San Marino have always been viewed as minnows in the pantheon of world football. However, for twenty minutes on November 17, 1993 they were on top of the world as they took a shock lead against England in a World Cup qualifier held in Italy. England came back to win 7-1, but it was not enough to secure their progress to USA '94 and proved to be the end of Graham Taylor's tenure as manager.
England's history against San Marino has been a favourable one: four games, and an aggregate score of 26-1, with the most recent 8-0 triumph coming in March last year. However back in 1993, after thrashing them 6-0 at Wembley in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, Taylor's side were given a real scare.
England went into the return game needing a minor miracle to qualify. In the same stadium - the Renato Dall'Ara in Bologna - where David Platt had provided late drama against Belgium at Italia '90, they faced San Marino in their final group game; a side who had only ever scored two goals and had claimed just a single draw in their history (against Turkey earlier in 1993) with no wins.
But it was not the opposition that provided the fear, it was the task at hand. A terrible qualifying campaign in which England had lost away in Norway and Holland and drawn against Poland in Chorzow left them needing seven goals and a helping hand from Poland against Netherlands to give them the remotest hope of qualifying for USA '94.
Still, England manager Graham Taylor issued a rallying call ahead of the game: "In 20 years, people will recall this and say 'Do you remember the night when we beat San Marino by seven goals and Poland beat Netherlands to put England into the World Cup Finals. We're making history!" However, despite being described as like ''Henry V at Agincourt'' for his address, Taylor was standing with his fingers crossed, rather than with metaphorical sword in hand when delivering his words.
It was a clear message they would need luck, not skill to progress. He may not have intended it to have been broadcast so obviously through the media, but ultimately it would be his last pre-match teamtalk in charge of his country. Taylor would pay for his failings during the campaign, but was keen to show one last time that perhaps he could be the positive influence that everyone had hoped.
"It's vital to show we care. We have to play with a passion for everyone at home to see," Taylor added. The problem being that no amount of passion could undo their previous results and the idea of an impressive Dutch side losing to Poland (who had lost four of their nine games) was not entertained by the media pre-match.
"Taylor knows this is the foreign field where his England career will almost certainly end," wrote Steve Curry of the Daily Mail.
Nobody could have expected what happened next. The minnows, San Marino, took the lead in a competitive fixture for the first and, at that point, only time in their brief history; England conceded their quickest goal in 702 internationals.
Following the San Marino kick-off, the ball made it through to England defender Stuart Pearce and his under-hit backpass was seized upon by computer clerk Davide Gualtieri, who stabbed it under the advancing David Seaman. The goal was timed at 8.3 seconds. If there had been much of a crowd - there were barely 2,000 spectators in a stadium that normally housed 45,000 - they would have gone wild.
In an interview with the Evening Standard a decade later, Gualtieri revealed: "You know, sometimes if I'm feeling a bit down, I'll play it [the goal] again just to cheer myself up. It always works", while adding: "I'm probably more famous in Scotland. In 1995, we played the Scots here and their fans came wearing T-shirts which said 'Gualtieri - eight seconds'. I was in the Halloween pub in town when some of them found out who I was. They bought me drinks all night and wouldn't let me leave."
It took England another agonising 20 minutes to draw level. "You should have heard the language they used to each other," Gualtieri said later. The equalising goal from Paul Ince was drilled past Pierluigi Benedettini after advantage was played from the referee. The goalkeeper played a part in the second as well as Ian Wright slotted home after he had failed to clear the ball before making a mess of David Platt's limp effort.
If Gualtieri was the hero, Benedettini was quickly becoming the villain as his failure to clear saw the ball fall at the feet of Les Ferdinand and it was rolled into an empty net in the 38th minute. Just before the break, it was 4-1 as Ferdinand turned provider with a cross for Wright's powerful downward header. For once, Benedettini could do nothing.
At half-time, England were in control but, more importantly, it was 1-1 between Netherlands and Poland, which offered them a slim hope. Despite the prospect of an upset, England reached five just as the travelling supporters in Bologna wrapped up a chorus of "We want Taylor out!" with a long ball into the box eventually stabbed home from close range by Wright again.
The Arsenal striker netted his third, after Gary Pallister's pass had been flicked into his path, and fourth, with a classy finish under the hapless Benedettini, late on. 7-1. Each goal from England had seen the players rush to get the ball out of the net and restart as quickly as possible, but the result in Italy was academic.
Netherlands scored twice in the second half in Poland to confirm their place in the USA. Even an eighth goal would not have been enough; the dream was over. Indeed, under the headline 'The victory that meant nothing', Curry wrote: "There was no act of God to provide the miracle for England - just a parable of painful failure as the dream died in the bitter cold of Bologna. The death rattle of a regime was the only thing that could be heard in the echo chamber of the near-empty Renato Dall'Ara stadium."
Even the BBC had given up. A report in the Independent read: "In London, the switchboard at the BBC was jammed with 200 calls from viewers complaining about the decision to stop coverage of the England-San Marino match half an hour before its end, in order to show the Cardiff match. A spokeswoman said that an editorial decision was taken to show the most interesting game at that stage."
Wales, though, lost to Romania 2-1 in Cardiff and their dreams were dashed as well. Graham Taylor's tenure was over as he resigned under significant pressure within the week, but for San Marino it still goes down as perhaps the greatest moment in their history.
What happened next? San Marino still hold the record for the fastest goal in World Cup qualification, but they were unable to make an impression on another tournament despite picking up their first ever win in a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004, which remains their only victory to date. Trying to qualify for Euro 2012, they conceded 53 goals in 10 matches and failed to score once. Their last competitive goal came in the 5-1 World Cup qualifying defeat to Poland in September 2013.
For England, it has been the same old story. After Terry Venables equalled the country's best performance at a European Championships by leading the nation to the semi-finals in 1996, things soon turned sour. Replacement Glenn Hoddle left after England were beaten on penalties by Argentina in a controversial second round game at the 1998 World Cup. Then came the five years of Sven-Göran Eriksson, England's first foreign coach; he led the country to world No.4 and the quarter-finals of the 2002 and 2006 World Cup - and also oversaw the 5-1 victory against Germany in their own back yard.
Eriksson left after the 2006 World Cup and was replaced by Steve McClaren, who was sacked after England failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Fabio Capello followed, but his England side were embarrassed as Germany got revenge with a 4-1 victory in the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup: England's heaviest ever World Cup defeat. Capello resigned in early 2012 before Roy Hodgson was named new manager six weeks before the Euro 2012 Championships; he somehow managed to lead England to the quarter-finals, where they beaten on penalties by eventual runners-up Italy. However, Hodgson's first World Cup in charge two years later was one to be forgotten: England were dumped out at the group stages in Brazil for the first time since 1958.
This article was originally published on October 11, 2012