Jane Stuart – Writer

Writer on beer, football culture and Blackpool FC.

Football Book Review #7: The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss

This week I have been reading The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss. This is the story of a miraculous rise of a young football club from the Italian mountains and covers their first season in Serie B (1996/97). The author, an American, decamps to Italy for the season to write this book.

This book is engaging from the start, with an enchanting prologue about an encounter with a stranger on a train. The Italian is so astounded at meeting an American who understands football (“I might as well have thrown a glass of cold water in his face”) that he insists he goes with him to meet his friends so he can show off this curiosity.

The author is alone thousands of miles from his family so becomes engrossed in the ‘football family’ – almost to an unhealthy level (when he starts making suggestions for team selection to the manager). He gets very much to the heart of the football club, getting close to the players and learning a lot about what really goes on behind the scenes at a football club – which is often not what is fed to the public.

The style in which this book is written is quite striking – and somewhat confusing. McGinniss uses many fiction writing techniques – for example using the weather to create atmosphere and having a distinct shift at the halfway point.

“As dark clouds gathered, I took my seat in the tribuna. Rain began to fall before the match, and as it did, the temperature dropped.”

Whilst this does add to the story and make for a dramatic read, it also had me wondering just how much poetic licence was applied to the narrative. It does seem far-fetched in places (Robert Ponnick being one such example).

And yet the emotions in this book are very real.

“the pressure was eating him alive”

McGinniss crafts his characters beautifully, my personal favourite being the hotel landlord:

“I have now been here for four nights. I am the only person staying here…every time I walk through the front door, the Spirit of Christmas back there asks me what I want. I tell him I want the key to my room. He asks me what room I’m staying in. I tell him room eight. He looks at me as if I’ve just insulted his mother.”

The author makes an interesting observation of the goalkeeper:

“[he had] the eyes of a deer, constantly flicking this way and that, noticing everything that entered the field of vision, constantly on the alert for possible danger…the eyes told you he had to be one of two things: a professional goalkeeper or a cop.”

The author keeps his countrymen in mind throughout, Americansplaining the rules of the game:

“During the play of a match, penalty kicks are occasionally awarded by a referee who thinks he has detected a significant foul committed within the penalty area, a rectangle that extends eighteen yards laterally beyond either goalpost and eighteen yards forward onto the field of play.”

I was interested to read how communication worked with a language barrier. The role of the translator was particularly intriguing, in that she would apply cultural translations (and sometimes mistranslate completely) so as not to cause offence. I’ve never considered that the role of a translator is political. Similarly, McGinniss writes of journalism that the press write what they want irrespective of what you say to them:

“First you must interview. Then you make up.”

There are several pages of photographs in the centre of the book, which I was happily flicking through until one of the captions gave away something that I hadn’t read about yet.

There are some beautifully refreshing metaphors used as the book progresses, my particular favourite being:

“Brescia were playing…as if they’d been forced to inhale chloroform in their locker room”

The book is definitely not what I expected. The title – and blurb – give the impression it is a fairy tale:

“The Miracle of Castel di Sangro dramatically reveals football’s limitless potential for magic, wonder and improbable romance.”

This is deceptive. Now having completed the book, I can see that the tone was set at the beginning, with seeds of discomfort introduced very early on.

“On one side, Castel di Sangro is bordered by the Abruzzo National Park, which still contains wolves and brown bears, as well as more than thirty species of reptile.”

As the book progresses these seeds sprout into triffids, with depression, death and drug-trafficking all playing a part.

Of course football is not a fairy tale. Sure, there are magical moments, but this book perfectly demonstrates that, the further you delve into football, the more suffering you endure.

“…when…the chance of your team scoring in a match in which seventy minutes remains is no more likely than the discovery of life on Mars – it is, and I mean this sincerely, very, very painful and discouraging.”

Who said Americans don’t understand football? But this book demonstrates that the suffering is punctuated with plenty of laughter – and many fascinating characters and adventures – along the way.

On finishing the book, I am left confused and wondering if what I have read was true. If so, I am perplexed as to how the author got out of the country alive, such are the startling revelations contained within this book…

NEXT UP: One Football, No Nets by Justin Walley

Please do keep your football book recommendations coming!

Don’t forget you can also read about my awaydays with Blackpool from the 2019/20 season right here

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