Football / International: Hill-top ambassadors playing for pride: San Marino's students, painters and bus drivers take the worst record in international football to Wembley tonight. Henry Winter reports

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OF ALL the team selections ever made, Massimo Bonini's decision to represent the amateurs of San Marino rather than the Azzurri of Italy must rank as one of the more curious.

Bonini, Michel Platini's leg- man in that inventive Juventus side of the mid-1980s, has dual nationality like all those born in the tiny hill-top republic 60 miles east of Florence. After appearing for Italy's Under-21s and looking set for eventual selection for the senior side, Bonini chose to play for San Marino - even though the limit of their international endeavours then were friendlies.

The footballers of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino were recognised by Fifa and Uefa in 1988 (four years before the UN acknowledged the world's oldest republic) and began their collection of cricket and tennis-score defeats during qualifying for the last European Championships.

But Bonini, whose serious demeanour is frequently lost behind a warming smile, has no regrets about sticking to a country whose best result is a goalless draw with the Lebanon in 1987. 'I had the luck of playing for Juventus all over the world,' said the 33-year- old midfielder who now makes his living with Bologna in Serie B. 'More than I would with the Italian national team.'

Sammarinese footballers are unlikely to see the world - except as tourists - but they are fiercely proud of their rocky mountain hideout. Praised by Napoleon and bombed by the Allies, San Marino, with its medieval architecture and panoramic views towards the Adriatic, has fostered a strong national spirit, which will be their only asset against England's professionals tonight. 'I was born in San Marino so I must play for them,' the team's captain said.

Bonini played against Scotland in the European qualifiers (2-0 and 4-0 defeats) but has not encountered English opposition since 1985 and Juve's European Cup final victory over Liverpool. At Heysel. 'Tragic,' he said.

All the 100-strong party of players, officials and supporters know they will lose tonight. 'The score does not matter but we must try to make if difficult for the other team,' Bonini said.

Bonini is the only one capable of doing just that. The fair-haired professional is held in awe by San Marino's assortment of students, decorators and coach drivers, most of whom would struggle to make the grade at Yeading, the west London Diadora League club where they trained on Monday night.

'Bonini is very important for us because when he is with us it lifts us,' William Guerra, the 24-year- old sweeper and student of political sciences, said. 'When he is not with us, we know it.'

Giorgio Leoni, the unpaid manager with the worst record in international football (played 12, lost 12), calls Bonini his 'orchestrator', adding: 'He is very important to the other little guys with no experience.'

Leoni, a small, unassuming individual who works for the state's philatelic department which generates a 10th of the national income, must be the only coach in Europe who does his spying from his living room. 'I have never seen England before - except on videotapes,' the 42-year-old said.

Although Bonini is a national hero in the nine 'Castles' that make up the world's smallest republic, Leoni's team are considered a joke. 'They want to know why we are travelling around Europe on their money and losing,' the physio, Giovanni Ragini, said.

The hill-top bookmakers are taking plenty of bets on Leoni's men losing 7-0. Even here, where the oddsmakers are less generous, San Marino have the longest odds of any football team ever (in one case 80-1). 'If we win we would stay here for two months drinking your famous beer,' Ragini added.

Leoni loves the challenge. His own career was cut short by a horrific accident - 'I crashed heads with another player' - and since then he has concentrated on providing stamps and goals for overseas collectors. In three years he has watched his coach-driving goalkeeper, the affable Pierluigi Benedettini, concede 53 goals in 12 games, the worst being the 10-0 humiliation in Norway. What drives Leoni on? 'It is the most beautiful way to show the flag of San Marino around Europe,' he answered.

Recent qualifiers have seen some improvement, undermining Fifa's proposal of preliminary rounds. Norway were restricted to two goals while Turkey were being held 1-1 with four minutes left in Ankara. Sadly, Benedettini had 'some problems', according to one player, and let in three.

The way the man from Today was tucking penalties past Benedettini at Yeading, England should have a field day. But first Gazza and Co have to bypass Bonini and his wall of players because Leoni's tactics are simple - 'We work on our players psychologically, play defensively and don't go over the half-way line.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAN MARINO ----------------------------------------------------------------- Founded: 301AD Population: 23,676 Potted history: occupied by Borgias and a cardinal (briefly); ignored by Napoleon; fought with Allies (WWI); fought against Allies (WWII); admitted to UN 1992 Flag: two equal horizontal stripes of white and light blue Aids cases: one Unemployed: none Most unique public holidays: Fall of Fascism (28 July), Investiture of the new Captains-Regent (1 April) Embassies: Holy See; Italy Diplomatic relations: China, Iceland Industries: stamps, mines, cement, synthetic rubber, farming, tourism Greatest sporting moment: fifth place in shooting at 1984 Los Angeles Olympics FA founded: 1931 Footballers: 1,033 Pitches: 11 Clubs: 17 Record under Georgio Leoni: P 12, W 0, D 0, L 12, For 2, Against 53 All-time record goalscorers: Nicola Bacchiochi (one); Waldes Pasolini (one) -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)