bbc– Playing international football for Andorra is a constant battle against the odds, but one that Ildefons Lima has always embraced.
He has faced some of the world’s biggest stars over the course of his 23-year international career, the longest in men’s football, and taken on legendary status in a country with a population of just 77,000.
There have been some heavy defeats against much stronger opponents, but Lima, who turns 41 next month, has never shied away from the challenge. In many ways, he has come to embody his country’s struggle for respect and recognition on the global stage.
Now, because of a dispute with the Andorran Football Federation (FAF) over a lack of coronavirus testing for players, his record-breaking career is in jeopardy.
- Who is Lima and how has he played for so long?
In the summer, when Andorran sides started training again after lockdown, Lima raised concerns.
“We trained for 10 or 15 days without tests and that’s why I said something. I said the protocol to start practising football wasn’t enough for us and the Andorran Footballers’ Association [the AFA, of which he is president].
“I didn’t say anything against the football federation or against any person.
“In September, when the national team had games, they didn’t call me, and said if I wanted to go with the national team I had to leave the footballers’ association and apologise for what I said.”
The controversial decision to exclude Lima, who plays for Inter Club d’Escaldes in the Andorran top division and is his country’s captain, was made against national manager Koldo Alvarez’s wishes.
“I spoke with the coach because we were team-mates, and he was my coach for 10 years,” says Lima. “He said to the press that he wanted me to end my career on the pitch.
“I’m not angry because the coach of the national team didn’t call me up. I’m angry because nobody can say to the coach: ‘This player cannot play for the national team because he thought different.’
“I didn’t say anything wrong or say bad words about any person. I just thought different. It’s just an opinion. That’s why a lot of people are on my side.”
Lima has received plenty of support from the football community. FIFPro, the association for professional players around the world, and AFE, the association for Spanish footballers, have asked Fifa to intervene. The #justiceforilde campaign has also gained traction on social media.
“We are a small national team, and we have to be all together,” he says. “In this period, there is no unity because there are lots of people in the newspapers and on the internet talking about the situation. It’s bad publicity for our country and our sport.”
In September, the Andorran Football Federation issued a statement saying: “The board stands by its decision to temporarily exclude you from the national team, owing to your responsibilities as president of the AFA, which has issued numerous baseless and inaccurate criticisms of the FAF.”
The FAF declined to comment further when contacted by BBC Sport in November.
Lima is mystified by the decision, which was made by FAF president Felix Alvarez, with the support of other board members, and is fighting for it to be overturned.
“Three or four people can’t do this. They have to go out of football because they are against the soul of football. The spirit of sport. They can’t do this to a person.
“FIFPro made a recommendation to Fifa because this situation cannot happen now. Nobody can permit this discrimination in Europe in this year. It’s clear that they’re doing wrong.”
On Wednesday, while Andorra were being thrashed 7-0 by Portugal in a friendly at the Estadio da Luz, their most experienced player was training with his club side. In normal circumstances he would have been doing battle with Cristiano Ronaldo, as he has done before.
Lima knows there will not be many more opportunities like it, and the defender is not backing down.
He made his international debut in 1997 and has won 128 caps and scored 11 goals – both Andorran records. He was hoping to emulate Jari Litmanen’s remarkable feat of playing international football in four decades.
“I’m so sad. I’ve played for 23 years and worked all my life to play for the national team,” says Lima.
“I represented Andorra with everything that I had and that made me feel so proud. I would like to say goodbye on the pitch, with my team-mates.
“Sometimes things don’t go as you want but I will fight to make this happen.”