San Marino: Should They Stay or Should They Go?

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San Marino 0 v 8 England  (22.03.2013)

Games like this tend to prompt the predictable rendition that teams like San Marino should be in their own group with other minnows or ’pub teams’ of international football (more on that later). With fear of employing another cliché you can only play what’s in front of you.  

In front of us was getting up at silly o’clock, an early tube to Heathrow Terminal 5 , a flight to Bologna, and then a bus to the Bologna Centrale railway station, where we had a short stop over before catching a train onto Rimini. 

Once at Bologna Centrale we settled down for some mid afternoon aperitivo consisting of a couple of cold draught peroni’s and then what seemed an endless supply of fresh ciabatta’s and sandwiches all thrown in for the price of a pint. Italy was growing on me. 

About an hour later we took a reasonably priced but highly uninteresting 8 euro train journey down to Rimini, and then a short bus journey into the republic of San Marino.  

Jeff negotiated our stop with the bus driver and sure enough he dropped us off in Serravalle or rather nowhere-ville. Still feeling slightly agitated at having lost my glasses on the flight over, arguably on account of a Smirnoff breakfast I didn’t exactly take it in my stride when all the other England Fans stayed on the bus to continue onto San Marino – a place that I thought we had already arrived at! 

Serravalle was a very small town centred on a busy dual carriage way that runs on up to San Marino. Usually at this point you would be minutes away from raiding the mini bar but one literally frightening task remained. 

A short exchange with a local that hinged on a bad map and his interpretative skills rather than our grasp of Italian meant that we had to walk the wrong way up a dual carriageway to try and get to our hotel. On our left was a high wall and all that kept us from the oncoming traffic to our right was a painted white line about a metre wide that separated the aforementioned wall and the inside lane of the dual carriageway. 

The further we walked the narrower the so called pathway became until at one point the line disappeared as we approached a sharp bend on the carriageway. I remember thinking is this what pedestrians do here?  It was like an impromptu game of chicken, ten metres in front us the so called pathway merged into the road and all the time expensive looking vehicles, coaches and lorry’s were whizzing past, but apparently just beyond the point of no return was the promised land of the hotel!  

We engaged in a split second risk assessment and turned back on account of being scared but also because it was an unbelievably stupid idea! We walked past the local who laughed and made a sign by opening and closing his fist as if to say, shit yourself lads? 

After a quick check in and a stroll around Serravalle we realised that despite being located 10 minutes from the Olympic Stadium there wasn’t a lot else to call upon except a pizza restaurant and a couple of small bars. Deciding to shelve those options for match day, we headed on up to the fortified castle town of San Marino. 

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The entrance walkway to San Marino Castle…

SM7The bus ride up to San Marino is a pleasant one, and slowly snakes up the steep hill to the gates of San Marino Castle. A short stroll inside the castle walls reveals a somewhat surreal experience of a capital city. Quaint, picturesque, and narrow cobbled streets leads you further up to the three towers and past a range of designer shops, small bars, gun shops (yes gun shop’s), souvenirs and a convenient mix of eateries, ranging from cheap cafes (where you can see pictures of your food before you order) to the more a la carte castle restaurant. Something for all tastes here! Next to one of the aforementioned gun shops was the ‘Christmas Bar’, all rather bizarre. 

The views from the top of the castle are simply stunning – to the east you have open views right down to the Italian coastal town of Rimini and out to the Adriatic Sea. To the west is a view across the mountains and hills of the Upper Marecchia Valley, which as the sun started to set, made for a perfect place to chill out and enjoy a few cold beers. 

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Castle view to the east – Serravalle in the foreground and Rimini in the distance….

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Castle view to the west – sunset over the Upper Marecchia Valley….

Buses to and from the capital city to Serravalle are fairly infrequent and the last bus leaves at around 7pm. So if you stay up there late like we did you end up fighting over the one cab driver that seemed to have the monopoly of the trade – the only problem being the wait between jobs to get your go! 

Beware of a rip off too – our opening quote was 40 euros for a 9 mile journey. An immediate challenge of the seemingly high price saw the price drop to 25 euros. Not really in much of a position to negotiate further we reluctantly agreed to shell out than contemplate a 9 mile walk back to the hotel on a dimly lit dual carriageway back to Serravalle! This was like the last turkey in the shop – but we still felt slightly mugged off as we reluctantly jumped in the back! 

Match day: 

A late morning visit down to the Olympic stadium to collect tickets opened up the opportunity for an impromptu self guided stadium tour. The gates to the ground were wide open and beckoned us in. It was too good an opportunity to refuse, and there is something quite rewarding about sneaking into a football stadium unchallenged. The chance to get some photos on the England bench, and on the pitch itself too good to miss. 

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“Can we not knock it”…

The ground is a two sided athletics stadium with a capacity of 7,000. Mark had likened the ground to watching an international at Willesden athletics track and he wasn’t far off the mark. Behind both goals were fenced off, one with a hill rising up behind one end, and a smaller area of shrubbery at the other. Both would provide perfect viewing platforms for ticket-less England fans that had travelled – and if we ever draw San Marino again and you don’t make the cut from the ballot – do not fear – go anyway the view was probably better from the hillside than in the ground!

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The grass-banked north stand!…

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…and the smaller grass-banked south stand!!…

Although it was mid-March, the weather in San Marino over these 3 days was quality – the spring sunshine had cranked the temperature up to around 20C, and the temptation for a few outdoor beers was just too much to put off any longer. There were a couple of small bars located in the quiet back streets of Serravalle – and even a disused terrace area proved to be a great place to stop for a drink and enjoy views back up to San Marino Castle (see below):

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Rolling hills and rural countryside provided a distinctly unusual setting for a world cup qualifier, and its these kind of trips that throw something different into the equation that make watching England away such a great experience. It felt as if we had turned up to the rural Devon countryside for an international! Alright the match was likely to be a farce (or so it should be), but sitting there for a few hours enjoying a few drinks was bizarre given that we were here for a world cup qualifier! 

You can only beat what’s in front of you, and for a change England turned up from the off against a ‘minnow’ nation, playing with pace, movement and attacking flair; something not often associated with an England performance (!!)….and they opened San Marino up at will. 

We’ve seen the games against Andorra and San Marino in recent years, and to be honest they have been pretty frustrating experiences. It’s a no win situation – and an early goal always settles down the crowd and the inevitable boo boys from adding additional pressure if England aren’t at least 4-0 up at half time. 

Thankfully that didn’t happen on the night, and amongst others Lampard looked particularly sharp. Five first half goals from five different scorers effectively put the game to bed inside the first 45 minutes. The pick of some well worked goals coming from a 25 yard ‘rasper’ from Ashley Young. 

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Two banks of five!… San Marino park the bus….

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Ticketless England fans in the south stand!!….

I think Joe Hart barely touched the ball in the whole game – that showed how little a threat San Marino posed on the night, and it begs the question as to why punch bag teams like San Marino put themselves through it! 

Is there a solution?… 

Surely FIFA / UEFA could establish a pre-qualifying group for nations of this ilk similar to the pre-qualifiers in Asia? 

A group featuring Andorra, San Marino, Faroe Islands, Lichtenstein, Malta, and Luxembourg for example would certainly be a nice leveller for these countries. 

It would certainly create more competitive international games for these nations, with the prize being entry to the qualifying group proper. At least it would give these nations something to really play for, and hey, you never know they might develop some confidence as a team by featuring in a pre-qualifying group where they don’t have to park the bus every time! 

To put this into context, in the last four major tournament qualifying campaigns (WC2006, EU2008, WC2010, EU2012) only one of the above mentioned teams has gained more than a 5 point haul during an entire qualifying campaign, and that was Lichtenstein who managed a haul of 7 points during the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Despite that fine effort they still finished bottom of the group. 

I appreciate that by introducing a pre qualifying group you are effectively removing the minnows from the main qualifying groups (and those potential dream ties against the ‘big’ nations), but in turn you would reduce the international calendar by two competitive games during a given qualifying campaign. In this day where complaints are rife that there are not enough dates in the year to fit all top flight football in, surely this could be an attractive compromise? 

This next idea might be taking things too far – but an additional way to offer an incentive to the so called ‘minnow nations’ would be to use some form of co-efficient to ensure the same 6 countries aren’t always featuring in the pre-qualifying group (unless results determine otherwise). Bear with me on this?!…. 

Example: if a minnow nation qualified from the ‘pre-qualifying group’ to the main qualifying stage, and then went on to perform fairly well (or better on the co-efficient rating than another nation that finished bottom of another qualifying group) then they could potentially remain in the qualifying proper stage for the next major tournament draw. This would be at the expense of another nation who would then drop into the pre-qualifying group. 

On the flip side if the nation that won the pre-qualifying group had a record which determined them as the weakest team during qualifying proper they would return to the pre-qualifying group ahead of the next major tournament qualifying period. 

This would effectively introduce a relegation and promotion system to the pre-qualifying group, in addition to the reward for the pre-qualifying group winner progressing to the qualifying proper stage.

It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of supporters of the so called ‘minnow’ nations on this proposal and whether they would prefer this over the current set up?! 

Anyway I’ve digressed….(probably as much as Joe Hart did mentally during the San Marino game itself!)….and England completed the formality of the rout with three second half goals from Rooney, Sturridge and Defoe, wrapping up a more than comfortable 8-0 hammering. 

The game was a decent run out for England, and hopefully would set things up nicely for the higher profile affair that was to be Montenegro away 3 days later. 

Att:4,900 

Goals: Della Valle 12’ (og); Oxlade chamberlain 28’; Defoe 35’; Young 39’; Lampard 42’; Rooney 54’; Sturridge 70’; Defoe 77’.

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