In the summer of 1996, in a tiny, impoverished town deep in the remote heart of southern Italy, a sporting miracle took place. The footballers of Castel di Sangro (population: 5000) won promotion to Serie B, the division directly below the most glamorous league in world football. In little more than a decade, the team had risen from the lowest depths of regional amateur football to within touching distance of Baggio and Batistuta.
Feeling something of a football curio himself – an American who understood and loved the game – Joe Mcginniss followed their fortunes throughout their first remarkable season in the big time. Populated by characters only the passionate, frenetic, absurd world of sport can produce, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro dramatically reveals football’s limitless potential for magic, wonder and improbable romance.
For those of you not into football don’t leave just yet, for this book is an opportunity to not only learn the basic rules of the game but also to experience the magical side of the game, those rare, special moments when teams move beyond what is expected of them and provide the jaded public with some romance and an underdog to cheer for.
To misuse the sporting cliché, this was a book of two halves, on the one hand the reader will get to follow a small team as they fight to survive in a notoriously competitive league and on the other you have the author’s voice which didn’t take very long to annoy me.
when picking the book up, I was slightly bothered by the line in the blurb that seemingly assured us that although the author was American, he understood the game. I know this book was written in the year of Major League Soccer’s inaugural season but it seems a little worrying that the publisher has to go to lengths to assure us the author knows what he’s on about, surely the quality of the writing should speak for itself?
Football fans are a passionate breed and McGinniss certainly seems passionate, although his short list of games watched before embarking on the project isn’t impressive, it is pleasant to hear the story about how somebody fell in love with the sport. Unfortunately as the book progresses he seems to think he has an innate understanding of the game and of the team, even having the temerity to ask the manager why he doesn’t play with a second striker or a certain formation.
The problem with the author putting himself centre stage is that he underlines his own ignorance to the culture and sport he blunders about in. It is a wonderful story and to be given the chance to chronicle and have access to the club is something most fans would love so it is strange that a better job was not made of it, with hardly any insights the story becomes less about the team and the travelling and more about Joe and how he thinks things should be run.
Although football is universal, the cultural and tactical differences are not, Joe seems not to understand the distinctions and seems to have made little research into the way of either. That said there isn’t much evidence of his learning as the season goes along either, reflection and understanding would have been a redeeming feature and made the book richer and justify the author’s decision to put himself at the forefront of the book rather than the team.
Author gripes aside, there are things I liked in this book though, charting the progress of the team throughout the season allows the reader to invest their hopes in the team survival and feel part of something big. I did enjoy seeing the players and everybody connected with the team up close and for football fans mentions of young players who are being looked at by bigger teams (Morgan di Sanctis and Carlo Cudicini) are a welcome blast from the past
It’s a quick read to boot, written in an easy style, setting up the stage (or should I say pitch) for players reaching the biggest and most challenging test of their careers. The town gets into the spirit and there is a great party atmosphere and sense of anticipation especially at the beginning drawing in the reader for what is a season that sees good and bad fortune, tragedy and comedy fill the season.
It’s a typical season of that great Italian tradition with rumours of corruption and scandal at its core, yet despite that darker side, football is an integral part of life, although if the owner of your club seems to have come off of the set of any mafia film you care to mention then what are you expected to think?
Despite the author’s prominence and lack of objectivity and general ignorance in short doses it can be endearing,although I was perplexed by the almost obsessive use of subjective player rating in newspapers to back up his assertions on what he feels should be done. Rather than being a bad advert for Americans abroad though this book actually underlines the growing love and appreciation of the country for the sport in recent years and is reflected in the constant growth in attendances and new clubs being formed.