When a soccer fan seriously begins to investigate the larger soccer world, inevitably they come across The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. Well written as an engaging narrative, the book eases the casual soccer fan into the world of calcio. Long a staple of soccer fans’ bookshelves, for years it has made all lists of required soccer reading. However, in the modern light, does the book actual hold up as essential or even good reading?
First, a brief history of the club. The village of Castel di Sangro suffered major damage during World War II and a local clergy member rallied the villagers to create a soccer team as a way to help with the rebuild (my assumption is for moral victories). Slowly this small club climbed the ranks of Italian amateur and semi-pro soccer before in 1993 hiring Osvaldo Jaconi as their manager.
Jaconi would prove to be the miracle worker, managing the team from Serie C2 (a semi-pro league) to Serie C1. In 1996, the team which would have been satisfied staying in the professional C1 won the promotion playoffs to advance to Serie B. After a stay in Serie B, the club lost Osvaldo and a number of key players. The club fell back to Serie C2 and folded, only to be resurrected as A.S.D. Castel di Sangro Calcio. The successor to that club is Castello 2000, who now play in the depths of Italian soccer.
For the few people unaware of what the book is, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy is a fish out of water story. Famous American political writer/journalist Joe McGinniss traveled to the small Italian town of Castel di Sangro one year to follow the local soccer team. The club had just won promotion to Serie B for the first time, and the story was compelling because even by second division standards this was a minuscule club. The town, in 1997, had only 5,500 residents and their field (note, not a stadium) grew to 7,200 seats for the Serie B season. How could it compete with larger, more established teams?
McGinniss integrated himself into the management, ownership, locker room, and town to paint a comprehensive picture of a town and club struggle just to adjust to a national division. Their field took months to upgrade to standard, so they played most of the first few months on the road. The team had a number of personnel setbacks, including the deaths of two star players and another player’s arrest for suspicion of drug running. McGinniss detail the personalities and quirks of the team and brings to life what was at the time an unimaginable story.
At this point, I will draw a line in the article in case anyone wants to read this book and not have the ending spoiled. I realize that a 25ish-year-old book really does not deserve such protection, especially based on the article’s title, but as a reader, I know I would at least appreciate the option.
The book ends with Castel di Sangro barely escaping relegation, which is the aforementioned miracle. Safe on their last game of the season, the club faces a choice. The club played Bari on the last matchday, and i Galletti needed a victory to have a chance at promotion. According to McGinniss, he overheard some players discussing fixing the match in Bari’s favor, thus ensuring a financial windfall to the club in exchange for the points. McGinniss ends his book on a lengthy sermon about the sanctity of sport and his words drip disappointment at his adopted club for even considering such actions (Bari won 3-1).
As you may have noticed throughout this article, I have praised the writing of this book. It’s an engaging read, and for a soccer neophyte like McGinniss to come in and write a knowledgeable book about Italian soccer is impressive. Although there have been similar “rags to top flight riches” stories in a number of soccer leagues since, none are truly as remarkable as this tiny village club playing legendary Italian soccer clubs in a quest to stay up.
Based on that, this is a book that made for Soccer Minnow’s readers, right? I’d argue the opposite. Since its publication in the 1990s, American soccer fans have such a greater understanding of soccer that the book’s naivete and thin-skinned prose make it a less-than-stellar read for the modern new soccer fan.
How McGinniss Misread Italian Soccer
Take the match fixing for example. Yes, match fixing is wrong, and the sanctity of the competitive game when people have paid to see it is important. Yet any soccer fan of any length of time knows that dead rubbers for one team can actually have a benefit. By condemning the actions of Castel di Sangro, McGinniss applies an American sports mindset to an entirely foreign situation.
Serie B is in no way comparable to the major American sports leagues. If a journalist discovered that the Arizona Cardinals took money to throw a game against the Green Bay Packers, who happened to need a win to make the playoffs, the outrage would be immense. And rightfully so. Win or lose, the financial windfall ofthe season for the Cardinals and the Packers would be roughly equal so the Packers offering the Cardinals’ organization money to throw a game is non-sensical. Both teams are printing their own money, so a payoff for a victory isn’t a real trade.
Not so in Serie B, and especially not so for tiny Castel di Sangro. Remember, this is a club who only existed for about 50 years before the book and whose field was unplayable the first half of the season. A number of major potential signings turned down the club during the miracle season. Once the club somehow achieves safety, here comes another club offering to provide much-needed finances simply to win a match that has zero meaning to Castel di Sangro. This money could have been used to try and keep the team together in Serie B. Again, match fixing is wrong but McGinniss applies a black and white lens to a gray situation.
That is why I would not recommend this book to someone who is new to soccer. The almost anthropomorphic view of the situation does not fully convey the beautiful game in all its beauty and its sometimes necessary ugliness. Instead, I’d recommend reading Tim Park’s A Season with Verona for someone to truly get a sense of what soccer (especially in Italy) is.