On the verge of greatness

With England about to take on the 2nd worst international team on the globe, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane on one of my first overseas trips to watch football.

On the 20th November 2002, I came within seconds of witnessing footballing history. I was in the tiny principality of San Marino, sitting on the edge of the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy, watching the world’s oldest sovereign state play one of the newest, Latvia, and there was just a minute left on the clock when a San Marino corner appeared to be handled in the area by a Latvia player. The score was nil-nil and had the penalty been given it would have meant a first ever win for the country after some fifty internationals. Alas it was not to be. Latvia attacked, a free kick was awarded and from the resulting kick the ball was erroneously diverted into his own net by a San Marino player for the only goal of the game. There was 13 seconds left of injury time. Played 53, lost 52, drawn 1 read their record now according to the records.

Ten years ago I came up with a bright idea, or at least I thought it was. I wanted to travel to Europe’s smallest footballing nations, in order, until I saw one of them win. The likes of Malta, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and San Marino rarely get an opportunity for a win so I figured this could be a long journey. And so this was why I was sitting in the makeshift press area of the Stadio Olimpico in Serravalle along with a reported crowd of six hundred. I say reported because there certainly wasn’t anywhere near 100 in the first half but as soon as word spread that “this could be the night”, the locals literally walked here.

This was the third “leg” of my trip and so far I had seen two heavy defeats for the underdogs, firstly in Vaduz as Liechtenstein had been spanked by Portugal, and then Malta had been humbled by Denmark. I arrived in Rimini with hope in my heart and Euro in my pocket. Rimini likes to think it is the Cannes or Marbella of Italy. But on a cold morning in November it just looked like Skegness on a bad day (is there a good day in Skeggy?). Even the most ardent Italian Lothario looked like Sid James in Carry on Girls and there was no sign of the famous Italian supermodels in their teenie-weenie itsy-bitsy swimwear. Fortunately I was not staying long and my carriage awaited me. Well, a local bus that whisked me through the Italian countryside and up, up and further up until we broke the clouds at the border with San Marino, a little less than 10 miles from the Italian Coast.

Back in 2002 not everyone had the internet to research places. And by not everyone I mean I didn’t at work, and at home I had to pay £19 per month for dial up charges for my 64Kbps Compuserve product. This was the dark days before the dawn of the internet we know and love today. We all remember looking at those “entertainment” sites where pictures took an hour to load and then just when it got to a good bit, someone would come in the room, or the telephone connection would fail. Looking back now and trying to describe what it used to be like to the kids seems so unreal. Twitter was something birds did, YouTube was something Alan Brazil used to say, Facebook was a make up catalogue and Googling was reserved for using binoculars near the nudist beach at Brighton.

So I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in San Marino. I had looked for a guide book before the trip without luck. I certainly didn’t expect such a mountainous place. The bus continued to climb upwards, towards the highest point of the enclave, the 750metre Monte Titano. On the way up to the city of San Marino (population 4,493) we passed the Stadio Olimpico. It was too good an offer to miss. I hoped off the bus and had a wander into the ground.

It was certainly a grand title for basically an athletics ground with one covered stand. I tried to recall when the Olympics had been held in San Marino but couldn’t for the life of me remember when. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the lower reaches of the Ryman League. Work was continuing on the other side of the ground where a second stand was being built. Apparently UEFA had decreed that to gain their 2 star status to continue to host International games they needed to have a capacity of at least 1,000. I queued up for the official tour, and ninety seconds later it was all over. A visit to the gift shop saw me come away with a car sticker.  Everyone who went to the shop got a car sticker.  They were free and the only item in stock. I could hardly be more excited for the big game.

In his excellent new book, Sportonomic$, Gavin Newsham examines the question we will all be asking when we see the game against England on Friday night, If they can play for San Marino, so could I. Just last week the appearance of Titus Bramble on a Premier League pitch gave me hope I could still yet make my Ryman League debut for Lewes. Newsham examines the actual odds of ever making the international grade for a county like San Marino.

His maths make interesting reading. In 2011 the population of the principality was just 31,817, of which 15,343 were male. More importantly, 5,431 men are in the “football playing age” bracket of 16 to 35 years old. Newsham looked at the position of goalkeeper, where an international squad will typically have 3 options in every squad. Using some maths based on the take up of youngsters in our Premier League he deduced that for every 7 footballers in San Marino, one will play at an international level. Factor in the keeper situation and you stand a 1 in 2.4 chance of playing for your country. Where do I sign up! As if it was that simple. To qualify to play for San Marino, unless you have parents who have lived there for 30 years you are stuffed. We can only but dream.

It certainly wasn’t hard to find my way from Serravalle to San Marino (City). You simply followed the one main road uphill. It started off as Via 4 Guigno, then it became the Via 5 Febbraio. Turn a corner and you are on the Via 25 Marzo before a final sprint into the Via 28 Luglio. They love their random dates don’t they?

Eventually the road ended in a big car park, surrounded on each side by shops. Not your average shops. Oh, no. It appears that people came to San Marino to buy either perfume or medieval weapons. Every shop either sold every scent known to man, or a selection of swords and chain-mail. There was even a superstore which sold both. I thought I was going to struggle to buy a present for CMF and the young Lolly.

As I walked through the gates of the walled city I was met with a naked women. Tall, quite busty and arms wide open, just ready for a young buck like myself to run into her embrace. But she was about 8 foot tall….and made of brass. But apart from that she seemed perfect. A bit like a very sunburnt yet cold Brigitte Neilson. That is actually a very scary thought.

Despite it being lunchtime the place was deserted. November in San Marino didn’t appear to be a popular time to visit. I had expected the town (town? village I would say) centre to be over run by the Latvians. I mean who wouldn’t want to spend time in such a charming place. Without any real internet resources (Tripadvisor in those days was basically a copy of the Rough Guide although San Marino was surprisingly missing off their catalogue) I wandered around looking for somewhere, anywhere, that could offer me something simple like food or drink. I didn’t seem to be in luck, and when I eventually found a shop open I was told that everyone had locked up and gone “down south” for the winter. San Marino was basically closed until March. Thank god for my emergency Mars Bar.

I remembered a story from a few years previous to my visit when England were due to play San Marino (the game with THAT goal after 7 seconds). Of course the stadium (and the country) would not be able to cope with an influx of England fans and the game was rightly moved down the road (well, about 100 miles down the road) to Bologna. Except, being a time before the internet (this was 1993 remember) had seeped into our daily lives, some less educated England fans arrived in San Marino on the day of the match, which was nine years to the day of my visit (bar two days) and wandered around, just like I was, looking for signs of life before being educated by the one bar owner they found open and then hiring a bunch of taxis to take them to Bologna. Funny, very funny.

I had booked a room at San Marino’s best (and only) hotel, which as it turned out was also basically closed. I was given a room, which transpired to be one of the staff rooms in the roof of the hotel with a shared bathroom (alas the hotel maids were also “closed”), no TV and a stone cold radiator. My trip was turning into a bit of a non event. Still the football would save the day, surely?

After a wander across the ramparts of Mont Titano, with the sheer drop on one side and the clouds floating at eye level I had basically “done” San Marino in an hour. I found a bar open and settled down for a few hours. At any moment I was sure the door would open and in would come the San Marino fans, ready to lubricate their voices for the game. But they never arrived and after an hour the bar owner made some noises about wanting to go home so I was evicted onto the deserted streets. This really was turning out to be a crap trip.

With little else to do I started to walk down to the ground. It was about a mile downhill if you followed the pavements which twisted and turned around the hills, or you could use the short cut that I saw under the street lights straight down the hill. Except it wasn’t a short cut. The “path” through the undergrowth was a stream and as soon as I stepped on it I slid downhill faster than Eddie the Eagle on my arse, only stopping when I hit a fence. I stood up, trying to retain my English calmness, which fortunately wasn’t an issue as there was no one around. My embarrassment soon turned to delight as I saw that my shortcut had worked and the ground was across the road. Still no sign of life and as I approached the “Media Centre”, a pasting table set up in the car park I was welcomed with open arms. I was the only “officially” accredited foreign journalist.

They had prepared a welcome pack for me – a ruck sack (sponsored by my very own hotel), a pen (which I still have to this day) and a cd of the “sights of San Marino” which I assumed had random photos of perfume and weapon shops. I smiled and said “grazie”, which got another kiss on each cheek and headed off to the bar. At last, life! Well a group of six Latvia fans anyway. It would have been rude not to join them, although when they started on shots of grappa in half pint glasses I made my excuses, saying I had to attend the media briefing.

I took my seat in the press area as the teams came out. I could hardly miss it – they had pasted a sign on my seat with my name on it. It was also the only seat within the block that was taken. It appeared I was the only member of the press. Shit, that meant I had to write something. But there was very little to write about. Neither team really had a clue. Looking back now both teams appeared to be very non League. The only difference was the presence in the team of Marian Pahars, the Southampton midfielder. He was everywhere on the pitch and if it wouldn’t have been for a huge slice of luck he would have single-handedly sewn the game up by half time.

But as the game progressed without a goal, the San Marino players sensed this could be a huge moment in their history. It seemed that word had leaked out that something special was happening because just after half time the crowd had swelled to a couple of hundred. A local bus pulled up outside and all of a sudden another fifty or so arrived on the hour mark. As the game entered the final few minutes, not only was the main (and only) stand nearly full, but there was even a bit of atmosphere. Time ticked down and with some real dancing in the aisles a number of local “hacks” had turned up ready to break the story of the century for the small republic.

However, it was not to be. A rash tackle on the half way line led to THAT free kick and a few seconds later the ball was in the net. Heartbreak for the San Marino team, celebration time for the Latvians. I could have stayed for the press conferences but my Latvian is almost as good as my Italian (i.e non-existent) and so I headed back up the hotel. I had barely got 200 yards when a car beeped his horn and pulled over. It was the Media Officer who had been so pleased to see me. I hopped in and he offered to show me the sights of San Marino but the excitement was simply too much to bear.  “I show you the naked lady” was his final offer.  I sighed and let him lead on as he parked in front of the statue and gave it a unnerving lecherous grin. I was overwhelmed by San Marino and it was time to get head down before I headed back to Rimini and civilisation. I am sure San Marino is a wonderful place to visit in the summer, full of medieval charm and hospitality, but on a cold Wednesday night in November it was like a continental Cleethorpes.

So what has happened since my visit? San Marino have now played 119 games and have just one win (against Liechtenstein) have three draws and have lost 115 times. They have scored 17 times and have conceded 464. Despite their appearance in the Euro 2004 finals in Portugal, Latvia have disappeared back into the European wilderness. Oh, and Facebook has taken over the world like James Cameron predicted SkyNet would, Spain have won every trophy under the sun and unsurprisingly won last summer’s tournament and I have continued to wander the obscure places in Europe, falling over and accepting gifts from strangers. So basically nothing has changed.

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4 thoughts on “On the verge of greatness

  1. On the continent it’s not that uncommon to find “Olympic” stadiums that have never and probably will never host an Olympic event, though the name is usually just an unofficial name applied to the largest athletics venue within a country. However it is a bit funny that such a small venue should carry such a ‘grand’ official name.

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