After publishing a classic early interview in July 2017, the Guardian ran a second feature in October 2019. “A dog, a cat and 22 fans: watching European football’s worst top-flight team”, an edit of the San Marino chapter in Europe United, features my attempts to get a game in the curious microstate.
Björn, the wicked barman I met in Finland, was cutting. “San Marino is like the Åland Islands having their own league. You only need two barely functional legs and to be aged 18 to 40.” I was now 41, but San Marino was surely my best chance of playing a match on my travels.
San Marino was the lowest-ranked league based on club results in European competition over the previous five seasons. Only Kosovo, unable to accrue ranking points until they became a member of Uefa in 2016, had a lower coefficient. My chances of playing were improved further by watching the final round of matches in the regular league season. And I even chose a dead match, Murata against Virtus, involving the worst team in top‑division European football. Murata had drawn one and lost 18 of their league matches and had a goal difference of minus 50.
I spoke to Matteo, an Italian follower of my travels who compiles San Marino statistics – appearances, goals and subjective attributes such as player values – for the computer game Football Manager. “That’s quite impossible,” he said when I asked about getting a game. Understandable, I guessed, this being a Uefa league and not suitable for a washed-out amateur. But it wasn’t my lack of talent. “San Marino has a foreigners limit of seven, so it is unlikely the teams will leave a blank spot for you.” Even Italians were classified as foreigners unless they lived in the country.
I was in San Marino for two days in the spring sunshine. The views were astounding from the city walls: the Adriatic to the east, a snowy rut of mountains to the west. I walked through St Francis’s Gate, where a policeman was needlessly directing the limited traffic, and spotted some young English cyclists. They were wearing the instantly recognisable purple of Durham University, where I was president of the Football Supporters’ Society for one glorious year.
I met Luca from the San Marino Football Federation by the Palazzo Pubblico and gave a short interview for San Marino TV. Luca explained that notional home and away teams were randomly allocated to stadiums in San Marino. The league format was the most curious in Europe, with 15 teams split into two leagues – one of eight, another of seven – and the top three from each playing off for the title and European places over a further six rounds.
San Marino had the craziest league with the latest kick-off times. My match started at 9.15pm. As in Andorra and Gibraltar, most of the players had been working during the day. Luca explained that San Marinese footballers tried to gain experience in amateur, semi‑professional or professional leagues in Italy. Although some played in San Marino because it was easier to manage the three essentials: work, family and football.