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In Search Of The Beautiful Game
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro - Joe McGinniss
Member Name: Mauri
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro - Joe McGinniss
Date: 23/05/06, updated on 06/06/06 (734 review reads)
Advantages: Interesting story and compelling writing
Disadvantages: Some overexplanation about football rules
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 50’s 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 Nixon’s 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 aren’t 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 ‘L’associazione’ 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 McGinniss’s 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 O’Rourke 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 Marcella’s Pizzeria a second home for many of them and attending the training session under the guidance of the affable but eccentric head coach Janconi. Janconi’s 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 can’t 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 doesn’t 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 90’s 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 McGinnis’s 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 couldn’t 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 Rooney’s or Walcott’s 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 Ł6.59 (+p&p) at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2006
Summary: Small time Italians team make it to the big league and try to survive.