Book Review – The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Joe McGinniss

With the latest lockdown kicking in, our book reviews will hopefully be more useful than ever. Thanks again to the talented Roy Thomson for his recent reviews, the third of which is of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss.

‘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.’

Unfortunately, I ignored this book for many years. In truth, I wasn’t overly interested in an insignificant Italian club that I’d never heard of and the story of their first season in the second tier of Italian football during the 1990s. However, I picked it up during lockdown and soon realised it was a real football classic. A brilliant account of the romance of the underdog, albeit with a sinister twist.

Castel de Sango is a tiny remote little-known town in the Abruzzo region of Italy with a population of just 5,000 people. In 1996 its football team won an unlikely promotion to Serie B of the Italian league and in doing so, caught the attention of American writer Joe McGinniss. Imagine Horncastle Town making it to the Championship, then you get some idea of the scale of their achievement. The best-selling author was so inspired, he flew to Italy and spent a year with the club. The rumour is McGinniss turned down a million-dollar advance to write a book about the OJ Simpson trial, preferring instead to ensconce himself in Castel di Sangro and record the team’s heroic efforts to avoid an immediate return to the third tier.

The subsequent book is a truly remarkable story, written in such a gripping and engaging manner that I dare you to not to enjoy it. McGinniss spends the season sharing the team’s meals, the dressing room and eventually their secrets. He skillfully draws you in, creating a graphic portrait of the players, the manager and the rest of the supporting cast.  He also encapsulates perfectly the frustration of the fan – each game feeling like life or death, the entire mood of a week being set by what happens over 90 minutes.

As the season unfolds unbelievable characters emerge in an extravagant tale that encompasses deaths, arrests, drug scandals and corruption. McGinnis is a quality writer, and you quickly get enthralled by his passion and develop an emotional affinity for the players and the town. In fact, you end up willing them to succeed and wishing you were there.

Some of the events seem so unbelievable you find yourself googling to confirm the facts. The publicity stunt that surrounded ‘signing’ Nigerian striker Robert Ponnick from Leicester City being a prime example. The tension of implied mafia involvement casts a shadow over each implausible incident.

On reflection, one small criticism of the book is that the ego of the author increasingly emerges as the book evolves. McGinnis was in his 50s when he fell in love with Calcio after becoming inspired by the performances of Roberto Baggio in USA 94. However, his late arrival to the game did not stop him offering regular tactical advice to the team’s disciplinarian manager Osvaldo Jaconi. While he often pokes fun at himself, his frequent arguments and tantrums with the club’s players and officials can sometimes be irritating. His increasing lack of self-awareness can, unfortunately, get in the way of what is a compelling tale.

Nonetheless, the book powerfully portrays the importance of football to a small-town community. It brilliantly captures the rollercoaster of emotions that any football supporter can empathise with but also dishes out some harsh truths about football fairytales. The season ends with the author placed in a moral dilemma when he stumbles across the stark realities of professional football. Judgment on the merits of his reaction upon discovering football is not as pure as some fans would like to believe will depend on how you view omerta.

What I will reveal is that Gabriele Gravina, one of the books least likeable characters, is now the current head of the Italian Football Federation. Sadly, I was not surprised when I discovered such a despicable and self-serving personality can reach such a powerful position in the sport. At the same time, it was no shock to find the club back where it started.

And yes you can still buy this one on Amazon as well.