Massimo Bonini: San Marino’s Champion

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS

You might not know it but the San Marino national team once boasted a European champion in their midsts. Massimo Bonini won the lot as the metronome at the heart of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus in the 1980s before becoming a Sammarinese hero when he captained and coached his homeland…

In 2004, UEFA asked each national association to nominate its outstanding player of the past 50 years. 

The idea was to honour the ‘Golden Players’ of every European footballing nation as part of the organisation’s jubilee celebrations, and naturally the finalised list of 52 names contained some of European football’s all-time greats.

Italy selected Dino Zoff, the Netherlands put forward Johan Cruyff and England chose Bobby Moore. San Marino’s ‘Golden Player’ was Massimo Bonini, the tiny republic’s great champion.

In seven great years with Juventus, between 1981 and 1988, Bonini lifted the European Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as three Serie A championships and one Coppa Italia. It was truly a golden era for the Turin giants and there was a Sammarinese stalwart at the heart of it.

There is one popular legend from Bonini’s heyday that reveals how important he was to that great Juventus side. The story goes that Gianni Agnelli, erstwhile head of Fiat and president of Juventus, made his way down to the bianconeri dressing room on one occasion to mingle with the team before a game in their early-eighties period of dominance. Seeing that his star man Michel Platini was smoking a cigarette, he commented, ‘That worries me.’

The French playmaker, however, looked untroubled by his boss’ concern. Pointing across the dressing room to a blond, earnest-looking man pulling on a black-and-white jersey with the No4 on the back, he said ‘You only need to worry if he starts smoking.’

The blue-eyed boy was Bonini – the legs and the lungs of the team who won every domestic and European title. His name is seldom mentioned these days, however. Possibly that’s because he did the dirty work in that team: clearing up, keeping it simple, pinning things together.

Bonini could have played for Italy like the majority of his clubmates and he was invited to on several occasions, but he always refused because he did not wish to relinquish his Sammarinese citizenship.

‘It didn’t seem right with respect to my country to change nationality,’ he said.

That decision looks all the more admirable when you consider that his homeland had no national team at that time. San Marino’s football association (FGSC) was not recognised by FIFA and UEFA until 1988, and so Bonini – in order to keep his national identity – not only turned down the chance to represent Italy when they were world champions, but also gave up the opportunity to play international football of any kind in those prime years.

That principled stance was typical of the man who sacrificed everything for the cause. Rushing around with his slightly rounded shoulders making him look even more industrious and purposeful, Bonini’s short bursts of pace to close down opponents in possession, or open the game up when the ball was at his feet, were vital to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus.

With his fair hair combed back, his shorts worn just above the waist and his disciplined positional play in the holding role, he was in many ways an earlier incarnation of Didier Deschamps as the anchor in a star-studded Juventus midfield. Never far from the action, the tenacious holding man covered the Juventus backline and acted as a constant in an otherwise very fluid midfield; a safe and reliable presence who allowed Tardelli, Platini and co to go about their business unshackled.

He did not get the chance to play alongside such world-class talent at international level, but eventually Bonini’s loyalty to the nation of his birth was rewarded when, aged 31, he captained his country in their first-ever competitive game – a 4-0 defeat to Switzerland in a qualifier for the 1992 European Championships. It was a moment of immense pride for the midfielder, who went on to win 19 caps for San Marino and then took over as coach for two years between 1996 and 1998.

‘It was very beautiful because my team-mates were the lads I had played with as a child,’ he said, ‘so I had the chance to represent San Marino and be reunited with my old friends, who hadn’t had my luck in football. It was great.’

Bonini, who played nine times for Italy’s Under‑21 team between 1980 and 1983 before turning down the call to play for the senior side, was also San Marino captain the first time they played at Wembley in 1993. The 7-1 loss they suffered that night cannot have been easy to take but he has always remained realistic about the situation faced by Sammarinese footballers.

‘I have the good luck and the bad luck to have been born in San Marino,’ he once announced. ‘Bad luck, because I couldn’t play for Italy, but above all good luck because it’s a place where you can live well and in peace. Lots of people would give anything to have been born in San Marino.’

The San Marino national team may represent the second-smallest population of any UEFA member (after Gibraltar) but even the smallest talent pool can produce a great player, and Bonini’s extensive winners’ medal collection is evidence of that.

Dominic Bliss is editor of TheInsideLeft and author of ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’, available from Blizzard Books now. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty
This article originally appeared in the matchday programme for England vs San Marino, 7 October 2014. You can buy official England programmes online here.

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