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The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe…
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The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (1999)

by Joe McGinniss

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It all started one day when Joe McGinniss -- yes, the Fatal Vision author -- woke up and decided he liked soccer.

Well, no, it wasn't quite like that. It really started a few years before, when an out-of-nowhere soccer team suddenly started rising in the Italian leagues. For those who aren't familiar with the tiered system used in most European and Asian countries, every year a few good teams get promoted one level higher -- with corresponding access to more money and better players -- while poor teams are sent down to a lower tier (a process known as relegation, which is literally "re-league-ing"). Just imagine if the Yankees had a few bad seasons and wound up playing in the Appalachian League. This can (and sometimes does) happen in other countries, which is why sports sometimes seems more important than life or death!

And so this middle-of-nowhere team in the mountains of Italy, playing in a town of some 5000 people, surprised itself and everyone else by being promoted to Italy's Serie B, the second-highest soccer league in that country. (Hence, the titular "miracle.") It's at about this time when McGinniss has his epiphany about soccer, and since one quasi-religious experience is as good as another, he embeds himself with the little team of Castel di Sangro, appearing at all games (home and away, all over Italy), practices, and even meals.

His time spent there was an emotional roller coaster, with the joys of wins (and a few ties) against "better" teams, combined with the lows of intrasquad fighting and disappointment of losing to weaker teams. The book is generally humorous, sometimes unintentionally so. The team, for better or worse, becomes McGinniss' extended family. It's a grueling season, and the author doesn't spare us the worst parts of it.

Although I absolutely loved the book, I did have two major complaints. The most apparent was the arrogance that McGinniss showed throughout most of the book. One of the main storylines has him constantly confronting the team manager over lineups, formations, and tactics. Remember, McGinniss' soccer knowledge can probably still be measured in hours, while the manager had decades of experience. (Admittedly, the author's ideas are often worth at least some discussion, which the coach never allows.) My second complaint is the abrupt ending. The last few chapters hold a few surprises (it would spoil too much to say more). But essentially, there's the final game, and then McGinniss zips to the airport -- the end. There was no discussion or comparison of the two nations (US/Italy), of soccer in the countries, of politics, of anything. There's really not even an explicit statement as to whether the whole trip was even worth it. (The final chapters do, in fact, provide an ending that explains the abruptness, but I do wish there had been a tiny bit more wrapping up.)

Overall, it was a very enjoyable read, even when some of the very distinct characters started merging together (to this American, Albieri and Alberti start looking the same when reading before bed). Any soccer (or any other sport, really) fan would easily recognize the highs and lows of a tough season. Even non-sports fans will get caught up in the passion that McGinniss provides in this fascinating part-travelogue, part-memoir. Strongly recommended.

--------------------------------------------
LT Haiku:

The agony of
Defeat may lead to an end
Of Italian team. ( )
4 vote legallypuzzled | Aug 29, 2012 |
Very interesting read that provides the reader with insight into Italian culture and professional soccer. I was so engrossed in the book that I read it in one day. ( )
  willyt | Mar 12, 2009 |
I read this while I was in Italy and I remember loving it! ( )
  NanceJ | Feb 14, 2009 |
As an American (and a young woman) who has followed "the world's beautiful game" for nearly five years, I was somewhat curious about reading this book written by an American whose love of soccer followed him to a quaint, if not relatively quiet mountain town situated in the heart of Italy, the location being Castel di Sangro. Granted, he was passionate about il calcio even before he set foot in the village (thanks to the World Cup being played in the U.S....1994, for those probably asking about the year...and watching Alexi Lalas play for Padua that same year), but it was the story about the soccer team of Castel di Sangro Calcio and their "miracle" (being that they were recently promoted to the second best league in Italy, Serie B) that motivated him to start writing this book.

The story had me hooked from the beginning and even made me understand why he grew to love this team, some of the people, and the town itself, despite its faults. The last couple of pages (where there is a discussion about throwing the team's final match for money and the fallout from it, thereby inexplicably showing McGinniss the ugly nature that is corruption in soccer) left me somewhat floored as I originally thought the book would end with the team winning that match fairly without any money changing hands or such and that the team would overcome whatever sort of problems that have plagued them for most of the season and show Italy (and McGinniss) why they are considered a "miracle".

But that wouldn't sound like an interesting ending, would it? Of course not. ( )
  saint_kat | Jan 27, 2009 |
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Epigraph
Years have gone by and I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: "A pretty move, for the love of God."
And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs. it.
-- Eduardo Galeano
Dedication
For Nancy

And for Dylan, Sebastien, and Lauren
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In 1994 I traveled to Italy in pursuit of a fresh passion.
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Haiku summary
The agony of

Defeat may lead to an end

Of Italian team.

(legallypuzzled)

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0767905997, Paperback)

We already knew Joe McGinniss could chill our blood (Fatal Vision) and arouse both our pity and distaste for the Kennedys (The Last Brother), but who knew he could be so funny? (Well, maybe readers who remember The Selling of the President back in 1968.) Even those who have no interest in soccer--the majority of Americans, he ruefully admits--will relish the author's vivid account of a team from Castel di Sangro, a tiny town in Italy's poorest region, that against all expectations made it to the national competition. Whether he's chronicling his ordeal at possibly the least-inviting hotel in Italy (the heat doesn't come on until October, no matter the temperature; he is assigned to a room up four flights of stairs though there are no other guests), or sketching a colorful cast of characters that includes the team's sinister owner and an utterly unflappable translator, McGinniss prompts roars of laughter as he reveals an Italy tourists never see. He also saddens readers with a shocking final scene in which he confronts the nation's casual corruption, which taints men he's come to respect and even love. Although not a conventional memoir, this stirring book reveals as much about the author's passionate character as about the nation and the players who win his heart, then break it. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:23 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A journey to Castel Di Sangro, an Italian village that stunned the soccer world with its team's unexpected success, offers a portrayal of the emotion that swept the town.

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