Review

The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy

by Joe McGinnis

"I
retain clear memories of what my life was like before. In many
ways, I suppose it was better. My children respected me. My wife
and I shared numerous interests. I had friends. I enjoyed music. I
read books. That I would grow suddenly obsessed with 'football'
(the term used throughout the world to describe the sport that is
called 'soccer' in America) seemed no more likely than my becoming
an astronaut."
For
celebrated author Joe McGinniss, this surprise obsession acts as
the catalyst for a nine-month adventure that takes him to the
varied climes of Italy as he follows the fate of a minor league
soccer team, its players and management, their families, and the
loyal fans in the remote village of Castel Di Sangro.
In
the previous year this upstart team, consisting of all-but-unknown
players, managed to accomplish a miracle by vaulting into the next
level of the semiprofessional ranks via an astonishing season of
play that surprised the entire soccer world. To sustain the miracle
they need another successful season to remain in "Serie B," the
next-to-top level of ranking in the framework of Italian league
play that rewards success by ascension of the ranks and takes its
toll by dropping to a lower level those teams who are unable to
retain their prosperity. McGinniss puts his life on hold to find
out if a second miracle is possible.
The
village of Castel Di Sangro sits in the middle of the Abruzzo
region of Italy, a land that author Tim Jepson says "could provide
settings for a dozen fairy tales, with its wolves and bears and
sturdy country folk." McGinniss comes to the region green --- with
no friends and no knowledge of the Italian language --- but thanks
to his publisher's generous donation, he holds an open passport for
access to the team.
This
behind-the-scenes view allows McGinniss everything he needs to
weave a near-operatic story of the hopes and dreams of a ragtag
group of athletes and their fans. In a country where a state of
crisis is considered the norm, McGinniss finds that "truth, or even
a truth --- just as with the true flavor of an onion --- was not
typically encountered until at least a few layers had been
removed." Quickly McGinniss discovers that the mysterious
cigar-smoking team owner may have Mafia connections and the coach
is a mountain of a man known ominously as "Bulldozer."
As
the season progresses, McGinniss gets to know the players and their
families as well as the loyal fans of the local team. Soccer is a
passion for the inhabitants of the little villages, and each home
match is attended by nearly all the residents. McGinniss renders
these villages and cities in wonderful prose as he chronicles his
travels with the team of Castel Di Sangro. In the Mediterranean
village of Genoa, McGinniss notes that "it was those who still
imagined in their veins the salt water of their seagoing forebears,
and the dockworkers who tasted daily the salt of their own honest
sweat, who supported the Genoa team --- the oldest in all of
calcio, having been founded in 1893 by the British sailors who
imported the game to Italy."
Before long, the winds of both fortune and Mother Nature begin
to blow through the dream of another miracle. As spring approaches,
McGinniss's tally reveals "from the original squad of twenty who
had been here when I'd arrived in September, three had been sold to
teams in C1, two were dead, one was in prison, and one was in
critical condition." Yet for all this dismay, the chance for a
hopeful heart was never far away:
"The
gray of a raw dusk settles once again upon this frigid mountain
outpost as the day's relentless rain prepares for its nightly
transformation into treacherous sleet, and the beleaguered and
impoverished inhabitants --- their winter's supply of firewood long
gone --- again face the unyielding choice between burning yet
another piece of furniture for warmth or killing still one more of
their dwindling herd of sheep, in order to provide themselves with
an additional blood-soaked layer of wool to lie beneath as they
pray with frosty breath and ever-diminishing faith that the
morrow's dawn might for the first time since one freakish Sunday in
February bring with it the warmth of the sun... But are they
complaining? Hell no! Because yesterday we beat Reggina,
1-0."
Through the engaging and passionate prose of McGinniss it's
easy to see how sport can become obsession and how a country can
embody the poetic spirit of a writer like Dante, while at the same
time exude the darker force of Machiavellian political and social
machinations. What eventually transpires reads like something out
of a Verdi opera, yet for McGinniss it all comes down to a man, a
ball, and the triumph of the spirit:
"Spectators can cheer, writers can write, bands can play as a
result, but for the wizard the nature of the wizardry lies beyond
the reach of words."

Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on January 22, 2011

The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy
by Joe McGinnis

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2000
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 0767905997
  • ISBN-13: 9780767905992