A glance at the list of each European national team’s record goalscorers will throw up some of the most iconic strikers to have played the game. Thierry Henry, David Villa, Luigi Riva, Wayne Rooney, Robert Lewandowski, Andriy Shevchenko, Davor Šuker, Jari Litmanen and the peerless Cristiano Ronaldo have all made their mark on the club and international scene around the continent. Keep scrolling through that list, though, and you’ll find a rather more obscure defender among them. For the minnows of Andorra, their most prolific player of all time, with 11 international goals, is centre-back Ildefons Lima.
For any defender to score 11 goals for their country is an impressive feat, but particularly for one who represents one of the lowest-ranked teams in the world, never mind Europe. Lima, now 41, has partaken in 7-1 and 7-0 defeats, plus quite a few 6-0s, during his time representing his country, who are often the sacrificial lambs for the continent’s leading lights to devour in imbalanced qualifying matches for major tournaments.
Indeed, the veteran defender is also Andorra’s record caps holder with 131. No fewer than 109 of those have ended in defeat, with Lima participating in just four victories for his nation. That is despite his international career now spanning more than 24 years, working out at an average of one win every six years for arguably the most masochistic player in football.
Ildefons Lima’s Andorra debut
In fact, his international career is almost as old as that of his nation as a whole. Lima made his debut at the age of 17 in what was Andorra’s second-ever official fixture. It ended in a 4-1 defeat to Estonia on 22 June 1997, but the teenager marked his international bow with a goal. It wasn’t quite his country’s first, as the principality had lost 6-1 to their Baltic opponents seven months previously.
Lima spent the early years of his club career bouncing around the second, third and fourth tiers in Spain, a spell with Las Palmas in 2002/03 the closest he came to the dizzying heights of La Liga. For Andorra, his first victory came on the occasion of his 21st cap, a 2-0 win over Belarus in 2000, although he scored a memorable goal in a World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland the following year. His strike gave the minnows a shock lead in Dublin against an Irish side who would go on to qualify for the tournament at the Netherlands’ expense, only for Mick McCarthy’s men to recover to a 3-1 victory.
Lima did not play in either of Andorra’s qualifiers against Portugal in that campaign, but he did line up against a Dutch side featuring Marc Overmars, Philip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert and Jaap Stam. Three years earlier, he was in opposition to a France team which was still basking in the glory of World Cup success on home soil, keeping David Trezeguet, Zinedine Zidane et al to a respectable 2-0 scoreline in Paris (one goal fewer than Les Bleus scored against Brazil in the final that summer).
The defeats kept coming but Lima’s commitment to the Andorran cause never waned. He was spared from featuring in some of their biggest thrashings – 8-1 against Czech Republic in 2005, 7-0 and 6-0 against Croatia over the following two years, a 5-0 hiding by England in the embryonic days of Steve McClaren’s ill-fated Three Lions reign.
He did play in another heavy beating in June 2009 when Andorra lost 5-1 to Belarus, but his consolation goal in that game was his first in a competitive fixture for more than eight years. Four days later, he lined out at Wembley, only to be part of a team which was swept aside 6-0 by an England side now under the management of Fabio Capello.
All the while he continued to come up against some of European football’s most prominent names – Andrei Arshavin, Marek Hamšík, Lewandowski, Robin van Persie, Kevin De Bruyne – but each time with the same outcome. He threatened to change the record when Wales visited the principality in September 2014, scoring an early penalty on a much-derided artificial surface in Andorra la Vella, but was denied a draw because of a late Gareth Bale free kick. That was Wales’ first step in the qualifying campaign which would ultimately take them to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, a night which so nearly ended ignominiously for a team featuring the man who was then the world’s most expensive player.
Around the time that Wales were preparing for the finals in France that summer, Lima became just Andorra’s second centurion, winning his 100th cap against Estonia, the same nation who provided the opposition for his international debut 19 years earlier. The outcome was inevitable, but a momentous occasion was not too far around the corner…
Ildefons Lima had a memorable 2017
On the same night that Leicester were beaten 2-1 by Sevilla in a Champions League knockout round clash in February 2017, which would prove to be the final match of Claudio Ranieri’s historic reign in charge of the Foxes, Andorra met San Marino in a seemingly nondescript friendly in Serravalle. Lima found the net, which wasn’t a novel experience for him, but this time it came in an all-too-rare victory for his side. Not only that, it brought an end to an international record sequence of 86 consecutive defeats.
2017 would go down as the best year of his extensive international career. Following that landmark goal against San Marino, he marked the 20-year anniversary of his debut by playing in a 1-0 win over a Hungary side who had drawn with eventual winners Portugal at Euro 2016. That result came amid the emotional context of the recent death of FC Andorra coach Emili Vicente in a cycling accident.
Two months later, Burton-upon-Trent was the unlikely setting for him to become Andorra’s most-capped player when they met Qatar in a friendly as he commenced his third decade of international football. In October, he was on the field for one of Ronaldo’s international record goal tally of 115 in a World Cup qualifier.
The inaugural UEFA Nations League would also be welcomed by Lima and his beleaguered Andorran colleagues. The tournament’s format ensured that they would play competitive fixtures against teams of a similar level rather than routinely being cannon fodder for the Spains and Portugals of this world. They didn’t win any of their six matches in League D but claimed four draws, even putting together a nine-game sequence in which they only lost three times.
His place in Andorran football legend was firmly secured, but he fell foul of the country’s federation in 2020 when he publicly objected to the resumption of football in the principality without the provision of coronavirus testing, remarks which led him to be removed from the national team against the wishes of his coach Koldo Álvarez. The saga earned the defender plenty of support from within football, with professional players’ association FIFPro calling on FIFA to intervene and a #justiceforilde hashtag doing the rounds on social media.
He was reinstated in time to extend his international career into a 25th year this summer, becoming just the second European footballer (after Litmanen) to be capped in four different decades when playing in a friendly defeat to Republic of Ireland in June. He also came up against England at Wembley in World Cup qualifying in September, and while the two players weren’t on the pitch at the same time due to substitutions, Lima’s Andorra faced off against a Three Lions side for whom Jude Bellingham started. By the time the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund starlet was born in June 2003, the now 41-year-old Lima had already been playing international football for six years and won 34 caps for his country.
He is continuing to play at club level also, lining out for Andorran title holders Inter Club d’Escaldes in the qualifying rounds for the Champions League and inaugural Europa Conference League this summer. While he never played in the top flight in either Spain or Italy, he featured for clubs like Las Palmas and Rayo Vallecano who have been at that level, while he tasted top-flight football in Switzerland with Bellinzona. Also on his roll call of clubs is FC Andorra, who a few years after his departure were bought by a group spearheaded by Barcelona icon and World Cup winner Gerard Piqué.
Ildefons Lima hailed by another Andorra legend
Lima’s status in Andorran football circles is untouchable. Óscar Sonejee, a long-time team-mate whose international caps record was overtaken by the 41-year-old, hailed Lima’s “leadership on and off the field”, adding: “He is a person who loves it a lot and makes you better. He is always by the side of the player to motivate him and constantly give him advice. His character is an aspect that inspires you to always be focused when facing a game and when you are on the field.”
Ildefons Lima will never play in a World Cup or European Championship. He will never grace the major European leagues, nor line out in the Champions League or Europa League proper. The avaricious perpetrators of nefarious concepts such as the European Super League care not one iota for the likes of 41-year-old Andorran defenders.
However, international football is not solely about the Messis, Ronaldos and Kanes. It takes a special commitment to debut for your country at 17 and continue to soldier away for them at the age of 41, all the more so when heavy defeats are more often than not the end result. Ildefons Lima stuck at it and continues to stick at it, though, duly writing himself into the record books in the process to at least earn himself some discernible reward for one of the most dedicated international football careers in the history of the game.