Stadio Olimpico – San Marino

Only on a couple of rare occasions had I smelt, in trepidation, the lingering byproducts of a car that had been pushed to it’s limits. The distinctive, choking odour of burnt rubber accompanied by the heat which tarnishes the air you were trying to breathe is a lingering smell which is hard to escape. Our trip to landlocked San Marino finished with a precarious car ride in a Smart car to the top of the mountain on which the capital, San Marino City, is built.

England’s useless U21 side had already been knocked out of the European Championships by the time this final group game fixture arrived. Their opponents Croatia, had also been knocked out. There was nothing to play for between the two teams propping up the group table but as we arrived at the stadium, Sky Sports were still keen on filming fans of both nations in jubilant moods. “Please lads, you’re the only England fans we’ve seen so far,” came the plea from the cameraman as we explained to him we really couldn’t be seen to be celebrating and getting behind the team, when we knew many of our mates back home would be watching.

As it was, we unfortunately ended up live on Sky Sports and our phones were soon buzzing frantically as people informed us the great news. Long before our new found fame, the day started off fairly quietly in the Italian city of Bologna. The four us had been staying in an apartment there for the last eight days as it served as the ideal base between most of the host cities dotted around the north eastern regions of Italy. We had become all too familiar with the half an hour walk down to the train station; aiming to complete the pilgrimage over the bridge early each morning before the temperatures soared.

Our first port of call for this day out was the coastal resort of Rimini, where we would then be able to catch the coach service up to San Marino which runs sporadically through the day. The city of Rimini is considered to be the most popular resort amongst Italians, with the tourist industry booming there during the summer months.

Despite it’s vast expanses of golden beaches, we weren’t staying there for long. Instead, we were planning to spend a night there as a climax to our Italian adventure. Upon arriving in Rimini, we headed straight to a small newsagents opposite the station where we were able to buy our coach tickets ahead of ticking off a new country for all of us. With no idea what to expect, we were all genuinely excited. It felt like the whole holiday had led up to this point.

The times of the departures were scrawled on a yellow sign in permanent marker. Payment was by cash only. It all felt very thrown together and third-world; not that I have much experience of visiting such places. Kidsgrove is as close as I’ve been so far. We sheltered in the shade and after around an hours wait, our lift arrived and we were soon scaling up the long and steep, winding roads to San Marino.

The country is the world’s fifth smallest and was founded in 301AD by Saint Marinus, who had travelled from Croatia to Rimini in order to find work as a stonemason. Despite helping to rebuild the city walls, he soon had to flee and found refuge at the top of Monte Titano – the highest point he could find – where he built a small church, founding the city and state of San Marino in the process.

On our journey to the top of the country, we passed the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle, the countries most populous town. The hosts had gone all out, with large banners and posters celebrating the fact they were hosting a UEFA competition; something which had never happened before. It genuinely felt important to them, which was great. They had even laid on things for visiting supporters, which included all the usual things you’d typically find in a fan park: rock climbing, archery and table football as well as having a bar which served Aperol Spritz.

Arriving at the nation’s main bus station, we were already blown away by the views which stretched as far as the coast to the east. The apartment which we had booked was only a couple of streets away from the there but Google Maps really struggled to calibrate itself due in part to the number of pathways and passages which are all built, going back on one another to help combat the gradient of the city.

As we crossed the road, through St. Francis’s Gate and into the city we were kindly ushered across by a police man. He stood in the middle of the road, holding aloft his right hand which had been wrapped carefully in a pristine white glove. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in an advert for Vanish Oxi Action. I deemed the whole performance “very unnecessary” as there was absolutely no traffic. In fact, the bloke had probably been subjected to less traffic in his life than Bethel, a part-time lollipop lady from Bradford had in just that afternoon.

We hadn’t been in the country long and we had already concluded that the people were lovely. This trend continued when we met our AirBnB host at his place of work, which was less than a minutes walk from the entrance of the apartment. Not being entirely sure who we were looking for, we made deliberate eye contact with the handful of people who had the misfortune to pass us. Outside the Antica Trattoria Jole, we found our man, who invited us in for a drink while he processed our passports. It turned out he wasn’t actually from San Marino and was in fact a Romanian who had moved to the country for a lifestyle change.

With all the pleasantries over we set about exploring the country in the few hours that we had available before having to face the inconvenience of the football match. Well, there was only one place to start and that was by visiting the Three Towers, which sit on the peaks of Monte Titano. These towers feature on the nation’s flag and visiting them provided us with a pleasant walk through a wooded area, along the ridge of the mountain. The oldest and largest of the towers is the Guaita which was built in the 11th Century.

On the other side of the city, which was just a short stroll away, things were about to get even wilder as we entered the Cathedral of San Marino where the remains of Saint Marinus are apparently housed underneath a large altar. As far as cathedrals go, it was top drawer.

We saved the best two bits until last though. If you dare to enter the Tourism Office, you can pay €5 for the privilege of having your passport stamped with an official San Marino shiny sticker. For me, it was a bargain and a souvenir worth having. For other members of the group, it was a waste of money. The same members of the group who thought it was a waste of money then proceeded to purchase a rubber duck each from the San Marino Duck Shop, which was a new venture that had been opened off the cities main square. I went for the Christmas themed duck, hoping I could somehow turn it into a tree decoration.

Souvenir ducks secured, we went in search of some food and ended up in Da Pier Pizzeria on Contrada Santa Croce, right next to our apartment. We were supplied with local white wine, produced just down the hill and various pasta and pizza dishes which were brilliant. I felt so cultured, relaxed and content. Then my phone rang and it was a call from the woman at the Job Centre in Leigh asking why I hadn’t turned up for my meeting. “I’m a bit busy. I’m eating lasagne in San Marino at the moment love,” was my response. I must just clarify at this point, my contract at the school I was teaching at had come to an end a few weeks prior to this trip and I was signing on while applying for other positions.

With a few hours still to waste until kick-off, we headed to the fan zone. Here we were able to play football inside the Cava dei Balestrieri, which is a quarry which had been built for crossbowmen. It seemed a bit odd to be sunbathing on a UEFA beanbag with an Aperol Spritz in a quarry but it soon became odder when a local girl, who clearly wanted to come along to the match with me, offered to give me some San Marino shorts if I had a game of table-football.

I played the game but the shorts were too small. The boys would have been out of the barracks.

Ben on the otherhand was having far more luck and managed to bag himself a San Marino anthem jacket for just €5. This man knew a bargain when he saw one. First a tourist stamp in his passport and now a white jacket for when he was out and about in Yorkshire the following week. The journalist among us, Aaron, was keen on the book which chronicled every result in the nations history while Adam the PE teacher was running around having a try at every available sport. He was naturally better than us at archery.

A local man who was into his archery tried his best to be patient with me but he was evidently tired of my complete lack of aim and strength when it came to the sport. Not only did I keep missing the target but I also kept missing the large safety net behind that too, which probably resulted in me being the most dangerous person in San Marino that day. Having said that, there were a number of artillery shops knocking about which wouldn’t look out of place in parts of the USA.

The woman who had tried to give me some ill-fitting shorts was now on the phone to her colleagues at the stadium. It was obvious that we had no clue where we needed to be for the match, so she was trying to work out if there was any form of transport there. “You can try and see if there are any buses going down there in the next hour or so… or it is only a 7km walk down hill?” were her suggestion.

From what we had seen, buses were a rare treat. Taxis didn’t seem to exist. Where would they go? Did we really want to hike all that way just to see Aaron Wan-Bissaka stroll around a pitch looking totally disinterested as he tried to secure his move from Crystal Palace to Manchester United? Not really. I was more than ready for a night of white wine in the square when we decided to give it a stab and walk around in search of a taxi.

One minibus and €40 later (he definitely saw us coming), we were now drinking bottles of beer in a petrol forecourt with a handful of other England fans. This lot were now becoming our mates; we were on appreciative nodding terms with them anyway. We felt part of the hardcore of around 50 fans who managed to get to all of the England matches in the tournament. Still, it was nothing to be proud of as it had been a dismal showing throughout.

Laughable defeats to France and Romania, both of which were in Cesena, had stifled progress and this match was all about not finishing bottom of the group. Quite how a squad that contained the likes of Dean Henderson, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, James Maddison, Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Tammy Abraham failed to win a single match at the tournament was an absolute shambles. It led to rather unsavory shouts from the crowd – definitely not from us – being picked up by Sky Sports’ microphones. I would never, ever call Aidy Boothroyd a “fraud” knowing the whole world would be able to hear it.

Built in 1969, the Stadio Olimpico is the national stadium of a nation that carries the unwelcome title of being one of the worst in world football. Up until November 2014, they were actually bottom of FIFA’s world rankings with Bhutan but an infamous 0-0 draw against Estonia lifted them up off the basement. Out of over 160 matches that San Marino have played, they have won just once and that was a friendly against Liechtenstein.

What I found to be the most interesting aspect of football in San Marino is the league structure that they have created. There are 15 teams who are for some reason, split into two leagues; one of 7 teams and the other with 8. No club has their own home ground and instead there are five pitches which are allocated on a random basis each weekend. From the top of Monte Titano, we could see Borgo Maggiore at the foot of the cliff below us, which looks like it would be a very spectacular setting for a football match.

With the smaller venues being used for league matches, it’s only occasionally that the Stadio Olimpico is used; making this an elusive tick of sorts.

Walking into the stadium was an experience. Through the turnstiles, we headed into a white building on the left which was wedged underneath the South Stand which England fans had been allocated. It was more of a liquid segregation in all honesty. Underneath the stand housed a collection of offices and a refreshment area. Be careful not to go through the wrong door or you’ll end up in the toilets. Make the correct decision and the cracked terracotta floor tiles lead you through a humid, smoke filled room where through the clouds you could just about make out the figures of three women serving beers.

The whole scene was chaotic, as droves of England fans pushed and shoved in an attempt to get served before kick-off approached. Despite nothing riding on the match; the atmosphere was building. Above us, the stand was shaking and you could hear the England fans belting out various songs as they enjoyed their last proper night of their holiday.

We positioned ourselves at the back of the stand, meaning we were able to stand up for the duration of the match while enjoying a few pints. It ended a 3-3 draw but it still hadn’t been the most entertaining match we had seen in the tournament with England’s 3-2 defeat to Romania being arguably the best match – in terms of excitement and action – that I had seen in my life.

It all started so well for the Three Lions when Arsenal winger Reiss Nelson, who had been on loan at Hoffenheim, scored from the spot after he had been fouled by Branimir Kalaica. England should have extended their lead soon after when Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham fired his toe-poke against the post.

Just before the half time break Croatia were back on level terms when Wolfsburg winger Josip Brekalo fired the ball past Dean Henderson.

England regained the lead just three minutes into the second half – James Maddison punished Filip Uremovic’s woeful defensive header with a well-placed shot. Even though they were ahead it was Croatia who looked the better side and they equalised again shortly later when former Everton player Nikola Vlasic fired a 20-yard strike into Henderson’s far left corner.

Then in a game which had already been treated to great goals, Kenny popped up with the best of the lot when he picked up the ball 25 yards out and found the net with a screamer. However, there was to be one more twist when, with eight minutes remaining, Luka Ivanusec slipped in Brekalo and he fired his low shot past Manchester United keeper Henderson.

There was a mix of laughter and arms up in the air from England fans who just couldn’t get their heads around how such a talented side could be so poor at defending a lead, time and time again. Boothroyd, who we all expected to resign after the match, came out all guns blazing attacking not only the players but the whole international setup at the FA by saying, “We need a little bit of steel and that’s in our thinking. The teams that we’ve played have been teams that are streetwise, and we’re not. We need to get that into our game all the way through our age groups.”

We had more pressing concerns than the future of Aidy Boothroyd. Just how would we make it back up the hill to our apartment? Fortunately, we got chatting to a bloke from Stoke who offered to nip us back into the city centre while his mates carried on drinking at the petrol station.

Little did our new mate from Staffordshire know that he would be piling four passengers into his hired SMART car. He knew even less about the terrain of the journey he was about to undertake, having travelled straight to the match from Italy. If you have ever been to San Marino, you will know just how ridiculous it is squeezing five people into a car with such a small engine. What made matters even worse was that Ben was in the front, as he had the longest legs. He also possessed the worst directions, which was miraculous for a lad who was studying Geography at university.

The gradual climb up to the top, which winds from side to side should have been just about achievable . Using the ‘quickest route’ option on Google Maps made it not as achievable. We feared the bloke would throw us out of his hire car at any moment. “Just a bit further up here mate. It starts flattening out soon!” were the reassuring comments from us three squeezed into the back, despite the fact we knew it would only get worse.

Spluttering to a finish, we eventually reached the city centre. The bloke looked thoroughly pissed off – and that is being kind. The car was boiling hot and the stench of burnt tyres filled the air. We threw some money at our driver, thanked him and ran off into the darkness before he asked us for more cash for essential repairs.

By now, the centre was a ghost town. Us four and a written off car were the only signs of life. From what we saw there’s hardly any residential housing in the capital, with the majority of citizens living in the villages at the bottom of the mountain. It honestly felt like we had the whole country to ourselves as we sat admiring the view with the Stadio Olimpico’s floodlights still visible in the distance.

The following morning we grabbed some breakfast from the Hotel La Grotta; our host had given us some vouchers. The usual cold meats and cheese were available. It was all a bit uninspiring and we travelled back to Rimini by coach, ahead of our final night. 

From a logistics point of view, every single part of the tournament had gone to plan. Train tickets had been booked for specific journeys each day, tickets for all matches and accommodation had all been sorted well in advance. We left it to Aaron to book the hotel for Rimini. He had just one job and he somehow managed to do it incorrectly.

The oldest and most responsible member of the group turned a brighter shade of red than he already was when the woman turned around and said, “We were expecting you yesterday.” There was no getting out of this. He paid for one of the remaining rooms available and we were soon shoved into a family room which included a double bed and a bunk bed for the children. I designated myself as one of the children, dumped my bags and headed straight for the swimming pool where I would spend the rest of the day.

By the evening we decided to share a few drinks on the beach. As the sun set, we reflected on what had been an amazing trip. It had been full of culture, sunshine and football. Boat trips in Venice, bumping into Johnny Marr in the ruins of Cesena Castle and partyting in the middle of a park in Bologna. Little did I know that the following week, I would be wrapped up in my coat in the outskirts of Barnsley being chased by a large dog at Grimethorpe Sports v Worsborough Bridge Athletic.

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