Italian-born footballer reflects on international debut, aged 40

It is not unheard of for some footballers to play the game beyond the age of 40, but it is rare to hear of players playing international football at such a late stage of their career.

Roberto de Maio is very much an outlier in that regard as he made his debut on the international stage at the grand age of 40 years and five months.

When he took to the pitch for San Marino against Northern Ireland in March, he became the oldest man to make his senior international debut in a UEFA competition.

He wasn’t suddenly discovered after a brief period of good form, instead, it was the culmination of a 15-year naturalisation process that allowed him to play for the European minnows.

Di Maio was born in Naples, Italy but his steady, if not spectacular, career took him to San Marino in 2003 which would have significant personal and professional consequences for him. He would later meet his wife and settle down in the tiny republic.

He was officially naturalised in January 2023 after the requisite 10 years of marriage, including an admin delay that pushed things back a further 12 months.

The defender told BBC Sport of his pride in representing the nation of just under 35,000 people for the first time against Michael O’Neill’s side earlier this year.

“I was hugely proud to play for San Marino. It was one of those games where I didn’t need to psyche myself up. My adrenalin was so high, I could have run for two hours without stopping.”

“Perhaps some people might think ‘what on earth are you doing, playing for San Marino who lose all their games?’ But whoever says that doesn’t know what it means to play international football.”

19 years without a win

San Marino are perennial losers in the sense that the odds are stacked against them in almost every game they play. Given the size of the micronation, the pool of players and the resources they have at their disposal, it’s fair to say that their expectations are modest.

Their one and only win – since they entered UEFA competitions in 1990 – was a 1-0 success over Liechtenstein in 2004.

They go into the majority of games effectively hoping to keep the score down. To play international football is an honour but does that feeling remain when you can’t really compete?

“Mentally, we prepare for a defensive game and go in with a different spirit. Without that, we’d let in 10 goals,” said Di Maio.

“If we can focus, sacrifice and help one another, we can get a positive result. That could be losing 4-0 to Denmark or only conceding 60 minutes in against Slovenia,” he added, referring to Euro 2024 qualifying games this year.

After a marathon journey to get on the pitch, the player now aged 41 has no intention of giving up just yet. He says he will continue as long as his body lets him.

Roberto Di Maio earned his seventh cap for San Marino in a 3-0 defeat to Northern Ireland in Belfast on Saturday, October 15.

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Written by

Graeme Hanna

Graeme is a freelance writer based in Belfast, Northern Ireland who has been writing full-time for the last three years. He specialises in football and Rangers FC in particular, as well as being on top of news and trending matters. His work has been published in titles such as Rangers Review, Give Me Sport, Manchester Evening News, MyLondon and the Belfast News Letter.