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George O'BrienIn 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