The Miracle of Castel di Sangro

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro

By Joe McGinniss

Sphere, 2000

There are many things I’d trust my brother with but a book recommendation wouldn’t usually be one of them. Yet around the turn of the century, in between Dan Brown-type thrillers and Poirot-lite whodunnits, he read an intriguing book about an American who spent a season in a tiny Italian town following the fortunes of a lower league football team. To this day, it remains his favourite book – he even faked Joe McGinniss’ autograph on the title page of his well-thumbed copy. Sadly, in my ignorant snobbery I consigned it to the slush pile alongside the great literary works of Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney. Oh, the mistakes of youth.

How times have changed. Now I can’t stop reading football books and I celebrate McGinniss, God rest his wonderful soul, as a hero in the Hornby tradition. A brilliant writer delving deep into an obsession – surely that’s the noblest of pursuits. Like all the sporting classics, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is about a whole lot more than a game. It may start out as a footballing endeavour – from Roberto Baggio at World Cup 1994 to remote Abruzzo and a ‘miracle’ journey all the way from C2 to Serie B – but it soon becomes apparent that ‘the ninety minutes of calcioplayed each Sunday were having less and less to do with my experience of Castel di Sangro’.

Instead, it’s about the many characters he meets along the way: the mysteriously silent owner Pietro Rezza, the sharp-tongued manager Osvaldo Jaconi, the team’s mother and number 1 fan Marcella, and that’s without naming a single player. And they, after all, are the leading actors here, displaying the kind of dignity and spirit that superstars can only dream of. I can’t begin to do them justice here but as promotion hero Pietro Spinosa tells McGinniss, ‘a squad like this – and I speak not of talent but of the cuore e grinta e carratere … this is once in a life, and once only … And for you, Joe, to pass the season among these kinds of men – quello è il vero miracolo.’

Alongside character in spades, there’s Hollywood-style action. Castel di Sangro contains all the elements of a page-turning thriller; it’s a will-they-won’t-they rollercoaster ride with subplots of corruption, sex, drugs and death. But then this is Italy, where football and power are bedfellows, with the Mafia reigning supreme over mere mortals. And where a hotel can completely close for a day and a football team can play half a season without a home stadium. Many of the books most interesting and entertaining sections show McGinniss coming to terms with ‘the richness of the life I led as a stranger in a strange land’.

Or attempting to, anyway. One thing McGinniss is not is a shrinking violet; having left his family behind in America for a year of unadulterated obsession, he expects answers to even the most difficult of questions. This brave, partisan stance makes for brilliant reading, as he harasses his neighbour Jaconi about the negative tactics and stubborn team selection, and confronts club president Gabriele Gravina about the misuse of funds. But despite the frequent farce surrounding him, McGinniss never loses his sense of humour, or ‘la potenza della speranza’. For every day of disillusion, there’s an equal and opposite moment of exultation. This is a book about football, after all.

Castel di Sangro is the kind of story you never want to end, showcasing football at its humane best. To quote defender Luca D’Angelo, ‘Serie B – never a dull moment except during the ninety minutes of the match!’ A film could never do it justice, but McGinniss certainly has. My eternal thanks to him and, of course, to my brother.

Buy it here

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