In The Miracle of Castel di Sangro , Joe McGinniss tells the story of his year living among and observing the soccer team from tiny Castel di Sangro, Italy, population 5,000. In the years preceding his arrival, this Cinderella team climbed its way up through the highly structured ranks of Italy's national soccer leagues, from amateur dilletanti to professional Serie B. That put them just one step away from the fabled Serie A, the greatest soccer league in the world. Imagine a recreational baseball team from Freehold, New Jersey, finding themselves playing in the major leagues, and you'll have some idea of the improbability. And this is all in the first chapter.
How does an American writer, perhaps best known for The Selling of the President 1968 and Fatal Vision , get sent to Italy to write a book? About a soccer team? In a tiny mountain village in the poorest part of the country? This is surely part of the miracle, too. McGinniss was so excited by World Cup '94, the first ever held in the United States, that he caught soccer fever and never lost it. Quenching his natural reporter's thirst for facts and information, he began reading everything he could about soccer, seeing games when in Europe, and immersing himself in the history and lore of the world's most popular game. McGinniss maneuvers the reader gracefully and succinctly through its rules and history in general, as well as the specifics of the Italian passion for il calcio. So if you're a newcomer to the sport, don't worry -- you'll learn plenty without getting too distracted from the heart of the story.
As important as the X's and O's may be, the true allure of this book comes from the characters who populate both the team and the town. In Italy, soccer is -- along with food, cigarettes, cell phones, the Renaissance, and the Pope -- one of the true essentials of daily life. For the people of a town as isolated and small as Castel di Sangro, none of these elements seems to exist without the others. And for one year, Joe McGinniss lived with them, learned their language, shopped at their markets, and joined their beloved team for every wonderful meal and long bus ride, every heroic victory or agonizing loss.
Along the way, he describes a hilarious and endearing cast of characters. There's Barbara, the beautiful translator who shows him around in his first few weeks, before he speaks any Italian; Signore Gabriele Gravini, the team president; his boss and team owner, Signor Rezza, whose financial control of the team seems to disguise many other "interests"; Osvaldo Jaconi, the thick-necked, veteran coach who knows only one word of English, "bulldozer"; and, of course, the players.
The players are something of a little family in their own right. Some are from Castel di Sangro and have played with the team since it was just a group of amateurs. Others are newcomers: young ones forced to prove themselves in the "minor leagues" before moving on to bigger and better teams, stadiums, and towns; and older ones, whose careers peaked long before the top, who see Castel di Sangro as their last chance to put food on the table playing the game they love. No matter their history or future, the players are like brothers. Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they argue, but they are always together.
My favorite scenes in the book are the dinners among the players. All the unmarried players (which means most of the team), Coach Jaconi, and "il famoso scittori americano," Joe McGinniss, eat together at Marcella's, the only restaurant in town. This passage describing the restaurant gives a glimpse of the intimacy of life in Castel di Sangro:
The same thirteen or fourteen men would gather twice a day, five days a week, at the same long, rectangular table next to the kitchen, eating the same food and hearing the rasp of Jaconi's voice week after week from September to June... Yet because of Marcella -- her spontaneity, her capacity for empathy, her innate warmth -- even the married players would bring their wives and children for dinner every week. And Gravine would regularly host large parties for family, business associates, and friends. Laundry was dropped off and picked up at Marcella's. Mail for players was delivered to Marcella's... Romances bloomed, withered, died and were reborn on her pay phone. Not to mention the dozen or so cell phones that were in use on her premises at any given time, day or night.
This is not just a sports book, written by a historian from the stands or by a retired hero who made the moments happen. It's a book about Castel di Sangro, the team and the town, and about Joe McGinniss. As his Italian develops during the season, so too do his appreciation of the game and his love for the players. With every passing game, McGinniss's passions oscillate higher and lower, his gesticulations get wilder and wilder, until he could almost be mistaken for an Italian soccer fan. For Americans who love this great game, undernourished by the lack of appreciation of it in our country, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is the sweetest nectar. For anyone who likes a good sports story but has never understood why soccer has the power to drive billions of people around the world into paroxysms of ecstasy and agony, this real-life fable will be a revelation. In any case, there has never been a book quite like it.
With the growing popularity of soccer in North America, McGinniss, author of numerous best-selling works of narrative nonfiction (Blind Faith, LJ 1/89), has written the rags-to-riches story of how an Italian soccer team, Castel di Sangro from the Abruzzi region, rose through the ranks from the very bottom (Terza Categoria) to the Serie B--a remarkable feat. There are eight steps to reach the world's best league, the Serie A. The Italian press was motivated by the achievement of Castel di Sangro, referring to the club as the "Lilliputi." More than a mere history of the team's improbable season, this book provides the reader with insights into the passionate world of Italian soccer. The journey documents the trials and tribulations surrounding a professional sports team. Certainly a good read for soccer fans as well as for other sports enthusiasts; recommended for purchase where demand warrants. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/99.]--Larry Robert Little, Penticton P.L., BC Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Writing a book based on reality can be a sticky business, as McGinniss...surely knows from past experience....[H]e has come away with an engaging tale well worth telling, rich in comic incidents...
The New York Times Book Review
This venture into the murky waters of Italian soccer begins as a radical departure for the best-selling journalist McGinnis (The Last Brother, not reviewed, etc.), known more for his true crime volumes than his sports reporting. Over the first few chapters McGinniss explains how he became enamored of the world's most popular sport after watching the 1994 World Cup, which took place in the US. He pursued his newfound love to one of the hotbeds of football (to give it its proper name) mania, Italy. There he stumbled across an enchanting true-to-life fairy tale, the story of a beleaguered minor-league team from Castel di Sangro, a tiny mountain town in the gut-wrenchingly poor Abruzzo region, a team that had managed to climb up the ladder of soccer success. McGinniss resolved to spend the entire season with the Castel di Sangro team to see if they would survive a year in Serie B representing the smallest municipality to ever send a team that high in Italian football. At first, this seems unlikely and even unpromising material for McGinniss, but as he develops emotional ties to the individual players, the wacky coach who calls himself "a bulldozer," and the somewhat sinister figures who run the team, the book takes on a certain delightful momentum. Gradually, readers will come to care for and admire these young men with the same intensity as the author. Regrettably, it all turns sour at the endfor reasons having nothing to do with the outcome of their season's effortsin ways that recapitulate the ending of McGinniss's relationship with other subjects, notably Jeffrey Macdonald, whom he wrote about in Fatal Vision. Too often, the author makes himself the center of his story; buthe is too good a reporter not to convey some of what makes the sport and the people around it so compelling. Up to the last 40 pages, an entertaining and often moving read. (First printing of 100,000; author tour)
From the Publisher
"Rich in comic incidents, delightful characters, and dramatic surprises"
New York Times
"What McGinniss recounts in this wonderful memoir is the stuff of Italian operapassion, buffoonery, courage, treachery, and tragedy."
Dallas Morning News
"Soccer acts as a lens through which the author sees the real Italy, the medium-sized industrial towns where people live and work, away from the tourist's gaze. McGinniss went looking for a soccer team and found lives filled with humor and tragedy."
The Wall Street Journal
"A classic of cultures colliding."
Read an Excerpt
The day before I went back to Italy, I got a fax from a man named Giuseppe. The news it contained was not good.
As I've promised, I take you the details of your arrive. It is not easy to go from Rome to Castel di Sangro: we are in a montain zone (800 m on sea level; much than 200 km from Rome) and you'll take the train to arrive.
If you are at 7:35 a.m. on Fiumicino Airport in Rome, you'll be able to take a taxi to go to Termini Railway Station to take the 11:50 train from Rome to SULMONA. The arrive is on 15:06 p.m. Sulmona is at 150 km from Castel di Sangro and I'll be at Sulmona station. Excuse me, but I'm very busy in this days before the first match of the championship for some manifestation about Castel di Sangro and it is very impossible for me to be at Rome as I want. . . . But we are mointain people and, don't worry, we are used to combact against difficulties. As Lilliput people in a Gigant World.
So Giuseppe would not meet my plane after all. I flew to Rome anyway, of course. But as soon as I wheeled my luggage cart through customs, and the horde of cab drivers descended upon me, I picked the first one.
"How much to Sulmona?"
"Five 'undred thousand."
"Four," I said.
He motioned with his thumb. "Follow me." And so I was off to the Abruzzo, well in advance of the 11:50 from Rome. Italy is composed of twenty regions. Some are legendary, others extremely popular with foreign tourists, and still more, though not as well known to outsiders, prized by the Italians themselves. And then there is the Abruzzo.
Frommer's 1996 guide to Italy describes it as "one of the poorest and least visited regions" in the country. "Arid and sunscorched . . . prone to frequent earthquakes, the Abruzzo is . . . impoverished and visually stark." It is a region, says another guidebook, "in which there is little of interest to see and even less to do."
This reputation was not acquired overnight. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited in the nineteenth century and wrote even then that the region was "without enough of life and juiciness to be any longer susceptible of decay. An earthquake would afford it the only chance of ruin, beyond its present ruin."
And that was in season. The English poet Swinburne, for reasons never adequately explained, attempted to penetrate the Abruzzo's mountainous defenses in the winter of 1879 but was driven back by "as outrageous a blast of snow as any I've ever faced." He returned to Rome and did not try again.
As for the inhabitants, the English travel essayist Norman Douglas wrote in the early years of this century that "their life is one of miserable, revolting destitution." And Frommer's pointed out more recently that "many of its people have emigrated to more prosperous regions," leaving behind only "clannish local families," described in another book as "atavistic and introspective."
"This is still a land," author Tim Jepson has written, "that could provide settings for a dozen fairy tales, with its wolves and bears and sturdy country folk. . . . Villages on snow-dusted hills are wreathed in mist amid the wild mountains, deep valleys and dark forests; and ancient are crafts practiced for their own uses, not for the tourists."
But I was no tourist. For better or worse, I had business in the Abruzzo. My destination was the remote town of Castel di Sangro, which some contend means "castle of blood" in the local dialect.
The town is shielded from outsiders by what one reference book describes as an "inaccessibility extreme even by the standards of the Abruzzo." It is located almost 3,000 feet above sea level. Winter lasts from October to May, and in all seasons bestial winds gust down upon it from higher mountains above.
On one side, Castel di Sangro is bordered by the Abruzzo National Park, which still contains wolves and brown bears, as well as more than thirty species of reptile. On the other side lies the immense and silent Valle della Femmina Morta, or "valley of the dead woman." Strangers to the region who ask how such a name came to attach itself to such a vast and empty expanse reportedly receive only shrugs or the shaking of heads in response.
Beyond the valley rises La Maiella, an enormous limestone massif cut by deep and treacherous canyons and containing more than fifty peaks, the highest of which, Monte Amaro, or "the bitter mountain," reaches an altitude of almost 10,000 feet. Again, the origin of the name has been lost in the mists of time and legend.
"This is a landscape," warns yet another guidebook, "that should be approached with caution." Or, in the alternative, not approached at all. Yet so deep in the grip of mania was I that I was not only approaching but preparing to plunge into its core: alone, knowing no one, speaking not a word of Italian, yet committed to staying for more than nine months.
My arrival came on a warm Saturday in early September of 1996. The driver dropped me at the deserted Sulmona train station just before noon. All seemed tranquil and pleasant. Leaving my mass of luggage in the somewhat drowsy custody of a ticket agent, I walked a few hundred yards into the center of the city (population: 25,000), ate a moderate lunch, and returned to the station. I napped intermittently for an hour or two, lying on the platform next to the tracks, my head resting on a duffel bag and dappled sunlight falling on me through late-summer leaves.
In midafternoon I heard a train whistle in the distance. My train! The 11:50 from Rome. I looked at my watch: 3 p.m. Right on time. Leaving my luggage again, I walked to the front of the station, looking for someone who might be Giuseppe, hoping that some new "manifestation" had not prevented him from coming to Sulmona.
Just then, a small, battered automobile entered the parking lot at high speed and jerked to a halt. Out bounded a man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dark hair and an alert look in his eyes.
"Giuseppe?" I called.