The Andorra Challenge: Rodrigo's long-playing concerto

Minnows have little chance but pride is all
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The Independent Online

David Rodrigo is a 37-year-old with a degree in physical education. Looking at his tracksuit and his round, unlined face, the jowls just beginning to droop, you might guess that he was a PE teacher at a comfortable provincial school.

There are certainly none of the signs of stress that would mark him out as a top-class football manager. The cruel may point out that, as he coaches Andorra, he actually is not strictly top-class, but it says much for his achievements that he has been in the job since 1999, making him the third-longest serving international coach in European football (Lars Lagerback of Sweden and San Marino's Giampaolo Mazza, since you ask).

Earlier this year, Rodrigo signed a four-year contract extension, indicating the esteem in which he is held within the Andorran football community. That is understandable, for in his seven years in charge he has overseen a distinct improvement in And-orra's fortunes. "I know to foreign eyes our statistics don't look good, with three wins in six years and more than 30 defeats, but for a small country we do a praiseworthy job," he said. "But if we're lucky enough to get some more points and continue growing, we will be getting somewhere."

To have got any points in qualifying for major tournaments represents progress. In his first match in charge, they embarrassed France, holding out for 86 minutes only to go down to a Franck Leboeuf penalty, but they still ended the campaign for Euro 2000 with 10 defeats out of 10 and a goal difference of minus 25. They then lost every game in attempting to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, but there was a sense, as Rodrigo introduced a reserve team and tightened the defence, that things were becoming increasingly organised.

And then, on 13 October 2004, in the qualifiers for this summer's World Cup, came the breakthrough. Macedonia had held Holland to a draw four days earlier, but in the tiny Estadio Comunal amid the hills and chalets of Andorra la Vella, they were beaten by a single goal.

"For Andorra to win, a special set of circumstances have to occur," Rodrigo said. "First, we have to play to 100 per cent of our ability; second, our rivals have to be overconfident; and third, we need a bit of luck." Goalless draws followed, away to the Macedonians in Skopje and then at home against Finland.

Yet amid the euphoria, that victory also encapsulates Rodrigo's problems. For a start, only 116 people - the smallest recorded crowd at a World Cup qualifier - turned up. Andorra admittedly has a population of only 60,000, but that is still a show of exceptional disinterest.

More practically, their one goal that day was scored by Marc Bernaus, who took a long throw down in his chest and volleyed in from the edge of the box. The midfielder was once on the books of Barcelona, and is by some distance Andorra's most technically accomplished player, but he will not line up against England next week. He now plays for Elche, and his contract with the Spanish second division side stipulates that if domestic and international fixtures clash, the club take precedence. Andorra's one other professional of note - their all-time leading scorer with four goals - is Ildefons Lima. Although he was much derided for a brief attempt to play at centre-forward, he has carved out a role as a combative central defender with Triestina in Serie B, but he will be missing against England, suspended after being sent off for spitting in the final World Cup qualifier.

So Rodrigo is approaching Saturday's meeting with under-standable caution. "It's a massive game for us and a great experience," he said. "If you say England, you think of football. They are one of the strongest teams in the world. There are a lot of differences between us. They have hundreds of ways of winning a game and we have only a few, but if we start well, you know that the differences get smaller the longer the game goes on."

Steve McClaren should never have to find out.

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