Port, resort and cruise hub, the pretty city of Koper lies halfway between Trieste and Croatia, hemmed in by borders that have shifted with each major war and international treaty.
Still officially bilingual, in footballing terms Koper now has a far higher profile as part of independent Slovenia than it did when it was an outpost of Mussolini’s Italy or Tito’s Yugoslavia. League champions in 2010, cup winners in 2015, FC Koper have undertaken seven European campaigns since 2006. As early-round defeats have been the norm, opponents have tended to come from the same region – high-scoring fixtures with Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split spring to mind – so football followers from Britain and Ireland may only have visited this busy seaside town when on holiday.
Even when Scotland came in 2012, it was for a low-key friendly in February, the crowd under 4,000.
A shame, because the Bonifika, renovated three times since opening in 1948, is one of those classic Adriatic stadiums invariably basking under clear blue skies, a short walk from the sea and streets of Koper’s Venetian-style historic centre. Its last major renovation came in 2010 – since then, Koper has staged the Slovenian Cup final.
Before the Bonifika, football was played on a nearby sandy pitch by members of the Circolo Sportivo Capodistriano, Capodistria being the Italian name for Koper. The students, workers and fishermen of the Capodistria Sporting Circle didn’t limit their activities to soccer, although the better footballers later earned contracts in Trieste and at various clubs around Tuscany.
After World War II, when the city became part of the temporary Free Territory of Trieste, new sports clubs sprang up, their members drawn from the Italian or Slovenian/Croatian communities. One was Aurora, another Medusa. Partizan’s players spoke Slovenian. A league was organised for teams from this buffer zone, including Capodistria/Koper, Isola/Izola and Pirano/Piran.
In the summer of 1948, a modest football ground was set up on the site of today’s Bonifika, but it wasn’t until the population dispersal of 1954 that local football was given a more integrated infrastructure.
A year later, Aurora and Medusa merged to create NK Koper, who joined the Slovenian Regional League within the Yugoslav set-up. After winning the Western division in 1965, 1967, 1971 and 1980, Koper ascended to the Slovenian Republic League, the highest regional level and one down from the second all-national tier.
In 1985 and 1988, Koper climbed one higher, taking on the likes of RNK Split and Novi Sad, but real success only came after Slovenian independence.
Even after 1991, progress was slow, and it took a supporters’ buy-out and a helping hand from Milan Mandarić of Portsmouth fame before Koper could really challenge. With the managerial and midfield experience of Miran Pavlin, the national hero whose goal took Slovenia to Euro 2000, Koper won the title in 2010.
Not relegated since 2000, Koper have been mired in mid-table since 2014 but can always be relied on to provide the football-hungry holidaymaker with an easily accessible and affordable afternoon out.
Nearby Ankaran Hrvatini have been knocking on the door of Slovenia’s top flight since 2013, finishing third in 2017. Galebi (‘The Seagulls’) play at the 1,000-capacity, single-stand ŠRC Katarina at Jadranska cesta 15B, almost walking distance from the Italian border. Next door, the Gostišče Sveta Katarina is a modern restaurant and 21-room motel. Some 300 metres away, is the stop for the hospital, Ankaran Bolnišnica, about 15min from Koper by bus, or 4km in a taxi.
The nearest airport to Koper is Trieste, 66km (41 miles) away, with no direct public transport links. You must first take APT Gorizia bus No.E51 to Trieste Autostazione (every 30min, every 1-2hr Sun, 1hr journey time, €4), by Trieste Centrale train station on piazza della Libertà. From there, Arriva provides 6-8 buses a day (not Sun) to Koper (45min journey time, €3.30). Rovinj-based Črnja Tours currently runs one bus a day (5.45pm) from Trieste to Koper, journey time 50min, 25kn/€3.35.
A train would require a byzantine number of changes (Gorizia Centrale/Nova Gorica, Sežana, Divača) and an overall journey time of 5hrs.
The cheapest transfer by taxi is just over €60.
Ljubljana Airport is 94km (58 miles) from Koper. A bus (€4.10) runs hourly (Mon-Fri) and every 2hrs (Sat, Sun) to Ljubljana terminal (journey time 50min) by the train station near the city centre. For times, type in ‘Letališče Brnik’ for the airport and ‘Ljubljana AP’ for the bus station.
Koper bus and train stations are next to each other, a 10-15min walk from the city centre via Ljubljanska cesta. The stadium is on the way, about 5-7min from the stations.
Everything is walkable – bus stops are for inter-city and coastal services that call along Koper’s main streets.
Based near Koper’s stations, Taxi Srečko (+386 31 386 000, +386 40 386 000) is a convenient local firm.
The nearest hotel to the Bonifika is the Vodišek, a Socialist-era cheapie spiffed up for modern-day requirements, with a decent breakfast and terrace bar/restaurant. Most of all, it’s halfway between stadium and station, hardly more than 5min walk from either.
On the stadium side of the historic centre, tucked away down a narrow sidestreet, the Histria contains three rooms of dorm beds plus a separate double and twin, in an old Istrian stone house, with the usual hostel facilities.
The main hotel in town is the seafront Koper, though its rooms are pretty functional considering it’s a three-star. Its restaurant is a popular meeting place, and it’s across the street from the hub of bars and eateries near the market.
On secluded Muzejski trg in the historic centre, the Museum Bife & Hostel offers a range of rooms, dorms and furnished apartments at knock-down prices, fronted by a pretty café terrace and opposite a decent football-focused bar.
Slightly out of the centre but handy for the stations, the Garni Hotel Pristan is Koper’s only four-star, set up to cater to the business crowd. In truth it’s not significantly better than the Vodišek, the only difference between its notch-above restaurant, which closes at 9pm.
Between Koper’s market and the showcase green square framed by seafront Semedelska cesta and Pristaniška ulica, a cluster of terrace bars and restaurants does a busy trade in summer.
Prominent venues include the Forum Bar, with TV sport screened inside and out, a range of beers and cocktails, and decent coffee. Alongside, the Park is more restaurant than bar but doubles up as a café outside of meal times. A big screen outside broadcasts major games.
Further along the seafront, prominent bar/café Kavarna Kapitanija provides coffees, shakes and ice-creams but has beers, spirits and TV too, and welcome shade near the beach. Round the little headland, the Slaščičarna Kroštola is in similar vein, just smaller and right by the beach.
In terms of bars, the best place to combine drinking and football watching is the excellent Bander Bar on Muzejski trg, offering rare Slovenian and Belgian beers, and several sports channels. With a big screen above its large terrace on a pretty, leafy, enclosed square, there’s little reason to move unless it starts raining.
An alternative might be the Lord Byron Pub on Repičeva ulica, behind the Hostel Histria, done out reasonably authentically, with TV football, draught Guinness and generous opening hours, coffee served from 7am weekdays, beer after midnight at weekends.
If you’d rather drink with locals, the nearby Gostilna Pri Tinetu at Gortanov trg 13 hides itself in a tangle of Old Town streets, an honest hostelry with Slovenian Laško beer and impossibly cheap lunches.