(This review is a bit spoilery so avoid if you are sensitive to such things – even for non-fiction books).
When asked to name my favourite football book, I immediately jump to 4 or 5 books I read in my late teens or early twenties – Football Against the Enemy, The Hand of God, Brillant Orange, Morbo, or The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. These were among the books that opened my eyes to the joys of great sports-writing that went beyond players autobiographies and told you as much about a time or a place as they did about the sport/player.
I first read The Miracle of Castel di Sangro in 2002 in the booze filled summer between finishing school and starting university. I was totally captivated by the story and devoured the book, reading it twice within a couple of weeks and recommending it to everyone I could think of. I’ve hesitated to reread it in recent years due to a nagging fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t live up to my memory.
Re-reading it now, 16 years later, I still found the story as wonderful, absurd and brilliant but found myself disliking McGinniss, the author and narrator, who sets himself right at the centre of the story.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro tells of the story of the 1996/97 Serie B campaign of tiny Castel Di Sangro after they had achieved an unexpected promotion (the ‘Miracle’) to the second division in Italian football. McGinniss, a successful American writer in his 50’s, spends the season with the team sharing their meals, the dressing room and eventually their secrets. McGinniss was a recent convert to football (soccer) having fallen in love with the game during USA ’94 and developing an obsession with the Divine Ponytail Roberto Baggio. He also goes to great lengths to highlight his lack of Italian, while it was seemingly of a high enough standard that he was reading Italian newspapers from the very beginning.
Castel di Sangro is a tiny town in the Abruzzo region with a population of just 5,000 people among whom reside all of the traditional Italian stereotypes – the shady businessman, the playboys, the matronly restaurant owner etc.
The story that unfolds over the season is truly remarkable – deaths, arrests, drug scandals, corruption and all the more usual drama that football brings. McGinniss really draws the reader in and creates a clear portrait of the players, the manager and the rest of the supporting cast. He also captures well the frustration of the fanatic – each game feeling like life or death, the entire mood of a week being set by what happens over 90 minutes.
Eventually however McGinniss began to irritate me – his tactical analysis and player evaluations would be a lot more convincing had he been watching football for more than two years. While he makes fun of his own attempts to influence team selection, he seems to still believe he knew better than the manager. In many ways he plays up to the boorish American stereotype – throwing tantrums at the club officials and the manager and picking fights with the local mafia boss (we assume) for no apparent reason.
Ultimately the book runs into the issue of what obligation McGinniss has to tell the whole truth or whether he should keep certain things he sees out of the book. When I first read the book, I shared McGinniss’s outrage at certain events but reading now in my mid-30’s with a bit more life experience, I found McGinniss to ultimately be disloyal and duplicitous. If this had been an objective chronicle of the season, I would understand the obligation to expose everything he saw but that isn’t what this book was. McGinniss became a central part of the story, turning players into close friends and being their confidant – trying to do both things at once leaves a sour taste.
Even with his choice to expose certain things at the end of the book, McGinniss does so in a self-centred and frankly childish manner. He acts as the victim of some grand injustice when someone with a bit more empathy would clearly have focussed on the impact on the players and the town of living in the shadow of corruption. Rather than look to explain things he doesn’t like, McGinniss acts like a spoiled child.
The ending is more McGinniss-centric than you would expect from a sports story, and in some ways explains why so much of the book centres on the author. But it doesn’t justify the excessive indulgence of McGinniss focusing so much of the narrative on himself and not on the team.
Despite that serious flaw, I still love the book. It’s a brilliant story and written in a gripping and engaging manner. McGinniss is a quality writer and uou get caught up in his passion and develop a real affection for the players and the town. It’s deservedly a classic but rereading it now I can’t help but feel there was an even better version that sadly ended up buried under the author’s ego.