American writer Joe McGinniss produced a highly acclaimed body of work, both fiction and non-fiction, before his death on 10 March 2014 at the age of 71.
He enjoyed an immediate commercial breakthrough with his debut release, The Selling of the President 1968, a powerful work that described the stage-managed, theatrical marketing of Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential campaign and landed on The New York Times bestseller list.
Many successful books followed, most notably his controversial true-crime book Fatal Vision, but the one that stood out for me was his wonderfully charming exploration of Italian football, The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, published in 1999. Part travel memoir, part sporting analysis, part cultural discovery, it was, perhaps unintentionally at its outset, a project that covered a particularly wide literary scope. When I heard of McGinniss’ death earlier this week, this book was the first thing that sprang to mind.
McGinniss wasn’t a lifelong fan of the beautiful game (or ‘soccer’ as he’d have called it) by any means, falling in love with the sport at the 1994 World Cup, staged in his own country. He soon became obsessed with the cultural significance of the game in Italy, transfixed by the religious-like passion of the fans, their fierce devotion to their local village, town or city, and how their football team serves as a proud representation of that community and its values.
He read about something bizarre – miraculous even – that took place in Italy during the 1995-96 season. The team from the humble, rustic village of Castel Di Sangro had secured a highly unlikely promotion to Serie B, the country’s second division. A league normally the preserve of firmly established city-based teams or those clubs from large towns with financial (often industrial) backing, it was five divisions higher than Castel Di Sangro’s natural level. They were now punching above their weight to a degree that was as nearly comical as it was fascinating.
The talk ahead of the 1996-97 season was, therefore, whether this small (tiny in this context) provincial club could survive in the harsh, cold-blooded professionalism of Serie B. Could they avoid relegation and create a second miracle? McGinniss wanted to find out – and he wanted a front-row seat.
He packed his suitcase and headed for the Abruzzo region in central Italy, leaving his life in the States behind to spend the whole season in a rented apartment in the heart of Castel Di Sangro.
With the village having a population of just over 5,000, McGinniss placed himself at the centre of the community, embracing the warmth, fortitude and pride of the locals, who treated the players and coaching staff as family, and in turn McGinniss was welcomed by the villagers with open arms.
As his mission to closely follow the team through their tough series of matches (both home and away) progressed, McGinniss really bought into the emotion of Castel Di Sangro’s fight, their quest for ‘la salvezza’, enriching his deepening passion for the game in the process.
He learnt Italian and gained increasing access to the players and management staff, harnessing a greater understanding of their motivations and lives. Centre-back Davide Cei, for example, was studying The Great Gatsby and was especially concerned with learning the precise location of West Egg, while readers were treated to a stark impression of authoritarian head coach Osvaldo Jaconi, who banned his players from eating garlic and stubbornly only ever uttered one English phrase: ‘I bulldozer’.
It wasn’t long before McGinniss located a darker side to this fairytale. The club’s owner, Pietro Rezza, with his long cigars and lines of bodyguards, was a big player in the village and it was clear that the locals feared him and his shady reputation. In the book McGinniss claimed that Rezza, a compelling character who could have fitted seamlessly into any scene of the first couple of Godfather films, baulked at paying the team promised bonuses and refused to invest in buying quality players or building a stadium befitting their Serie B status, despite apparently having access to the required funds.
Life in the village got even more dramatic as the long, hard season intensified. Two young players died in a car accident that sent shockwaves and heartbreak throughout the village, and after having a cosy evening meal in the home of veteran player Gigi Prete and his alluring Chilean wife, McGinniss later learned of the pair’s arrest in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring.
Relations between McGinniss and the club became more strained, much of it caused by the author brazenly airing his thoughts on team selection and tactics in front of the club’s staff and the locals on a frequent basis. Rezza, a man who clearly valued his privacy, didn’t take kindly to the American writer sticking his nose in. He wasn’t alone, either. Jaconi and some of the players dropped hints to McGinniss (some more heavily than others) that he should back off.
It’s these passages of the book that picked up most of its criticism. Written from McGinniss’ perspective of course, and perhaps with a predominantly American audience in mind, his take on football and his understanding of the practical elements of the game didn’t come from a basis of spending a lifetime following it. Devoted long-time fans of the game can get immensely frustrated when they read a football-related text that’s written by someone who knows less about the sport than them. But for me McGinniss’ relatively untrained eye offered a fresh context to this book that seasoned fans or journalists couldn’t provide. Not every football literary work has to be penned by someone who’s lost count of how many long winter evenings they’ve endured freezing in the stands and whinging about the shoddy food and the ineffective use of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
The troubled relationship between McGinniss and the club reached an almighty climax as Castel Di Sangro played their final away match of the season down in the southern city of Bari. The hosts required a victory to reach Serie A. McGinniss, repeatedly advised to stay at home for this one, noticed a change in the players’ behaviour in the hours leading up to kick-off as they made the journey south. He overheard a poolside conversation between some of the players at a beachfront hotel that exposed a shocking and crooked element to the forthcoming match, and McGinniss couldn’t keep his cool. The bond of trust between McGinniss and the club, stretching throughout the season, snapped spectacularly, and could never recover.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro was written by a writer; not a football fan or journalist who wanted to write a book. It came out around a time when a glut of football-travel books were hitting the bookshelves, including two set in Italy; Greg Burke’s Parma: A Year in Serie A and A Season with Verona by Tim Parks. McGinniss’ book stood out from the crowd because he successfully framed an engaging narrative woven from what was happening around him; the politics, the passion, the corruption and the tragedy.
Maybe it wasn’t his place to claim he could pick a better starting eleven than the coach, and it’s understandable that some readers saw this behaviour as sanctimonious, but the book was never marketed as a tactical overview by an expert. Although structured chronologically (which makes the whole thing very readable), the skilled prose sucks you into the story. Rather than dwelling on the darker moments, McGinniss keeps the pace motoring along, always identifying with the team’s fight for survival throughout all the ordeals that confront the characters.
The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro goes way beyond football but, because all the lies, deception, scandal, heartbreak and joy are fundamentally linked to the team’s on-field objective, it succeeds in magnifying the game’s importance at the same time.
McGinniss wasn’t an expert on football tactics, or even decorum within a close-knit team setting, but he was an expert at writing. His shrewd style and the enthralling tale he fashioned made for a compelling book that, after reading it on its release, I have never forgotten.