The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italyby Joe McGinniss Published 06 Jun 2000
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Master storyteller Joe McGinniss travels to Italy to cover the unlikely success of a ragtag minor league soccer team--and delivers a brilliant and utterly unforgettable story of life in an off-the-beaten-track Italian village.
When Joe McGinniss sets out for the remote Italian village of Castel di Sangro one summer, he merely intends to spend a season with the village's soccer team, which only weeks before had, miraculously, reached the second-highest-ranking professional league in the land. But soon he finds himself embroiled with an absurd yet irresistible cast of characters, including the team's owner, described by the New York Times as "straight out of a Mario Puzo novel," and coach Osvaldo Jaconi, whose only English word is the one he uses to describe himself: "bulldozer."
As the riotous, edge-of-your-seat season unfolds, McGinniss develops a deepening bond with the team, their village and its people, and their country. Traveling with the miracle team, from the isolated mountain region where Castel di Sangro is located to gritty towns as well as grand cities, McGinniss introduces us to an Italy that no tourist guidebook has ever described, and comes away with a "sad, funny, desolating, and inspiring story--everything, in fact, a story should be" (Los Angeles Times).
"The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy" Reviews
Before there were all those book trading sites like bookmooch, bookcrossing and even goodreads, I took my copy of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy, signed my name in the inside cover and sent it to a friend. It made the rounds and came back to me after five people had read it. I sent it out again; it has since disappeared. But that's okay because I know that at least six people, other than myself (and including my Mom who passed a couple of years ago), read the book and loved it (with the exception of my friend Russ. But he's a bitter shell of a man ;)).
It is a wonderful story about why football earns our love (and maybe even deserves it), and there is no book I can think of that I would rather reread.
It is written by Joe McGinniss, he of the true crime books and the pending Sarah Palin biography. His undeniable love for the sport, for the men he follows in the small town in rural Italy, for tactics and skills and beauty and passion and people and food and folly, makes the "miracle" (and miraculous it is in footballing terms) one of the most entertaining reads I've ever embarked on.
Of course, this could be because I am a HUGE football fan, I watch every match of every World Cup and every Euro (including all the qualifiers I can). I watch every match Arsenal plays, and if I can't watch I listen on the radio. If I am bored late at night I watch any match that is on -- even MLS -- so I am a football maniac (and Kiki, who's switching shelves at the moment, just passed me my LEGO "Soccer" Stadium, so there you go).
But I think all you really need to love to love The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is life. In this book football -- and everything that goes with it -- is life. And life in that small town in the Appenines is trancendant.
So...yeah...I dig this book.
p.s. if you have a copy that you've read and loved please send it to me so that I can read it again. I want a copy that's been touched by other eyes and hands.
This book should've been called Joe McGinniss Goes to Italy So That Joe McGinniss Can Talk to Italians and Report on how They React to Joe McGinniss by Joe McGinniss.
A really great sports story is hidden somewhere in these 404 pages, but I'd forgive you if you missed it. McGinniss spends most of the book arguing with the coach about tactics (even though he knows nothing about soccer), claiming that he's as close to the team as if they were family (even though a player's son says his father won't talk to McGinniss because he's an idiot), and provoking the local organized crime bosses for no apparent reason. To the writer's credit (I guess), he is the one telling us what a jackass he is. But he can't possibly comprehend how badly he comes off, and as a protagonist for this story he is profoundly uninteresting.
The drama of the soccer makes the book readable by itself (although it's so obvious that McGinniss doesn't know the game that it lends an unreliability to even the most basic reporting), but mostly I found myself annoyed. I will say, without being too spoiler-heavy, that there is more of an ending to the McGinniss-centric narrative than I would've thought possible, which redeemed the self-centered style somewhat. Not nearly enough.
This could have been a wonderful book, the story it tells of Castel di Sangro's season in Serie B is amazing but it's ruined by the presence of the author.
I could cope with the explanations of various football terms (penalty kicks, corners etc) but the author's arrogant and self obsessed attitude really bugged me. He became more and more annoying as the story progressed. Why did he think the experienced coach should have listened to his suggestions regarding team selection and tactics? He'd been a football fan for a few years yet acted like some kind of expert. His obsession with newspaper player ratings was also irritating.
I would have also liked to read more about the fans of the team who followed them to all their games etc. It seemed like Joe was the only one at times.
Still, it's worth reading for the story of the team and the characters.
In the early stages of fanaticism there’s a giddy sense of becoming part of something larger-than-life. In time, a fan is rewarded for picking up on subtleties, aspiring to be among the cognoscenti. Then in the more mature and philosophical stages the proselytizing begins and the sport may even become “a metaphor for life.” With an objective step back, though, Gods and heroes become mortal. Joe McGinniss is a football (a.k.a. soccer) fan who has been through these stages. He does a great job describing how emotionally all-consuming il calcio can be to its many devotees in Italy. The die-hard AC Milan supporter in the preface was a vivid example. Joe’s status as a passionate fan may also explain his blinkered self-absorption. For example, he second-guesses the coach at every turn—-something I suppose a true partisan may feel is his right and duty.
What started as pure delight that someone as perceptive and witty as Joe was writing about his exhilarating days deep in Italian football later became a slightly disappointing realization that Joe is an even bigger fan of Joe. He wants us all to know that he quickly learned the new language and became one of the boys. Then, when their laundry got dirty, he shows us how sparkling clean his own was in contrast. The story is so compelling, though, and the personalities so well drawn that the negatives fall short of tipping the scales. Ultimately you have to give the book credit for making you care enough to want to tweak it.
My review published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999:
Having a Ball in Italy
Author spends a year chronicling the fanatical world of a small-town soccer team
REVIEWED BY Steve Kettmann
Sunday, August 22, 1999
THE MIRACLE OF CASTEL DI SANGRO
By Joe McGinniss Little, Brown; 404 pages; $25
One starts out Joe McGinniss' account of his year with a small-town Italian soccer club feeling sorry for the author for embarrassing himself with so meticulous a chronicle of his descent into sports-fan madness. One winds up feeling sorry for him that the year has to end.
McGinniss gave up the chance to write a book on O.J. so he could do ``The Miracle of Castel di Sangro'' instead. That must have been an easy decision, but still, it impresses the small-town Mafioso who runs the team in Castel di Sangro, which has somehow worked its way up to Serie B, the Triple-A of Italy's fanatical soccer world (the ``miracle'' of the title).
The Mafioso is trying to shake McGinniss down for a share of the book's profits, and McGinniss rebuffs him with a kind of feckless bravery that applies as well to his emotionally exhausted honesty in telling his tale.
As much as one might try to resist the pull of his story, especially when McGinniss is committing that ultimate fingers-on-the-chalkboard gaffe and using ``we'' to refer to the team, there's a freshness and fun that wins the reader over. Part of that is the cast of characters, sketched by McGinniss with a deep fondness and an eye for comic detail. The more humor, the more love, as when he describes the proprietor of Marcella's, where he and much of the team would eat twice every day. ``This,'' he notes, ``had far less to do with the quality of the food than with the quality of Marcella.''
Each of the players, and of course the bulldozerlike coach (whom McGinniss often tries to give advice -- only later seeing just how ludicrous this is), sooner or later comes alive in portraits that are so much fun, one can forgive McGinniss his love of long sentences:
``Flamboyantly handsome and proud as a peacock in the finest tradition of Rome, (Giacamo) Galli suffered from an uncontrollable head twitch, a tic which, when combined with his compulsion to run his hands constantly through his thick brown hair and an inability to either sit still or to keep from speaking for more than about thirty seconds at a time, caused me to suspect that his boyhood school days must have been less than tranquil,'' he writes.
McGinniss also proves a reliable guide to differences between life in America and in Italy. Love of soccer has brought him across the Atlantic, and he's serious about that love. He has not limped to Italy in the spirit of ``A Room With a View,'' desperate to catch a contact high from Italian-style exuberance and zest for living (see Oscars, Benigni). Yet he's not at all reluctant to fall in love with the place or see the good in Italian ways of doing things, even such simple traditions as everyone fighting for the check, again and again, all through the season.
``In the end, I'm sure, it came out as even as if everyone has insisted on separate checks, yet it was infinitely more entertaining and left all involved with a sense of well-being, rather than the spiritual cramps that come from counting too closely the change you put back in your pocket.''
That's not just delightful writing. It's a delicious put down of those who would let penny- counting rot their insides, and somehow it doesn't sound heavy-handed. That's the beauty of this book: Since the story of the soccer team's slow march through its against-all-odds season shapes the tale, the observations along the way have a kind of natural balance and perspective to them.
As the book and McGinniss' time in the Abruzzo draw to a close, ``grande Joe'' (as the players call him) heads home to America and his family, disillusioned and spiritually bruised but never for a second regretful.
``Each save I made produced a moment of unbounded glee,'' he writes of his one afternoon as an amateur goalie. ``Not that I didn't give up the odd goal as well, but for a 54-year-old American who'd never played the game, I think I could have done worse. At the end of the day, when, covered with dirt and with one leg scraped raw, I dived almost horizontally to my left to punch away a short-range rebound just before the final whistle blew, I think I might have experienced the last spontaneously perfect physical moment of my life.''
McGinniss will no doubt cherish his taste of George Plimpton-style participation, and there is never a question about his suffering along with the team during every match. (``At a good soccer match, you need oxygen at half time, not superfluous dog and pony acts,'' he writes.) He involves himself in every minute of every Castel di Sangro game with a kind of fervid intensity he insists no American sports fan could ever understand, and who wants to argue?
But mostly what stays with the reader is McGinniss' eye, and all the alert, engaged watching he does. He watches as the seasons change outside the window of his small, bone-cold apartment next door to the coach of the team. He watches as more and more signs of corruption force him to take a dark view of his beloved team's management.
McGinniss made his name with ``The Selling of the President,'' a book about Roger Ailes and Richard Nixon in 1968 that was ahead of its time. This latest effort in a long writing career is a departure for him, and it frees him to make repeated jokes at his own expense, to help Americans understand a true passion for soccer and, of course, to celebrate Italy with flavorful writing that recalls Peter Mayle before his Provence cottage industry got out of hand.
Mostly, though, the book offers a road map for letting go and plunging deep into a thrilling and terrifying obsession, even late in life, even if everyone thinks it insane. For that, ``grande Joe'' is as much a hero as any of the soccer players he befriends and brings alive in this gently astonishing book.
Steve Kettmann is a former Chronicle sportswriter.
This article appeared on page RV - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle
A great combination of sport, story telling, and an American’s view of Italy. Very much enjoyed reading this and thank Nicolai for the recommendation