“22 years ago, the last FC Barcelona B v Andorra was played at the Mini Estadi,” Lima posted on Instagram in November 2019. “We lost 2-1 against the team of Carles Puyol, Luis Garcia, Xavi & Co.”
Ildefons Lima made his debut for Andorra in 1997. Little could he have known then that 23 years and 128 games later, he would still be going strong and have claimed the world record for the longest international career in men’s football.
Playing for one of Europe’s minnows can be a thankless task at the best of times – Andorra are ranked 135th in the world, behind the likes of Turkmenistan, Guatemala and Comoros.
Add in the fact many of Lima’s opponents were not even born when he made his international debut and you get a sense of the odds he is up against every time he takes to the field.
“I’ve played for 23 years and I still feel the same things that I did before the first game,” said Lima, 40. “Other players have told me there will be a moment when you will not feel anything. But, at the moment, I feel everything.
“I take care of myself. I train, I sleep and eat well. You have to do all these things. Fortunately, I have no big injuries. I think that this is a big thing that helps you. Everything gets more difficult, but if you take care of yourself then you can do it. I enjoy playing for the national team. It’s a motivation for me.”
‘Brazil’s Ronaldo was the best I played against’
Andorra earned Uefa affiliation in 1996 and Lima made his debut for the country a year later, scoring in a 4-1 defeat by Estonia. He was 17 at the time and has been a feature of the squad ever since, becoming captain a decade ago.
A tall and strong central defender, Lima is proud to have played so many international matches, even if more than 100 of them have ended in defeat.
He has only tasted victory five times with Andorra, which has a population of just 77,000, making those moments all the sweeter.
Lima identifies a 1-0 win over Hungary in a qualifier for the last World Cup as the highlight of his career, and perhaps the best result in Andorra’s history, but he has savoured plenty of unforgettable experiences along the way.
Lima posted on Instagram in June 2019: “Today marks 22 years since my debut with Andorra, what better way to remember it than with a photo of one of the best players I’ve had the luck and privilege of facing… Ronaldo.”
“One that was important for me was in 1998. We played a friendly match against Brazil, a week before the World Cup in France. We played against the Brazil of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Dunga,” he recalls.
“I always say, there was a moment before and a moment after. I was 18 and I had played against Estonia and Latvia – small countries – but then you think ‘if I can play against Brazil, I can play against anyone’. Now it’s normal for us to play against big countries, but it was a special moment for us because it was the beginning of big matches for Andorra.”
All these years on, having faced more of world football’s biggest stars, Lima still maintains that the Brazilian Ronaldo is the best he has come up against.
“I had played with Ronaldo on the Playstation and a few weeks later he was next to me on the pitch. It was amazing.
“He was strong. He was fast. He had everything as a striker. You cannot stop this kind of player. They have something special.”
‘I have 900 match-worn shirts’
While encounters with global superstars live long in the memory, Lima has always looked to keep mementoes throughout his career, regardless of the opposition.
As a football obsessive, he has a collection of more than 900 match-worn shirts, including ones he has swapped with Andriy Shevchenko, John Terry, Youri Djorkaeff and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Andorra’s captain and his 600-shirt collection
“It’s something that you do to remember your history. It’s amazing because I have all the history of our national team,” says Lima.
“If you take a shirt from 24 years ago, when the national team started, and you take a shirt from now, you can see the difference in football. How football has developed. I love it because it’s a way to travel through the history of football.”
From the kit that players wear to the way that they prepare for games, Lima has witnessed this evolution first hand. Everything has become much more detailed and focused, even for a country like Andorra that has nowhere near the sporting infrastructure or resources of Europe’s elite.
“When we started to play against other national teams, sometimes you didn’t know anything about them. You had no video. You had no information. Now, when you play against another national team you know everything. You know the players. You know the tactics. Everything. This is one of the biggest differences from when I started.
“We’ve become more professional. We work more physically, and we work on what we eat. Although we’re a small country, these are the kind of things that we try to do better. That’s why sometimes the difference between us and big countries on the pitch is small.”
Even so, chances are inevitably few and far between for Andorra, yet Lima has still managed to become their leading scorer with 11 goals. That total includes strikes against Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Belgium.
‘Playing with my brother was an amazing experience’
Lima’s brother Toni (right) in action for Andorra during a World Cup qualifier against the Netherlands in 2004
The example set by Lima’s brother Toni, who is nine years older, helped inspire him to become involved in football.
They enjoyed some memorable moments on the international stage, often partnering each other at the back before Toni’s retirement in 2009. Their last match together was a 6-0 loss to Fabio Capello’s England at Wembley.
“When he started to play here in Andorra I travelled with the team. I was like a small supporter. If you see in your house that your brother’s playing football, you try to do the same.
“We played about 50 or 60 games together. You can imagine that to play in these big stadiums, against these big stars with your brother was an amazing experience.”
They briefly played together at club level too, for the Greek side Ionikos. Unlike many Andorran footballers, Lima spent a long time in the professional ranks, also representing teams in Spain, Italy, Mexico and Switzerland.
He returned home in 2012, and now plays for Inter Club d’Escaldes in the country’s top division. He hopes to carry on for a while yet, and win some more international caps, extending his world record as he goes, before moving into coaching.
“I’m taking my Uefa B Licence and I think, with my experience, I can help young players. Andorran players sometimes don’t know certain things and I’m trying to do things better.
“We have a lot of things to do here in Andorra and I would like to grow as a football country. I feel that with my experience, inside and outside the pitch, I can help Andorra to do that.”