A Heartbreaking Interview with San Marino's Goalkeeper
Aldo Simoncini's career is a striking example of human endurance.
From the hundred spectators on the Borgo Maggiore sports field, to Wembley's 90,000, Aldo Simoncini's life is a paradox. You've probably never heard of him before but his career in football is a striking example of human endurance.
A Computer Science student from the University of Cesena, in Italy, Aldo is also the goalkeeper of the San Marino national football team, which currently sits "proudly" at the bottom of FIFA's rankings, along with Bhutan.
Football players from small countries like San Marino rarely get to compete in professional leagues, and in the context of European football they function more as a buffer against whom you can't really lose, a little pride and points boost for the rest of the continent's footballing nations. For Aldo, though, being born in a country that finds it hard to put a team out because of its small population (32,538) has allowed him to confront the world's best professional players.
A few weeks ago, he played at Wembley for the Euro 2016 qualifier against England, and despite the five goals he didn't manage to stop, he made a really good impression. I met him a few days before the match in his hometown and asked him to weigh in on the concept of "defeat".
Aldo has played 40 games with San Marino, and yet he's never seen seen his team win or draw. San Marino concede an average of 4.33 goals a game (537 in 124 matches to be exact), but they also still hold a record for the fastest goal in World Cup Qualifying history (against England, in a match that ended 7-1).
Even if picking the ball out of the back of the net again and again can be a thankless task, Aldo is a national symbol and he won't leave the team at least until they win a game. The last victory – a historic defeat of Liechtenstein in a friendly match – dates back to 28 April, 2004. The only one in 27 years.
We meet in front of Palazzo Pubblico in the City of San Marino. The small Republic is flooded with Russian tourists in a shopping frenzy, gobbling up furs, perfumes and handbags.
Aldo is tall and robust. He's innocent in the way college students are sometimes. We take a few pictures and start chatting – I let him explain the story behind his involvement in the national team. It was 6 September 2006 and San Marino were playing against Germany.
"I was 19 years old and it was the first time I was playing after a terrible car accident. I wasn't even sure I'd be able to play ever again. We lost 13-0, but that didn't matter to us..."
Being San Marino's goalkeeper is more like target shooting than football: Aldo's conceded 120 goals guarding his country's net. How daunting is it to start a match hopelessly defeated? "Let's be honest here, losing by 6,7,8 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."
"We are aware of the difference between our team and our opponents, 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."
Aldo, now immune to the depression that comes with defeat, is able to value the positive side of things: "A professional player wouldn't be able to tolerate a series of similar defeats – he would surely collapse. 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."
He certainly can't be blamed. Aldo is a normal guy in extraordinary circumstances. He's come into contact with a world that doesn't belong to him. He's come close elsewhere though: in the 2011/2012 season, he was the third goalkeeper for Cesena, in Serie A. "I also played for Riccione, Bellaria and I've also been the third goalkeeper in Serie A in 2011/2012, without ever taking the field. I've never had a chance in the football teams that truly count, and although I play against people like Van Persie and Rooney, I've never been signed to teams that play in professional leagues. If this is not a paradox, I don't know what is."
When looking at other goalkeepers, he often asks himself, "What would my life be if I'd been more lucky, if I was given the chance to get involved at very high levels". He says this and plays nervously with a plastic water bottle left on the table.
I wonder if the regret of not making it to the top-level is renewed each time he takes the field to compete against professional millionaires. I also wonder if there is some sort of torture, as well as fortune involved in this act. I ask him what the difficulties of interacting with the world of real football are.
"Unfortunately, I don't believe that the referees take us seriously. They whistle just as if the result was a formality, and it's really irritating." It can also happen that the opponents don't show any respect. "My teammates told me that the Ukrainian national team mocked them, cheering for their 8-0 victory. It's humiliating, especially because they only do it to us because we are the weakest ones. I didn't even understand the 13 goals that Germany put past us – it is one thing to honour the commitment, it is another thing to punish us like that."
It's a negative exception, fortunately. "The approach of other national teams is different. One of them is England: they are real gentlemen and they made us feel like we were on the same level." Aldo proudly shows us a picture with Joe Hart. "I also used it as my Facebook profile picture," he says.
And the same goes for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. During a game against 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 San Marino, far away from the 90,000 people you get at Wembley, things can be really different. "We have a few fans that follow us, and when we play at home they come to support us."
"It is certainly not comparable to the great European nations, and 90 percent of our stadium is occupied by the other team's supporters. When I play for my club, Libertas, there are rarely more than a hundred fans. In the final play-offs a maximum of 250-300 people show up."
Aldo Simoncini is a man who can, in the same sentence, recall a match against Prandelli's Italy (where he swapped his shirt with Gianluigi Buffon) and a match against an ordinary Sunday Football league team, played the week after.
In Europe, it comes quite naturally to empathise with a team that faces every game knowing the outcome of the match. "Sometimes, after the game, the supporters chant 'San Marino! San Marino!', and they want to take pictures with us or get our autographs as if we were real celebrities. I even sent my jersey to a kid from Greece. Nobody pays us to play: We do it patriotically and Europe understands this."
Still, his career grants him a few benefits: "Once during an exam I was recognised by my professor," he says. "I hadn't studied at all, and he still gave me a mark of 24/30. Let's say I was very lucky." He shares another episode of his college life: "On 9 September, 2013, I was supposed to go to Lviv to play against Ukraine [the match ended 9-0], but I stayed home to study algebra and geometry. I know that it's hard to imagine a goalkeeper of a European national team ditching a match just to prepare for an exam. But I passed with a good grade."
The ability to remain so focused is not an obvious outcome. Aldo knows his place. "I'd give up any exam to play in Wembley," he adds, "but the most important thing for me now is to graduate. I will start looking for a job way before the big day."
In other words, he has learned how to handle the whole thing. All he can do now is try and enjoy it. "I know I'm privileged. I know many goalkeepers in the Premier League would wish to be in my position."
"And how do they see you in San Marino"? I ask him, assuming that, at least in his hometown, he's known a bit of glory. "Half of the people of San Marino can't wait for another heavy defeat. We don't give up and we always try to give our best performance in order to shut up the critics."
"In Sarajevo we were almost part of a historic qualification. In Bulgaria, local supporters surprised us by giving us their scarves. And just a few weeks before they had almost set their stadium on fire!"
At this point, he says goodbye. I wish him good luck for the match against England, and he thanks me. "I hope that this interview doesn't bring me bad luck. The match will be aired on TV and all my friends will see it."
I watch him walk away and stand still for a moment to ponder. Aldo Simoncini remains a strangely fascinating character. At the end of the day, he is a goalkeeper like many others: good enough to hope for a career that, in the end, didn't materialise. Yet, despite the concrete truth, there is always that geo-political quirk that makes him special. Even if "special" means taking hoards of goals.
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