The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinniss

26 Sep

Castel-Maine-XXXXIn 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.


Posted by on 26/09/2015 in Sport


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29 responses to “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – Joe McGinniss

  1. clarepooley33

    26/09/2015 at 22:43

    I am almost tempted to read this book. I have watched countless football matches on TV and have even been to watch a game in a stadium once without ever having picked up any clue as to how to play. I am very amused by the commentators and watch these matches to keep company with my husband who has tried very hard to explain it all. But I digress… I would read this as I am keen on ‘under-dog wins the day!’ type books and would like to see how long it takes me to get annoyed by the writer. Both he and I probably know as much as each other about the glorious game!


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 16:04

      There is a stereotype about the Americans which I have never encountered in my various visits or chats online but this guy seems to epitomise that cliché of the arrogant American with no concept of how to handle another culture. That said he will go over the basics for you and regardless of the author’s decision to put himself at the forefront, the book is about the drama of a season and it is great to get an insight into how the Italians do things and experience some pretty bizarre happenings to boot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • clarepooley33

        06/10/2015 at 16:17

        I thought, from what you said in your review, that he was a living cliché!


        • Ste J

          06/10/2015 at 16:22

          He is but that makes it all the more perplexing because I have chatted to loads of our friends from across the pond and met a good few as well and not one has lived up to that image but this guy…is that man!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. macjam47

    27/09/2015 at 01:23

    A solid honest review. Good work.


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:37

      I tried my best to like it, the flaws weren’t in the story so much as the author’s decision to not just be an observer of events and rather become the star which did detract from the end result but if I loved all the books I reviewed, there would definitely be something wrong with my critical faculties.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lyn

    27/09/2015 at 02:54

    As the grandmother of two avid junior grade soccer players (one who was part of the U14’s girls’ team who won the state championships), this appeals to me. I love an underdog makes good story 🙂


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:31

      I love FA Cup third round Saturday when all the big teams get drawn against the minnows and everybody wants them to win, there is still magic in the sport that is becoming increasingly commercialised. There is another book I am due to review in a little while that I loved and will probably be right up your street as well but first thing is first catching up after my loss of internet!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lyn

        06/10/2015 at 21:10

        Loss of internet? Ugh!! Diabolical! 😦


        • Ste J

          07/10/2015 at 17:06

          The worst thing is knowing its there and everybody is using it with reckless abandon but me.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Love, Life and Whatever

    27/09/2015 at 05:46

    Interesting perhaps something for my husband’s choice.


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:49

      Some cliché Italians, football, food and some interesting end of season revelations…what’s not to like?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. shadowoperator

    28/09/2015 at 17:19

    Hi, Ste J. Although it might surprise you, soccer was not really universal in the U.S. or even still in the South until recent years. Traditionally, we started out with baseball, then the (to me detestable) game of American football nearly took over the whole picture. It still seems to rein more or less supreme even now. The places where soccer is big in the U. S. are (as you might expect) places where other cultures are more valued and where European and Asian cultures in particular are appreciated (such as the Northeast, the Northwest, California, etc). My nephew grew up playing soccer in the Northeast, but we had never so much as heard of the game, really, in the Mid-Atlantic states where I grew up. It’s certainly a change to see it so much in the spotlight these days, but anything is preferable to American football!


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:47

      I have been watching with interest the growth of the MLS, total stadium attendance for the season is over six million these days and of course the North west has some big derbies and the biggest attendances…I do regret not catching a game when I was over there but with so much to do in a limited amount of time but then again whilst I was there I didn’t think much about football, except to check up on the latest scores from around the world. With the plethora of new ‘franchises’ (I hate that word, so commercial) springing up it seems the sport is already taking fans from the traditional American sports.


      • shadowoperator

        06/10/2015 at 20:49

        My first loyalty will always be to baseball and softball, but I do hope that soccer steals away most if not all of the fans from American football, because even with all the injuries it’s possible to get in soccer, they are still far less and far less serious in most cases than those suffered by major league and even high school American football stars. I guess I hate American football so much because it’s always been such a “gladiator” sport, caring so little about the players other than giving them big salaries that are somehow supposed to compensate them for the brain damage and other serious injuries. Traditionally, you could almost hear the old Roman salute (“We who are about to die salute thee”) to the crowd, but now at last there is hope of change, because some of the more courageous of the stars and coaches and other people in the game are speaking out about all the physical and mental damage American football does.


        • Ste J

          07/10/2015 at 17:17

          I read an article a while back about the injuries, the balls are lighter in soccer than they used to be but heading a ball kicked with force can still do damage but there really is no way around it, since the rules came in to protect players from the more brutal fouls, it seems they have reached a limit for everything they can do, without making it a non contact sport. I have watched a few American Football games and they do seem to overly rely on machismo from players to crowd. Its a whole different culture I really should attempt to understand.


  6. Seyi sandra

    30/09/2015 at 17:49

    I love watching football but reading about it is another matter. I think if a Briton had written this it might be different. Hope I’m not biased Ste J?


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:26

      I agree, we British and I think most of the world in general assume a given level of understanding about the game in advance as it does tend to permeate so much of our culture. When it was published in 1999 the popularity of MLS was in its infancy, so it was perhaps understandable and necessary to educate or at least remind the U.S. reader of the rules. I think a European would have focussed more on the culture and the passion, rather than on understanding the mentality of the manager and allowing his or her self to be centre stage in a book which is ultimately about the team and the fairy tale story.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Resa

    02/10/2015 at 20:16

    I have a blog pal in England who is nuts over this game… season predictions, player reviews coach critiques. It’s because of him that I watched the games from Brazil last championship.
    I must say, because of Canadian & American football, I was very confused about soccer, football & rugby.
    However, the excitement here is that the Toronto Blue Jays are in the playoffs & fighting for home-field advantage. Of course that’s baseball.


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:55

      American football is a derivation of rugby, football and rugby were once one combined sport but split and were consequently called rugby football and soccer comes from the other branch as it is the shortened form of association in association football. I know nothing about baseball apart from the fact that New York Cosmos have their football pitch sharing with the baseball pitch…is it a pitch in baseball?

      The history and statistics and sheer number of countries always keeps a numbers fan happy, the cultures and of course the names, which helped me to learn geography. Brazil has a fascinating championship, half way through the season European clubs have their transfer windows and buy the best Brazilians so the natice clubs have to effectively build a new team which leads to new contenders for the title and spectacular collapses.


      • Resa

        06/10/2015 at 17:16

        Well, if pitch means like a field, then yes. They play baseball on a diamond shaped area on a field.
        Yeah, the popularity of soccer has really grown here, not that we have a decent team.
        Okay, so football & soccer are the same thing, with the round ball? Rugby is the oval ball?
        Just rechecking, as it has been very confusing for me.


        • Ste J

          07/10/2015 at 17:13

          You are spot on, I think it’s only called soccer to differentiate between the two and avoid confusion. Your team isn’t too bad, you seem to have a healthy intake of players based in Germany from ex servicemen who settled so that benefits you. With your population you could be a contender for the title if it really took off…it is always strange how China, India the U.S. and to a certain extent Russia, have never achieved despite massive populations.


  8. Sarah

    02/10/2015 at 21:12

    A book about football you say? Well, my excitement over the book did dampen a little reading your review – the author sounds like a nightmare – but then it’s about the football!!! so I might just have to get it anyway. 🙂


    • Ste J

      06/10/2015 at 15:39

      It’s a decent read, there are plenty of better books out there, travel wise A Season With Verona by Tim Parks is very enjoyable and there is another football travel book I read whilst my internet was being fixed which will be reviewed in a couple of posts time and I think that will appeal to you a lot more than this one did.


  9. RoSy

    23/10/2015 at 20:23

    I admit – you almost lost me at football. 😉


    • Ste J

      23/10/2015 at 20:38

      I do try to keep such posts at a premium..apart from the other one I see you commented on lol.

      Liked by 1 person


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