in a Euro 2016 qualifier in November 2014—the first time in 10 years that the team had avoided defeat in a game—the players invited Visemoli and his fellow fans to join them for a party at a nearby bar.
"The best moment ever was the draw against Estonia," Visemoli says. "We finished the night with the players getting boozed in a bar in San Marino. It was a big point to celebrate, and we drank every bottle in the bar."
In a FIFA World Cup qualifying match in the Portuguese city of Aveiro in October 2005, Liechtenstein took a shock first-half lead against a Portugal team containing Cristiano Ronaldo, Pauleta and Luis Figo. Liechtenstein had already held Portugal—beaten UEFA European Championship finalists in 2004—to a 2-2 draw on home turf, and when midfielder Benjamin Fischer, then of FC Vaduz, exploited a defensive mix-up to give his side a 32nd-minute advantage in the return fixture, Hasler was unable to contain himself.
"I was so full of ecstasy in my body," he says. "I was jumping on the seat and after a few seconds I was still screaming. Then I realised I couldn't hear my voice anymore, because I was so shocked. It was the most emotional moment I've ever had inside a sports stadium. It was just amazing."
Portugal ended up winning the game 2-1, which secured their spot at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but for Hasler and the three other Liechtenstein supporters alongside him—his father and cousin and the father of goalkeeper Peter Jehle—Fischer's goal was a moment they would never forget.
Ultimately, when you support one of the world's smallest international minnows, the only thing that you can realistically hope for is that your players give their all on the pitch and that if the opportunity to claim an improbable result presents itself, they have the wherewithal to take it.
"Three years ago, we lost 6-0 to Portugal," says Faroe Islands fan Asmundsson, a 40-year-old carpenter from Torshavn. "You don't know for sure, but you know it's going to be more than difficult to win that game. What excites me is to see the players go 150 per cent into the match to make the result as good as possible."
Jolley, 49, can recall early iterations of the Gibraltar national team playing exhibition matches on a gravel pitch against teams representing the British army, navy and air force. He says the day in May 2013 when the British overseas territory finally became a full member of UEFA was "like winning the lottery." Gibraltar have been dealt some sizeable defeats over the six years since—9-0 against Belgium, 8-1 against Poland, 7-0 against Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Germany—but memories of the long quest for international recognition mean the team's fans have remained steadfast in their support.
"We know we're going to lose," says Jolley, whose son, Ethan, plays for Gibraltar. "We know we're not going to beat the likes of Denmark and Switzerland and England. But the fans back the team 100 per cent."
San Marino supporter Visemoli is similarly sanguine and says the years of disappointment have inured him to the pain of failure.
"I'm not afraid to lose 8-0, 9-0, 10-0, 11-0," he says. "Because if I lose 12-0 or I lose 1-0, I lose. You don't get more points for just losing 1-0. So it doesn't make any difference."
As much as fans of Europe's minor football nations have become wearily accustomed to losing, the arrival of the UEFA Nations League, with its competitively stratified divisions and chance of reaching a qualifying play-off, offers hope that better days may yet lie ahead.
"Before, our only aim was to score a goal or win a point," says Liechtenstein fan Hasler. "Now it's realistic to go to a tournament. It's hard, but it's possible, and before it was just impossible. It was a fantasy and nothing more."
Liechtenstein or San Marino at a major international tournament? That really would be something not to miss.