An arduous and long-winded bus journey from Barcelona, Andorra is one of those football destinations you feel might be just a bend too far. Luxembourg, let ’em in, Liechenstein, fine, but Andorra…? Andorra, the national team, only started playing in 1996 (losing 6-1 to Estonia) and only started winning, competitively, once, in 2004. This in front of 350 people, few of them from embarrassed opponents Macedonia.
And yet… why the hell not? What if every World Cup or Euro qualifying game was at Wembley, how dull would that be? Though few players, and certainly no manager – Dragi Kanatlarovski immediately resigned as Macedonia coach in 2004 – look forward to Andorra, for fans it’s an adventure.
This adventure takes place in a land-locked, airport-bereft, train-free country of 85,000 souls, squeezed between Spain and France, dominated by the Pyrenees. Sport here means skiing, motorcycling and cycling, as the many stores lining the often narrow road from Barcelona will testify.
Football, in an organised enough fashion for the outside world to care, began in the mid-1990s. An FA was formed, a domestic league and, in 1998, Andorra played their first competitive qualifying international, a 3-1 defeat to Armenia.
A row of ten defeats that campaign, in fact, set an inevitable pattern – but this negative spiral was broken by one Marc Bernaus. This former Barcelona B left-back, a Segunda regular with several clubs, turned and smashed in an otherwise innocuous throw-in on the hour against Macedonia in 2004.
This historic win was complemented, perhaps even more remarkably, by two draws, one away to the unfortunate Macedonia.
This high point for the Andorra national side has never been repeated, though the Reds usually hold most teams to a winning margin of a couple of goals.
Top scorer Ildefons Lima, recently of top club FC Andorra, who play in the Spanish league system, has notched seven goals to date, while many of his national team-mates can claim 25-plus caps. Captain Óscar Sonejee is approaching his century, not bad for an insurance salesman whose Indian background means that Andorra’s scores are followed more keenly in Mumbai than in, perhaps, Skopje.
Many of Andorra’s team play for one of two teams from the tiny village of Santa Coloma, UE and FC – though recently the squad has been bolstered by members of Lusitanos, from the main community of Andorra la Vella. One of the lovely things to discover in Europe’s highest capital, apart from Andorra’s main stadium set at the foot of soaring mountains, is the fact that it has an inordinate number of Portuguese football bars. Life must be better in a tax-free ski resort than in Portugal.
All this time, the main football venue has been the Estadi Comunal. But in 2014, with Andorra looking to host Wales in a Euro 2016 qualifier and attract as many fans as possible, the FA opted for the Estadi Nacional, with its 3,000-plus capacity – and 3G artificial surface. After days of deliberation and alternative venues debated, the game went ahead as planned. A late, retaken Bale free-kick and half-hearted pitch invasion saw three points go to Wales but it was a close-run thing.
Still, many would have liked to have had the game moved to Barcelona – but, when all’s said and done, where’s the adventure in that?
Novatel has five services a day, from Barcelona Terminal 1 and 2 (single €33/return €56).
DirectBus has seven services a day, from Terminal 1 and 2 (€33.50/return €57.50) via Sants station (€29.50/€49.50 return). At Sants, the bus calls at the Eurolines stop alongside the station.
From Barcelona Terminal 2 the stop is outside arrivals, by the Mirò mural.
Allow 3.5hrs to reach la Vella, traffic and passport queue willing. The bus stations for each company are right next to each other, about 10-15min walk from the stadium, where Avinguda Tarragona meets Carrer Bra Riberaygua.
Novatel also runs services from Girona and Toulouse airports.
The Andorra Tourist Office has a database of hotels, apartments, campsites and mountain huts in Andorra. Andorra la Vella accommodates skiers – it’s full of hotels, many with pools and spas.
The only lodging close to the Estadi Comunal, though, is a campsite, Valira, a year-round two-star with five bungalows.
Over the rushing, narrow river, there’s a string of hotels along Avinguda de Santa Coloma, starting with the pricier President, a very cushy four-star with a heated pool and sauna. Nearby, the Cérvol, with a spa and gym, and the more basic Bellpi, are more old-school but comfortable.
Also nearby, among the chains, the Novotel offers the usual gym, pool and sauna formula.
Convenient for both bus station and stadium, the standard but friendly Hotel Zenit Diplomàtic has an outdoor pool in summer.
Like in Barcelona, the beer here is Estrella. La Vella has a number of bars, a surprising number run by the local Portuguese football community.
What seems like the only Brit-style pub, the Temple Bar, is, in fact, a somewhat gaudy, evening-only nightspot, open till 3am, 4am weekends. Close to the town centre, it’s actually in Les Escaldes, Avinguda del Fener.
The more pub-like downtown Taverna Andorra del Pa & Tomàquet is part of a local, faux historic chain, usually with TVs and decent food.
Almost certainly to have sport on TV, traditional local L’Orri (Carrer Prat de la Creu 59) by the river is a bar-like restaurant with a slightly wider choice of beers, including Löwenbräu, and a long bar counter to sip them at.
La Vella also contains a number of Portuguese bars geared towards football: these include La Linda, Armada, El Moli, clustered relatively close together in the centre on main Avinguda Mentxell near the Hotel Bellpi.