The six venues chosen for this summer’s U21 European Championships in Italy is a curious mix, strandling two countries too! The North East pairing of the Friulian cities of Udine and Trieste are quite a distance from the other four. Reggio Emilia and Bologna form the “central” pairing, but it is the appointment of fourth tier stadiums at Cesena and San Marino, acting as the “southern” venues that might have been the surprise picks! Part of this article was penned for Football Weekends embellished with anecdotes of my travels to the latter duo for football.
Had Cesena (pronounced ch-zane-A) been hosting last summer, the town might have been a little gloomy in outlook as AC Cesena went bust having been party to an inflated transfer fee scandal in an attempt to balance the books. A two league demotion, and the subtle alteration to Cesena FC later, the club are on the way back, promoted as Champions from the fourth tier. They were once held in highest regard, perceived to be well run with a conveyor belt of talent youth system, but it will take time to remove the tarnished reputation outwith the local area.
The town has a population of just under 100,000, but given it is host to a sizeable part of the University of Bologna’s curriculum, it can have a distinctly youthful and busy feel. The quaint Piazza Popolo is the centrepiece of the town. Here you will find restaurants, a bar and an ice cream parlour. One side of piazza has a high wall which is the periphery of the Rocco Malatestiana, accessed through the arched tunnel on the piazza near the fountain, then up and up to the hilltop fortress.
The Stadio Dino Manuzzi is named after a famous son of Cesena calcio from yesteryear. Having hosted Serie A football less than a decade ago, the Manucci was always going to be too big for Serie D with its 23,900 capacity, but the fans stayed loyal throughout a troubled year. It is a fabulous stadium, one worthy of International occasions, albeit with an artificial pitch. It is about a twenty to thirty minute walk from the railway or bus station, as they are opposite each other. From the road outside the railway station, turn left and follow it a few hundred yards to a small roundabout where the road goes slightly left, but you want to turn right, and head up in this direction for half a kilometre or so. You will eventually come to a busy thoroughfare crossing your path, here you want to turn left and follow it until the stadium appears, complete with a sizeable seahorse, the clubs emblem in the middle of a grassy roundabout just outside. In the vicinity you will find two or three small bars and a cafe or two as well. When Cesena are at home catering vans appear to add alternatives to the grub available, but as to whether they will be on hand for these games I am unsure.
The Seahorse is a curious emblem for a landlocked town and club, but Cesenatico, some 10 kilometres away is considered the beach extension of Cesena. There is no railway link between the two, and if using such transportation Cesenatico is easier reached by train from Rimini, about 25 minutes away. It is a fine resort, with wonderful restaurants on the river side that runs through the town and doubles up as the harbour for its fishing fleet too, so guess what is very fresh and in abundance! At the Cesenatico railway station you will find a wonderful museum to the great Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, a local lad. Cesenatico have their own team, but in mid-June only the conclusion of the third tier play offs might still be rumbling on from the domestic game!
Cesena traditionally make periodic appearances in the top flight and were last promoted to Serie A in 2010 which was a fourth promotion to the top table for a club only founded in 1940! The high point was in 75/76 with a 6th place finish in Serie A being good enough to qualify for Europe, where they suffered a round one exit in the UEFA Cup against then East German side Magdeburg, losing 4-3 on aggregate but they gave it a real go having lost the first leg away 3-0! They became only the second Emilia side to play in Europe, and 40 years on, only Parma and Sassuolo have been added to that roster!! But the aforementioned sides have perhaps rumbled Cesena’s status as once being the second team of the region behind Bologna!
I first stepped off a train in Cesena in June 1987 to see the “Seahorses” play, it was my first game in Italy, and one of the first clubs in the country for whom I had a passion! If Como were the first, by virtue of being in the city the night Italy won the World Cup, Cesena were second, an intriguing name at the bottom of the clubs in the Subbuteo catalogue for white top and black shorts, listed under West Germany, Derby, Hereford and Ayr, but of course I was going to be drawn to Cesena!! Thinking back, it was incredible we got tickets but having arrived 6 hours before kick off we went straight to the stadium to get our briefs as promotion to Serie A was on that day! The stadium was absolutely full, the last game in the ground with the enormously high and bouncing temporary stands, before it was very quickly reconstructed to its magnificent present day look! A 2-1 win versus Catania didn’t get them up automatically that day as other results hadn’t all gone their way, but they did make it up via a convoluted three way play off, with a “final” play off win 2-1 against Lecce in San Benedetto del Tronto!
I have had the pleasure of four subsequent matches in Cesena over the intervening years which capture the see-saw fortunes of the club. I earned my stripes with third tier action v Pro Sesto (2008), Serie B versus Bari (2006) and Serie A v Inter (2011) which saw another full house and a very memorable match! Cesena were leading right until the end, when two late strikes from the visitors broke the bianconeri hearts! In April 2017 Brescia were in town for a mid week league fixture, and while both clubs have Serie A pedigree, they were both struggling to make it clear of the relegation zone. I know Brescia is a fair distance from Cesena for a midweek game, but it was surprising to see no away fans, after all, these two clubs have “fan” friendship! Indeed, the local Ultras were operating a first half protest of their own, with their “zone” empty and no singing. Cesena played relaxed and well to the polite applause of a sizeable crowd, and deserved the lead at the break. Protest over, the tape was removed and the Ultras banners were swaying and the atmosphere returned to normality, but oddly their first ditty was “Brescia, Brescia”, an acknowledgement of their absence friends! Brescia had upped their game and were much more menacing and got the equaliser. Cesena pressed for a winner and despite some terrific near things that came and went, we all trotted out after a 1-1 draw!
The sad footnote to all of this was the clubs involvement in an accountancy scam with Chievo Verona, where an inflated transfer fee, subsequently rumbled it created a cataclysmic sized debt. They have waded their way past Forli and tidily Santarcangelo in derby matches en route to the third tier next term, where Imolese, Ravenna and Rimini will be lying in wait for derby games too, a far cry from the once great regional top derby, Cesena v Bologna, which is still a few seasons off yet, sadly!
The inclusion of San Marino on the roster of venues is a wonderful touch, and a boost for the Most Serene Republic of San Marino as the hilltop state can be known! The country is named after a stonemason from the island of Rab in modern day Croatia! Saint Marinus moved to Rimini with his chums, but his sermons were continually being persecuted so he fled to nearby Mount Titano, where the Republic founded as early as 301!! Gradually surrounding areas joined and the land area grew, albeit it is still a miniscule country with a very small population of just 33,300, and flat land is very much at a real premium.
Right up at the top of hill is the “city” of San Marino, and what a wonderful place it is too. This is the real tourist hub of the country, as well as its economic and governmental powerhouse. It’s tight streets are full of souvenir shops, as well as San Marino labelled goods similar those you’d get elsewhere but at a fraction of the cost, and probably a lesser quality too. Bars and restaurants abound as you wind up to the very top, the fortress, Guaita at the summit of Mount Titano. The views from here on a clear day will allow sight of Rimini and the Adriatic Sea as well as the surrounding, distinctly flat lands of Emilia-Romagna.
The San Marino national side have hit rock bottom, now allegedly the worst International team in the world, but are they really worse than Guam, or American Samoa? Pleasingly they have abandoned their dark blue kit, and reverted to the classic light blue original, having given up on the notion that the darker shade would mean they’d be taken more seriously!
One of the last areas to join the Republic just over 500 years ago was Serravalle. This area at the base of the hill, almost the first place you come through after the border, and before the winding route to the top. If you are coming to San Marino by public transport, you need to catch the Bonelli Bus Company bus from Rimini. There stop is just across the road from the railway station, 50 yards to the right, but the first of a variety of bus stops lined up on that side of the street. The majority of the tourist on the bus will be going to the final stop right up at San Marino town, but if you are merely going for the game and don’t fancy a lengthy walk down the hill, make sure they let you off at Serravalle. The stadium is just off the road to the right, hidden behind trees down in a hollow. I stayed in a hotel just above the stadium when I was at a game here in 2007, so local options to stay are available.
The ground is now known as the San Marino stadium, essentially it is just two stands running the length of the pitch with a running track around it. With a capacity of just 6,664 it is by some distance the smallest stadium hosting U21 action. Aside from the national side, San Marino calcio, the Italian fourth tier league side also play here, as well as some big matches from the local league. It is debatable as to whether the locals will embrace this tournament, but I hope they do, as it is a rare opportunity for San Marino to host such an event, and for them to perhaps see goals scored by both participating International teams for a change!
My sole endeavour to watch a game in San Marino was in May 1991 but it turned out to be a bit of a disaster! I thought I was doing the right thing, checking into a Serravalle hotel for two nights either side of an International with Bulgaria, positively glowing having seen Ancona beat Ascoli in the big Marche derby 2-0 at a jam packed Stadio Dorico before heading north. The night before the game I strolled down to stadium, pretty much a one stand arena in those days, but it was all locked up, and no posters were visible suggesting the kick off time. These were the days long before “apps” that would resolve such a query immediately, and on game day I became more and more perplexed, no one in the hotel or any given establishment in the town had a clue when the kick off was scheduled. I suspect a lot didn’t even know there was an International! The only plausible explanation came from a chap who had a perfectly valid theory! Inter Milan were playing Roma in the UEFA Cup Final that night at 8,45pm, so a 6pm kicked off down in Serravalle would allow everyone to get home in time for that final. I bought it, and ambled down the winding way from San Marino town to the ground. I arrived about 5,45pm and surprisingly it was a case of just walking in, no one was looking for cash! A few hundred people were already in the ground, and shortly after taking a seat, the teams trotted out. Maybe ten minutes later something struck me, they hadn’t stood for the National Anthems, and an enquiry of a chap behind me brought the news, this was the second half, with Bulgaria already leading 2-0!! It wasn’t much more than a training exercise, you’ve seen the film, San Marino sitting deep and hoping for the final whistle without being humiliated. They merely lost a third from the penalty spot, but against Stoichkov, Kostadinov and Letchkov a 3-0 loss was a bit of a result!
I am staying in Rimini for two weeks over the next International weekend in June and I had hoped that I could have added a full 90 minutes to my San Marino CV, but it transpires they are away for both fixtures in order to prepare the stadium for hosting the U21 Championships. Thankfully this takes place after we have departed as otherwise Rimini might have been busier in June than one would wish for a quiet, relaxing holiday!