San Marino are routinely described as ‘the worst team in international football’. They sit at the bottom of the FIFA rankings, have won 3 times in their entire history, often lose by 5 or more goals, and have scored 19 times since 1990.
OK, so they are plainly not a great side. Here is their ranking over the time since the rankings were introduced in 1993.
Sam Wallace of the Independent argued that this actually shows a decline in San Marino’s abilities. This is plainly misrepresentative, as any cursory look at San Marino’s historical lack of good results would indicate- it isn’t as if San Marino started out any better than they are now. This ‘decline’, I will argue, is solely due to geographical factors.
San Marino rarely play friendlies (at least not those recognised by FIFA). Their only matches come in European Championship and World Cup qualifiers. As the lowest ranked team in Europe, this always pits them against vastly superior opponents. The lowest ranked team San Marino have played competitively is Malta (currently 155th), and the average current ranking of their last 20 opponents is 54th, where Hungary currently sit.
Compare this to the other lowest ranked teams from different federations. Djibouti’s toughest opponent in the last 20 fixtures was Egypt (61st currently), Anguilla’s was El Salvador (72nd), and Bhutan’s most difficult game in its history was against the Philippines (currently 134th). Below is the average current ranking of these team’s opponents in the last 20 fixtures.
There are only 10 European sides outside the top 100, and due to the way competitive group draws are seeded, San Marino are unlikely to play most of these. So, San Marino are stuck playing some of the best teams in the world, and the opportunity to win isn’t coming any time soon.
San Marino are probably the worst team in Europe, a small fish in a very big pond. But to claim they are the worst in the world is to fail to recognise the strength of their opponents compared to rest of the bottom 50 or so nations. San Marino don’t get to play Turks and Caicos Islands, or Rwanda, or Fiji- they play Romania, or England, or, if they are incredibly lucky, a team like Malta.At least nations from other federations get to play fellow minnows.
So, are San Marino better than Bhutan, or the Cook Islands, or any of the other teams right at the bottom? We don’t know. These teams will probably never play each other, so all we have to go on are the rankings, which are at least objective.