Nineteen years ago, when San Marino last played at Wembley, their captain was Massimo Bonini. He was 33 by then, his career winding to a close after seven years at Juventus and a further four at Bologna, but the thrill of international football was still fresh: San Marino had become a full member of Uefa only in 1990. If anybody ever asks whether San Marino really merits a national team, point them in the direction of Bonini.
He was one of the finest midfielders of his generation. At Juventus, he played alongside Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi and Zbigniew Boniek and won Scudetti, a European Cup, a Cup-Winners' Cup and a World Club Championship. He played for Italy's Under-21 side and was repeatedly asked to play for the full national side. Each time the call came, though, he turned it down: he was San Marinese and wanted to play for San Marino.
For all his national pride, though, Bonini has no illusions about San Marino's status or what they might achieve against England. "We have to consider that basically every San Marino player is a non-league footballer, so they crave to play on one of these famous stages," he said. "Playing at Wembley is possibly the best thing they are going to experience in their lives if you consider that many players in Serie A can only dream of playing there.
"We have to consider that San Marino has a population of no more than 30,000 and every player leads another professional life that comes before football. They normally train at night. All this hinders any hope of being able to snatch a good result. Emotions will run high but we should all consider that playing in London must be a good advertisement for our country and tourism."
His excitement at the prospect isn't hard to make out; is he, then, jealous of the younger generation who will run out on Friday? "Jealous of what?" he asked. "I've played at the real Wembley and that's just incomparable, to be honest. This new Wembley is fascinating, huge, that's for sure. But it still has to struggle for many years if it wants to match the appeal and history of the other one.
"But even so, I think that playing in England is always fantastic for any footballer. English fans are my favourites. That day at Wembley we lost, of course, and I remember there were only 50 or so away fans. England were really impressive. They never gave up attacking. That's what English football is about after all. People are there to enjoy themselves."
It is a surprising endorsement, given Bonini also experienced the worst of English fans. He was in the Juventus side that faced Liverpool in the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel and remains so distressed by what he witnessed as 39 fans were killed as a wall collapsed amid rioting that he refuses to count his team's victory that night among his honours. "It was just senseless. I just couldn't celebrate," he said.
Bonini was at Stamford Bridge to see his former club draw 2-2 with Chelsea in the Champions League last month and believes he could return to London to see Juventus in the Champions League final at Wembley. "There are three or four teams who on paper are stronger than Juventus but, as Chelsea themselves showed last season, it's not always the stronger side that wins," he said.
For now, though, his focus is on his national side and very different expectations. "San Marino have good endurance for the first 45 minutes," he said. "They then collapse after an hour or so but that's normal when you are not a professional. The most important thing is to see this side play some football, not just defend but try to play somehow. But they don't have much choice, do they?"
Additional reporting by Federico Farcomeni
San Marino: The squad and their jobs
(GK) A Simoncini 26, accountant.
(GK) F Valentini 30, bank clerk.
(D) S Bacciocchi 35, office worker.
(D) G Bollini 32, owns removal company.
(D) C Brolli 20, student.
(D) A Della Valle 30, bank clerk.
(D) M Palazzi 25, pro footballer for Rimini Calcio in Italian fourth tier.
(D) D Simoncini 26, accountant.
(D) D Vannucci 35, gym owner.
(D) F Vitaioli 28, co-owns a bar with brother, Matteo, the midfielder.
(M) L Buscarini 21, student.
(M) M Cervellini 24, student.
(M) E Cibelli 25, barman.
(M) M Coppini 23, works for olive oil company.
(M) A Gasperoni 28, owns lighting company.
(M) P F Mazza 24, student.
(M) M Vitaioli 22, co-owns a bar.
(F) M Marani 28, works for a soft drinks company.
(F) A Selva 36, plays for non-league Italian side Fidene.
(F) D Rinaldi 26, works for a furniture company.Reuse content