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The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – a review

November 22, 2011

If asked to nominate an episode of scarcely-believable sporting drama, most people would have little difficulty in proffering an example. The 2005 Champions League final, the second Ashes test of that same year, game six of the 2011 World Series – three events in recent times where the incredible has happened. It is not just at the pinnacle of professional sport that such moments unfold however, and The Miracle of Castel di Sangro begins in the aftermath of a less widely-renowned sporting shock.

Castel di Sangro, a town of little over 6,000 people, is not a place with a great deal of sporting pedigree. It appears to be rather unremarkable, full stop. But for a short period in the 1990s, its footballers ensured that it gained unprecedented national recognition, at least among football fans. A hitherto perennial resident of Serie C1 and below, the 1995-96 season saw the club reach Serie B, beating Ascoli on penalties. Joe McGinniss, an American with a child-like enthusiasm for the game, arrives to find the town and its team still savouring the joy of promotion, but also apprehensive at the prospect of a hard season in the second tier of Italian football.

The book tells the story of the season from beginning to end, but it is more than simply a chronicle of the team’s performances. The majority of matches are dealt with in some detail, but these accounts are often much less interesting than the other aspects of the author’s time in Italy. McGinniss evidently gets caught up in each game, from the unexpected victories to the heart-sinking losses, but it is the people he encounters that elevate the book from simply a blow-by-blow narration of Castel di Sangro’s attempts to avoid relegation.

While McGinniss charts the club’s fortunes on the pitch, his seemingly ever-improving Italian allows him to connect with the players, the manager and other individuals connected with the organisation, without the shackles of an interpreter. He is helped in this regard by the fact that the team and their manager, Osvaldo Jaconi, all eat at Marcella’s, a restaurant in the town. It is quite a set of characters that sits round the table. There is Luca D’Angelo, intensely disliked by the manager because of his communism, curious as to the author’s role in the Vietnam war; Gigi Prete, arrested along with his glamorous South American wife mid-way through the season in connection with cocaine smuggling; and Roberto Alberti, initially cold towards the outsider but a man whose respect for McGinniss grows.

The stories of these people, the majority of whom are lower-league journeymen who have reached the zenith of their careers, and the way in which they respond to triumph, adversity and genuine tragedy, are compelling. There is no indication as to whether the season described in this book is typical of those endured by Serie B teams at the time (one hopes not), but those who represent this particular town on the pitch have to deal with significant problems. Castel di Sangro has no stadium at the start and is forced to play its home games in the city of Chieti, over 60 miles away. When the new ground is finally constructed, the pitch is unusable. Later, one player receives treatment in a local hospital and is nearly killed after being jabbed with an unsterilised needle. Such concerns pale into insignificance, however, when compared with the death of two players in a car accident during the season. Their memories seem to act as a spur to the remainder of the squad to try their very hardest to remain in the division for at least another year.

It is not just the players with whom McGinniss converses; he and Jaconi enjoy a testy relationship. While the two get on well for long periods – indeed, the author thanks the manager for being “the finest next-door neighbour a man could ever have” – there are times when each becomes impatient, sometimes angry, with the other. Usually these arguments arise because of tactics. McGinniss chastises Jaconi for favouring a negative approach and using the wrong players; the manager responds angrily by criticising the American for trying to meddle in a sport about which he has insufficient knowledge.

The author’s desire to involve himself in the the football as much as possible is probably down to his keenness for the game but it does become irksome. McGinniss is one of the least interesting characters in the book, yet at times he appears to want to be central to the story. On more than one occasion, for instance, in protest at the club’s off-field affairs (he is angered by a publicity stunt pulled by president Gabriele Gravina, for example), he scribed his concerns onto flyers before distributing them around the town and sending them to notable individuals such as the mayor, some of the players and Gravina himself. His continuous questioning of Jaconi’s team selections understandably irritated the manager. For all we hear of that man’s stubbornness, it is a shame that his neighbour never grew to consider him so obstinate that any attempt to change his mind would prove futile.

Then there are the two men running things behind the scenes, Gravina and Signor Pietro Rezza, a man seemingly plucked from every mafia film you’ve ever seen, whose not-so-humble abode overlooks the town. Smoking a fat cigar and forever accompanied by bodyguards, Rezza is the man with the money and the muscle. Gravina is his son-in-law. While Castel di Sangro’s footballing fate is sealed in dramatic fashion during the penultimate match, Rezza is central to the finale to both the season and the book. Consequently, McGinness’s season abroad ends on a sour note (this is in no way a reflection on whether or not the team avoids relegation or not). The author’s reaction to the events of the final two chapters suggest that for all his wish to get to know the club and its key individuals throughout the season, it is harder than it appears to shake off the mentality of an outsider.

McGinniss writes well and at a lively pace and the book details a frankly extraordinary season. It has clearly been produced with the American market in mind, but it is a testament to its quality that such Americanisms such as “overtime” instead of “stoppage time” or “injury time” (to give one example) do not become an annoyance. Similarly, the basic rules of the game are outlined early on in the book, but despite making sure those who know little about football, still less about Italian football, are aware of the necessary basics, McGinniss does not give the impression he looks down to his readership. The book would have benefited from the author attempting to speak to the fans – the tifosi – but sadly we never hear their take on people or events. Despite this oversight, the book is an energetic, well-written account of a small club’s search for a second miracle.

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