The tiny hilltop state of San Marino became part of the European football family in the mid 1980s, causing Jimmy Greaves to query their right to be there on that week’s Saint & Greavsie TV show: ‘Saaahhn Marino? That’s a drink, innit?’
Not long afterwards, all in the little republic and many in Scotland would have been raising glasses when winger Davide Gualtieri capitalised on a loose ball to open the scoring against England, as part of San Marino’s debut qualifying campaign for the World Cup. Not only did the shock goal all but end England’s faint hopes of reaching USA ’94, it remains the fastest on record for any World Cup qualifier.
In that same tournament, San Marino held Turkey to a 0-0 draw and for the away leg, the Sammarinese had pegged the Turks to 1-1 in Ankara until three very late strikes from Hakan Sükür and company.
Back then, San Marino stood at a very creditable 118 in the FIFA world rankings, almost halfway up the table.
Since then, San Marino’s team of part-timers have recorded only one victory, a 1-0 win over fellow minnows Liechtenstein in a friendly, the goal coming from the team’s all-time top scorer, still active Andy Selva.
Apart from these early highlights, every two years San Marino puts out a team to be tonked by the likes of Germany (13-0), Ukraine (8-0 and 9-0) and Holland (11-0). Even on that fateful day in Bologna, England ended up winning 7-1 – having needed to win by seven clear goals.
Since then, the national side has played all their home games at the Olimpico, now San Marino, Stadium, in Serravalle. One of nine municipalities, or castelli, that comprise San Marino, Serravalle leads to the main, lofty Città and is on the main bus route from the nearest Italian city of Rimini 17km away. Serravalle is also where club team San Marino Calcio, recently relegated to Serie D, play games within the Italian league set-up.
The other clubs, regular European competitors such as Folgore Falciano (also based at the national stadium), Tre Fiori and Tre Penne, compete in the Campionato Sammarinese and the Coppa Titano, the local cup tournament that has been going since 1937.
The nearest airport to San Marino is Federico Fellini, 5km (2.7 miles) south-east of Rimini, 16km (10 miles) from San Marino. A bus (€1.20) runs every 30mins to Rimini train station. A taxi to Rimini (+39 0541 50020) should cost €20 and San Marino (landline +378 0549 997 173, mobile +39 337 100 8396) €50.
As you exit Rimini train station, head diagonally right over the road for the last bus stop.
A single to Serravalle (journey time about 35min) is €2.80, and to the Città of San Marino (50mins), €4.50, only available on board and not from any other ticket office in the bus concourse. Ignore the private buses that serve the many Russian tax-free shoppers heading for San Marino – they charge four times as much.
Buses terminate at the piazzale Calcigni, at the foot of Monte Titano and the Basilica a steep if short climb away.
For San Marino Stadium, alight beforehand at Sovrapasso, by the pedestrian walkway.
There are two hotels near the San Marino Olympic Stadium: Il Monte and the four-star Best Western Palace. The former is a friendly, neat little lodging, attached to an equally friendly restaurant/pizzeria of the same name run by a family of Roma fans. The latter is equipped with a pool and conference centre. Both suffer from their location on the San Marino Superstrada: those staying at Il Monte must walk the long way round to reach the pedestrian overpass and thus the stadium; those staying in the Best Western, on the stadium side of the Superstrada, simply cannot leave the hotel without being in a car.
Up in San Marino, the best option is the four-star Hotel Titano, whose restaurant enjoys a commanding view from atop the mountain of the same name. Below, nearer the bus terminal, the Hotel Joli and nearby Quercia Antica are both clean, comfortable and convenient.
Those staying in Rimini are swamped for choice. The seafront and parallel viale Amerigo Vespucci, particularly between the landmark Grand Hotel Rimini and piazzale Kennedy, are lined with little but hotels. The Golden Tulip Waldorf offers pools, a panoramic breakfast terrace, even a floodlit five-a-side football pitch, while at the other end of the scale the Hotel Europa is an old-school cheapie on hotel-booking sites.
Serravalle has a couple of options behind the Il Monte hotel: from late spring, Kiosko at via Balducci/Biondo Flavio is a terrace-only spot with a fabulous panorama; it’s attached to Bar del Castello, with an enclosed terrace, TV sports, a concert stage and football trophies galore, won by the pub team. A little further up on main piazza Giovanni Bertoldi, l’Insolito Posto is a bar/restaurant with a terrace and bright new interior sporting framed San Marino shirts.
Up in San Marino city, the Pic Nic at the far end of piazzale Calcigni from the bus terminal is a handy little spot displaying Italy 82 and Juventus 85 team line-ups, and another fabulous hilltop view from the back dining room. Walk down Capannaccia and you come to via Palazzina and, at No.4, the suitably pub-like London Pub, open from 7.30pm, closed on Mondays.
Rimini has been catering to thirsty foreigners for decades. In fact, its stand-out pub, the Rose & Crown, was Italy’s first and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. Sandro and his team serve pints of Warsteiner, Slalom, Forst, Beamish and Foster’s in a front bar lined with Italian football shirts, focus falling on the dartboard and the game on TV. A lively mix of locals, Russians and expat Brits create a match atmosphere. Pub grub is served in the large back room, bookended with a stage for free nightly live music.
Nearby, the large and suitably ship-like Bounty has been another long-term choice for foreign visitors, pirate-dressed staff serving oven-baked pizzas, Italian standard dishes, and pints of Bitburger, Erdinger Weiß and Sardinian Ichnusa in a wooden interior divided into bar, restaurant and club. Tables are reserved by a Italian and Russian regulars for screen-gazing on match days. Non-summer options on the seafront itself are few: the Nettuno is a neat bar/restaurant ideal for an afternoon aperitif overlooking the waves.
Further up, the best choice to watch the match with Italians is The Barge, a pub-like bar/club with a summer terrace and regular music agenda.