This is a football book but its also a sociological study of football and the Italian psyche, it is written by an American giving it a different stance to many other football books and digs beneath the surface of tactics and games to cover an extraordinary season in the life of the small football club Castel di Sangro.
Whats it about:
In 1996 Castel di Sangro, a small Italian town with little money and a population of only 5000 managed to gain promotion to the Italian Serie B Football league (The equivalent of the English Championship), this is the second highest league in the nation and one below possibly the most glamorous league on the planet. Being a small town club the league had risen from Amateur level to this level of professionalism within 10 years, but is all as it seems.
Joe McGinniss, an American with a love of football follows the club through their first season in Serie B and lives close to the Manager and players, he details the relationships he shares with them and the relationships they share with each other, talks about the ambitions of players, the manager and the chairman, the issues holding them back and describes the games in detail not holding back in anyway.
This being Italy the issue of corruption is never far from the surface, there are games where star players are dropped or sold and McGinnis tries to find out whether this is simply due to the clubs financial status or something shadier.
We feel for some of the players, the withered old pro with his last shot at the big time, or the kid rejected by the big clubs who wants to show how good he is, McGinniss' relationship with the players is interesting, some snub him for being an American, some snub him for being a journalist and others welcome him whole heartedly and want to talk and talk and talk.
The book has a real warmth for the club but at the same time doesn't shy away from bein brutally honest about everyone, you can imagine McGinniss would never be welcome there again after some of his assessments.
I found the book to be a mixture of a fairy tale, the small guy reaching the top and a real profile of the strengths and weaknesses of the human being, we see players who are henpecked, others who are Italian macho idiots, some who have to throw games to make ends meat and others whose dignity and self-worth will not allow them to do anything to dishonour themselves, in this sense it is a wonderful book and the relationship between McGinniss and the explosive manager Osvaldo Jaconi is interesting, we can feel the tension at all times and this really is my only criticism of the book too, I did feel that McGinniss at many points oversteps the mark and he does accept this at moments in telling the Manager how the team should play and why they are going wrong. With no real footballing background other than a love of the game, McGinniss is a terrace Manager and nothing more, somebody who can imagine how the game should be and its easy to see how his criticisms and comments could irk an experienced Italian football manager.
Overall its a great study of Football, the Italian village mentality and the psyche of teams and sportsmen. Its well written and entertaining but often quite irritating too.
The book is 407 pages long and covers an entire season in the life of the team, it is available for £7.69 on Amazon, but you can buy it for much less through Marketplace, or even swap it for free on www.readitswapit.com.
Books about football are not a rarity. Good ones tend to be - there exist a lot of lazy efforts that seek to capitalise on the inherent drama and saga-like nature of the game and the politics that surround it without adding an awful lot of originality or perceptiveness in return. Amongst the wide range of writing on the subject, however, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro stands out for two reasons; firstly, it is written by an American, a nationality not traditionally known for their love of the game - and even less so back in 1996, when this was composed. Secondly, it revolves around an unlikely marriage between the aforementioned and a team few outside of Italy would have heard of before the publication of this book.
The town of Castel di Sangro lies in the Abruzzo region, due east of Rome in one of the least-visited parts of Italy. Little more than a village team, Castel rose rapidly through the lower Italian leagues in the years before McGinniss arrived in the country, culminating in the titular "miracle", a penalty-shoot-out win over Ascoli that took them up to Serie B, only one below the top tier, where Baggio, Batistuta et al plied their trade at the time.
McGinniss joined the team at the start of the season, and followed them through it, forging relationships with staff and players which allowed him an insight into the game that one would rarely be granted. This level of intimacy is one of the key components of The Miracle, achieving something few books on the game do - allowing a look at the personalities involved as people, rather than the well-documented sporting personas they adopt on the pitch and, more often than not, in front of the media. Of course, this is made possible because the team involved were a small club at their previous levels - in Serie B, they are almost microscopic in comparison to some of the names they come up against. As such, the level of access is much greater, and much easier to obtain, and the players and staff are less "on guard" in the author's presence. Far from being a weakness of the book that the players are relative unknowns on the footballing stage, it is a great strength for what it does for the novel.
Staying in the town, the author speaks to the Coach, President and Owner of the team, as well as most of the players at various points, in an attempt to build up a picture of what the miracle means to Castel di Sangro - not just as a football team, but as a town. This is ever the dual focus of this book; on one hand, the account of the club's struggle to survive against all odds in Serie B, where many players earn as much as their entire team, and on the other, the tale of a small, close-knit community fitting their regular (occasionally highly irregular) lives around this great event.
In this sense, the book benefits greatly from a wider focus - by looking at the community as a whole, and dealing with all sorts of people, McGinniss avoids this becoming a dry game-by-game recollection of a football season. The actual football takes up a fairly small proportion of the book, whilst the concentration on the ramifications and off-field events reflects the extent of the author's immersion in Castel di Sangro life. These non-sporting moments are largely the most memorable, giving the book its life and most memorable moments, in portrayals of all manner of inhabitants of the town, from everyday workers and locals to the larger-than-life magnate backing the team and looking down upon the Miracle from his lofty villa complex, Signor Rezza.
The book is told from a strongly first-person perspective; everything is very much subjective, and McGinniss never shys away from offering his opinion, often where it is unwanted. On the plus side, this makes for an involving, insightful analysis of Italian life, of which football is such a major part - and viewing it from a foreign perspective brings out the quirks and oddities even more strongly.
However, McGinniss's narrative can also become deeply irritating. Despite only having been a fan of the game for a matter of years, and never having been invloved in it at any meaningful level, he soon decides he knows more about football than the coach, Jaconi, a man with decades of professional experience as both coach and player, and considerable success. McGinniss knows more about tactics, he feels, more about the players, and more about how the game works as a whole. He consistently paints Jaconi as a fool; an idiot when he loses, a lucky man when he somehow wins - but in doing so only shows himself up. Though he is exceptional when dealing with "normal" people, and bringing their stories to life on the page, his arrogance when dealing with those in positions of power grates. Some deserve it, granted, but others, notably Jaconi, merit more respect than he gives them.
Despite the irritations, however, this is still an engrossing book, if only for the light it sheds on the somewhat seedy world of Italian football. As McGinniss starts to uncover the true depths of murkiness surrounding the game, he can become a bit self-righteous and condescending, but the substance of the book at this stage is nonetheless intriguing. This is probably a better book on the culture that surrounds Italian football than it is on football itself, but where it works, it really excels. Often infuriating, almost always interesting, The Miracle ... is well worth looking into.
The first thing to say is that The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro is not a book about football. It is a book about how the people of a small town rediscover their sense of community when they become united behind the success of their football team. The football is merely a backdrop for the events that unfold and it is merely a device to contrast the differences that exist between the have and have not in real life just as much as it does in football.
The miracle of the story is more than just the rise of the small town football team through the ranks of the Italian league but more of the survival and resurgence of the inhabitants of Castel Di Sangro.
Castel Di Sangro is in a mountainous desolate part of the Abruzzo region of Italy one of the most rural and underdeveloped places you could find and a whole world away from the usual tourist destination in the north of Umbria or Tuscany. Abruzzo is a harsh environment in which to live, it is extremely cold in the mountains in the winter and can be oppressively hot in the summer. The land is not suited to much agriculture and most people living there have a tough time of it. Castel Di Sangro as well has having all this to contend with was also the target of Allied bombings in WW2, which decimated the old buildings, and just to finish things off the Germans troops as they retreated decided to level what was left so by the end of the war the town almost ceased to exist. Despite this hardship the town did survive and with much determination it rose up again the older architecture replaced by functional concrete buildings and managed to make a small living out of the local skiing industry. This is the first miracle.
The football team of Castel Di Sangro was created in the 50s as an amateur team at first competing in local friendly matches and then entering the lowest possible levels of the organised game. Making steady progress though the years and showing the same determination and good fortune that the town itself did after the war the team finally reached the dizzy heights of Serie B football in 1995. Serie B is just one rung below Juventus and AC Milan in English terms it is a bit like your local Sunday park side knocking on the door of the Premiership. This is the second miracle and this is where the book proper starts with the start of the teams first season in Serie B.
One unusual aspect of this book is its writer Joe McGinniss a middle-aged American political author/journalist most well known for his book about Nixons 1968 presidential campaign The Selling of the President. McGinniss knew nothing about football until very recently. Like most Americans he thought the Football World Cup was the US Superbowl and it was not until the FIFA tournament was staged in the US in 94 that he became a convert to the 'beautiful game' and in particular with Italian football. As with most late converts whether religious or otherwise McGinniss became passionate about the game in a pure and innocent way that most fans growing up with the sport arent able to do. This passion and self-confirmed obsession even leads McGinniss to try and help out the manager with team selection. Of course there is a down side to this in that McGinnis is also writing with his own audience in mind thus we have some whole sections early on when he explain in some detail the working of the game, what is a free kick or a corner kick etc. for anyone that knows even a little about football this is a little tedious.
On hearing that this small provincial team with a population on only 5,000 had managed to reach the heights of Italian football McGinniss decided to travel to Italy and spend the best part of a year following their progress in their first season of big time football. The book covers the period of the nine-month season from McGinnis arrival just before the first league game though to its stressful end. Along the way he makes real and lasting bond with some of the people he meets and becomes more and more involved in the fate of the club and by extension the community. McGinniss the scrittore americano (American writer) is viewed with interest by most and but on the whole is welcomed by both the community and the club. From the start Lassociazione the management of the football club go out of their way to care for him often in a very disorganised fashion. Mindful of his lack of language skills they even provide him with an interpreter the charming and clever Barbara.
The book is in effect an occasional diary of McGinnisss experiences following the team and just living in a foreign country. The style of writing reminded me of the travel books by erudite authors such as Bill Bryson and PJ ORourke obviously fascinated by the subject but prepared to point out the not so complementary side of it.
McGinnis was very conscious of doing as much as he could to get the real experience of being a fan and chronicler of the club. Initially he refuses to stay in the comfortable hotel he is booked in to in order to stay at the run down local one, which is closer to the Clubs offices and the (still in construction) ground. He makes a point of involving himself in the club taking meals with the players at Marcellas Pizzeria a second home for many of them and attending the training session under the guidance of the affable but eccentric head coach Janconi. Janconis philosophy to player training is rather unorthodox, garlic is out smoking if they want is in!
McGinnis is rather engaging as a writer. He makes no bones about his naivety of the culture and the language and presents us with many amusing episodes to illustrate this. For example there are some wonderful encounters with the cantankerous non English speaking owner of the run down hotel in which McGinniss initially stays that make great reading, the idea that the hotel is run for the benefit of the owner rather than the guests is a concept that is hard for the author to come to terms with and the episodes provide some real laugh out loud moments.
The characters in the book are varied and colourful to say the least. The owner of the club the Neapolitan septuagenarian Signor Rezza is a self-made millionaire. He cant read properly and speaks only in the local dialect. Rezza made his millions in the construction business, which seems to be a euphemism for rather more nebulous business activities. He is the biggest fish in the area and has fashioned himself as a Xanadu style wonderland estate high in the mountains overlooking Castel Di Sangro, the natural geography itself has bee sculpted (mountains literally moved) to suit his wishes. On first meeting Rezza for a meal McGinnis is warned by Barbara that he must not leave any food since this would be perceived as an insult not as easy as it seems considering the number of courses presented to him, then again judging by the hefty bodyguards that accompany Rezza everywhere he goes displeasing him is not an option. The many encounter between Rezza and McGinnis are amongst the strangest and most humorous in the book and when reading them I always imagined them accompanied by the theme from the Godfather as a soundtrack.
McGinnis is obviously enthralled at the opportunity to follow the clubs as they take on their greatest challenge survival in Serie B and this is reflected in his writing he exhibits a wide-eyed admiration for the players especially and despite their limitations he doesnt ever malign them. The same cannot be said for the rest of the club officials, which he encounters. He pulls no punches (well they are gentle witty verbal punches) as he describes the rather more dubious activities associated with the running of the club, the faint smell of corruption is never very far away.
Although the book highlights the events of the late 90s I was not aware of the success of the club when I first began reading the book, their story of conquering adversity symbolised in the success of the football club is certainly inspiring but McGinniss account is never reverential since luck and good fortune had a lot to do with the Miracle. Reading the book with its mixture of dry wit, and comical anecdotes as well as moments of real tension I was totally gripped and I couldnt wait to find out if the club how the season ended. This was a team of journeymen lower league pros and mediocre younger talent many local, there are no undiscovered Rooneys or Walcotts in this bunch, who have been handed a chance to for once mix it with the big boys and any neutral football fan would be totally behind them.
So an American political journalist can write about football. The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro is an engaging witty and compelling story that will be of interest to a wide readership since in the end it tells the story of the people of Castel Di Sangro more than the football.
Highly recommended for football and non-football fans alike!
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro can be bought in Paperback (416 pages- ISBN: 075152753X) published by Time Warner Paperbacks from Amazon for £6.59 (+p&p) at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2006
‘The Miracle of Castle di Sangro’ is basically a diary of a football mad America, who becomes obsessed with ‘soccer’ during the world cup that was held in the US in 1994. After being enthralled by the Italian team, in particular Roberto Baggio, he goes off to Italy to watch ‘a miracle’ as a small local town side have gotten through to the Serie B, the equivalent of Tiverton getting into the English division one. He goes off to sample the thrills and spill of a season with a football team with a difference and a certain charm that this really is a miracle and it is a really good read, but first a few lessons: Geography Lesson: Italy is split into districts or provinces, some more famous than others, such as Lazio, and others less well know. There is a definite split between North and South, with the north having all the industry (e.g. Cars) and the south is povety stricken, poor quality farmland. Castle di Sangro is a small town of about 5,000 people located in the Abruzzo province. The name ‘Castle di Sangro’ literally means castle of blood, and the Sangro River runs through the town. The Abruzzo is in the south, high in the mountains of Italy, about 150km east of Rome. The climate is harsh with long winters and scorching summers, due to the altitude, way above sea level. The entire town was rebuilt, except one church after extensive bombing from both sides during the Second World War. In 1915 a huge earthquake killed half of the inhabitants. The population is always decreasing as people move away in hope of a better life in the north. Other places in the mountains get tourist money from skiing, but not Castle di Sangro. Overall it is a poor place, with a low standard of living, but it is a small place with a good community sprit and very clean. Football Lesson: Italy is one of the top teams, both at club and international level. Although the standards
have slipped in recent times, they are still a talented nation, regarded for their skill, flare and passion, and the football is very good to watch, although it is different to the English game. The fans are passionate about their team and there are some fierce rivalries. The domestic league is split into leagues, progressively working down the talent rankings. Serie A is the top league, consisting of 18 teams, containing the likes of Juventus, Roma, Milan, Inter and so on. Full of stars and big money this is the equivalent of the Premiership. Next stage down is Serie B, which contains clubs that periodically get a shot at the big time, but are generally not up to Serie A standard, such as Empoli, Torino, Sampadoria. Next is the C1 and C2 leagues, split into North and South regional divisions and below that regional divisions that are even worse. The top two leagues are full time professionals, with a mix of amateurs and semi-pros in the rest. Castle di Sangro started in the division right at the bottom and worked there way right up to the second rung down from the very top, truly a miracle considering all the circumstances. Joe McGinniss is more famed for his political writings, including ‘The Selling of The President’. He is linked to Italian football by his friend Alexe Lalas going to play for an Italian side, Padova. On arriving in Italy he has the problem that could only be expected, a maniac driver who is constantly on his mobile, the only hotel in Castle di Sangro has a total of zero stars and of course the language barrier, most prominent when he finds himself locked in the hotel one day. The team itself was more, how can I say this, colourful than he expected. The teams chairman is Signor Rezza, who is a mafia type person with the bodyguards, country home and tax evasion that others can only dream about. Signor Gravine is the more interactive person, he provides plenty of laughs inadvertently when he signs a player a
s a joke, then gets him to swear and insult the whole stadium, all as a distasteful joke, also producing a Dylan Dog style comic with him as the hero, and ordering useless sex pill from America, which are totally useless in pre-viagra days. The manage is Jaconi, who is tactilely inept, and keeps personal favourites amongst the players, something a manager should never do. For example he plays one keeper ahead of the second keeper who is star of the team, simply because he prefers the first. He also hates one player who is a communist, who is always questioning Joe about Americans involvement in Cuba and Vietnam. Jaconi later becomes Joe’s neighbour and despite his nickname ‘bulldozer’ he is shown at times to be a nice guy. Joe obviously gets on well with some players better than others, three young players arrange to come over to America, for some ‘women time’ and he just describes the players like they are. At first the players, and especially the manger and president are reluctant to let in the American stranger to the teams most intimate affairs, such as the top secret training games, but he is soon accepted, even travelling to away games in the team coach. Most of the players smoke, as it ‘relaxes’ them in the words of Jaconi, and the players that are not married go to a local restaurant, run by Marcella for daily meals of pasta, pasta and more pasta. (no garlic or peppers though, rules by Jaconi). Some of the players are talented, and one goes on to big things later, but most are lower league players that would never get a chance to play in Serie B if they were sold, but through spirit, graft and work rate, as a team they have made iy. There are some amusing parts, as one of the players said ‘never a dull moment in Serie B except the 90 minutes of the match.’ For instance Joe is invited to Signor Rezza for a tour and a meal where he has to eat everything, on pain of death, and the manage
r’s 50th Birthday party, where one of the players girlfriends presents him with an 18 inch penis with the message, ‘the season is long and hard, but for you just HOW long and HOW hard.’ There is also a blacker side to the book, and some unpleasant incidents. Once and Ghanaian international, Eric Addo come to Castle di Sangro for a trial, but Jaconi refuses to sign him, even tough he is clearly the most talented player at the club, for the simple reason Addo is black. Also two of the players, including the top scorer die in a car crash halfway through the season, and another is rushed to Rome’s intensive care hospital with blood poisoning, and is in a critical condition for some time after being injected with a dirty needle at the local hospital, one of the player and his wife are busted for drug dealing, and the season and the book ends on a bad note with a serious incident, that I will not say what, and leave you to find out., likewise if the team is able to avoid the relegation back down to C1, if you want to know read the book! Basically there is never a dull moment. I loved it as a football fan, with plenty of action and tactic reports from the games, but you do not need to be a football fanatic to enjoy this book. It gives a really good insight to a football club, and is constantly interesting with action all the way through. I would recommend it with full marks, although seeing as it is based around football you do need a basic understanding to get the full sensation, but it is not essential. It is really well written, by McGinniss, he keeps the story flowing, and says he feeling clearly, but in a clever way through his writings. Great read, and it comes very highly recommended from me.
Having read a review of this book in the football magazine 'When Saturday Comes', I thought I knew what I was in for: American author, famous for political comment, gets bitten by the football bug during World Cup 94 in the USA and then decides to travel out to a small town in southern Italy to sample the atmosphere and the magic of a small-town club unexpectedly making it to the big time of Serie B. Up to that point, everything was as expected - McGinnis' difficulties in settling in to life in a very foreign land as he attempts to learn the language and gain the confidence of the team and the locals are interesting to observe, but I have to admit that the way he went about some things would have annoyed most people, not least the shady characters in control of the football club. You can see why they were annoyed at this upstart American sticking his nose into team affairs when he'd only discovered football a couple of years earlier, but his direct style begins to reveal quite a lot of background information about the murky history of the chairman and the president. Nothing can be proved, and nothing can safely be said directly, but despite the tension, McGinnis stays with the team to the bitter end of a long, hard season, and the way he writes ensures that the reader really empathises with the players' struggles as they fight against relegation. He shares the agony of the players when one of the squad is tragically killed, and he experiences the ups and downs of football in all their glory! It would be unfair to reveal the fate of the team, but suffice to say that the events at the end of the season give the reader a lift, but then you are brought crashing down to earth by the depressing revelation that everything you ever suspected about the chicanery in Italian football is true. This is an excellent book, ideal for any football fan, but it is also interesting for the insights it gives you into the
role of the old criminal fraternity in Italian society (perhaps inadvertently, although by the end of the book you are in no doubt as to McGinnis' feelings on the subject). Highly recommended.
American political commentator, after discovering his own passion for football, follows the fortunes of a small Italian village team which somehow made it into the Serie B.