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The Miracle of Castel di Sangro

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro

4.8 5
by Joe McGinniss

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Joe McGinniss, the bestselling author of Fatal Vision, found more than he bargained for when he visited Castel Di Sangro. He offers the extraordinary true drama of an Italian town turned upside down during a soccer championship--of success against impossible odds and the inevitable comedy of human frailty. of photos.


Joe McGinniss, the bestselling author of Fatal Vision, found more than he bargained for when he visited Castel Di Sangro. He offers the extraordinary true drama of an Italian town turned upside down during a soccer championship--of success against impossible odds and the inevitable comedy of human frailty. of photos.

Editorial Reviews

George O'Brien
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. --George O'Brien

Library Journal
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.
Bill Barich
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
Kirkus Reviews
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 end—for reasons having nothing to do with the outcome of their season's efforts—in 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 opera--passion, 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."
--The Independent

Product Details

Brilliance Audio
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4.33(w) x 7.09(h) x 1.77(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

    He looked at me and recognized immediately that I must be the scrittore americano. But he looked puzzled. "Joe?" he said, looking from me to his watch.

    "Yes, yes, all my bags are just around the other side."

    "But the train. She is not arrive."

    "No, no, but I get ride. Not important. Here, I'll drag the bags around front."

    Giuseppe seemed perplexed but did not pursue it. If a man pursued everything that did not make sense, he'd never get anything done.

    As soon as the bags were safely stowed — the last two rising from my lap to the top of my head as I scrunched into the front seat of his tiny car — we were off to Castel di Sangro, or so I thought. Giuseppe drove at what felt to me like a recklessly high speed, but I'd soon learn it was well below the norm. I couldn't tell whether not being able to see the road through my suitcases made it better or worse.

    Before I could even attempt conversation, I heard a shrill chirping next to me and Giuseppe pulled a cellular phone out of his pocket and began speaking even faster than he drove. As soon as that call was concluded, he made one of his own, looking intently at the buttons, not at the road, as he tapped them in rapid succession. He spoke for only ten seconds, then signed off with a quick burst of ciaos. But immediately he made another call. Then he received two more. He made one, then received three in a row. I was trying to keep score. Another two calls incoming, three outgoing. Giuseppe 5, Incoming 9. "Ciao," he would say toward the end of each. "Ciao ... ciao, ciao, ciao ... ciao ciao ciao ... ciaociaociaociaociao."

    As I would soon learn, one of the fiercest everyday competitions among Italians who speak to one another by cellular phone is to see who can cram the most ciaos into the close of a conversation. To win an undisputed victory, you must not only have muttered the word more times than your conversational opponent but also have gotten in the last ciao of all, clicking your OFF button even as you utter the word.

    Eventually, he slipped the phone back into his pocket, looked at me, and said, "Excuse." Clearly, the time for our conversation had arrived. Giuseppe gazed at me earnestly. This meant, of course, that his eyes were not watching the road, which, though I myself could not see it through my luggage, seemed — from the motion of the car and the straining of its feeble engine — to have begun the ascent of a mountain.

    "You can see?" I said, pointing toward his front windshield.

    He looked puzzled, glanced in that direction, then looked back at me. "Sì ... sì, sì, sì."

    "No. I mean, `see.'"

    He laughed gleefully. "No ... sì. No ... sì. What you meaning, `no, sì?' Yes, no in inglese, no?"

    "Sì," I said. "I mean, yes."

    He glanced briefly back toward the road, turned the steering wheel a bit, then looked back at me. "I no understand too much the English, no? I have not speak this. Is easier to have write, yes? Not for the speak."

    "Sì," I said. "No. But Castel di Sangro. Much far?"

    "Castel di Sangro?" He pronounced the name with an incredulity that suggested he'd never before heard it in his life.

    "Sì. We go Castel di Sangro, yes? I mean, sì?"

    "No, no, no, no, no. I take you for arrive Roccaraso."


    "Roccaraso. But you no worry. Not far."

    "But I'm going to Castel di Sangro."

    Giuseppe shook his head. "Not possible," he said. "No arrange."

    "What do you mean?"

    "Castel di Sangro no hotel. Roccaraso many. For much schee. You like the schee?"


    "When very much the snowing. Schee. Like Tomba."

    "Oh, ski! I understand. Well, no. Not really. I no schee. But, Giuseppe, what about Castel di Sangro?"

    "No problem. I say you — you no worry. You Best Western Roccaraso. You sleep. At later I call with you. Very busy this days. But Best Western okay, okay? No problem. You no worry."

    Then he got another half a dozen phone calls — his ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao firing like the pistons of his engine — and eventually pulled off the road and into a parking lot. Looking out my side window, I could see, sure enough, a Best Western motel.

    Stumbling out of the car with suitcases falling all around me, I could see that we were on a strip of road lined with motels, which were separated, it seemed, only by sporting-goods stores that had pairs of skis and colorful ski parkas in the windows.

    "Don't worry. No problem. Don't worry," Giuseppe said. "Much events for me now. You have sleeping. I calls later. No problem."

    "What time, Giuseppe?" I pointed at my watch. "At what time will you call?"

    He tossed both hands upward and exhaled sharply. I was meant to understand, I think, that my question was impossible to answer. How could he know when he would call when he had much events and was very busy this days? "Don't worry," he said. "No problem."

    "Okay, Giuseppe. No problem. And ... thanks for the ride. I mean, grazie."

    "Prego. See, write is more easy than talk, no?"

    "Yes. I mean, . But, Giuseppe, I have a room here?"

    "Sì, sì, I tell you no problem."

    "Okay. Good. No problem. But, Giuseppe — where is Castel di Sangro?"

    "You don't worry. She not far. Ciao, ciao."

    "Okay. Ciao."

    "Ciao, ciao, ciao."

    "Ciao, ciao, ciao, Giuseppe."

    "Sì. Ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao." Then he rolled up his car window and drove off, already making a new call on his cell phone.

Meet the Author

Joe McGinnis is one of our great storytellers. He is the author of many works, including the bestsellers Blind Faith, Fatal Vision, and Cruel Doubt.

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The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a nice find. This is an enjoyable and entertaining story from cover to cover. Joe McGinniss artfully describes his Italian adventure in a breezy and descriptive manner. The characters in the tale, lead by Mr. McGinniss himself, are extremely interesting. And although by the end there are very few of these people we may still desire for friends (incuding the self-important author himself), they never fail to entertain.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a surgery resident, I find it difficult to make time to read non-medically related books. However, I started reading this book sort of by accident (after some encouragement by my soccer-playing boyfriend) and became completely engrossed in the world of Italian soccer and culture as presented through the eyes of Guiness and his chronicle of experiences in Castel Di Sangro. This is a great book that anybody would enjoy regardless of their level of interest in soccer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Author takes a year long trip to a tiny and remote village in central Italy to follow the local team of football (soccer in the US) players. Along the way he comes into contact with all manner of Italian characters in an attempt to understand and document their unlikely success. The book is funny and entertaining, and you do not have to be a fan of Soccer to enjoy it (although it may help). The author befriends the entire team (almost) and becomes a celebrity in the small town as he tries to learn the language and culture behind the near sit-com cast of players. A joyful pageturner.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed each page of this book. I really felt like I was there. Joe is not the only crazy American soccer fan. This was so well written that I'm hoping for more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you ever needed to understand why 'football' (as the rest of the world calls soccer), evokes such passion, commitment and dedication, look no further than this hysterical true story. Along with Nick Hornby's 'Fever Pitch', there is no better insight into The Beautiful Game. If you are an American intrigued by the world's biggest religion - buy it. If you're a European who wants to be reminded of why you fell head over heels in love with the world's greatest sport - buy it. Funny, insightful, and beautifully written.