This article is the eighth of a series containing extracts from the book shown below, first published in 1999, which Grays Athletic FC have kindly been granted permission to reproduce:
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss
Published by Sphere an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group www.littlebrown.co.uk a Hachette UK Company – www.hachette.co.uk
Club Historian, Chris Turner recently lent me the book to read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I asked the publishers if I may have permission to publish extracts in our club programme as I thought our readers would find in interesting. I was informed that, sadly, Joe McGinniss (pictured) had passed away in 2014, so it would be a matter for his estate to consider my request. Although the publishers were, understandably, looking for a payment, I was very pleased to receive agreement through his family that no charge would be made, as they were happy for a community club, such as ours, to publicise Joe’s excellent work. Thank you to Joe’s wife, Nancy and her family for allowing the club to share his amazing story through our Official Match Day Magazine.
JOE MEETS THE MANAGER AND THE PLAYING SQUAD
On Tuesday afternoon, manager, Osvaldo Jaconi and his players returned to town to begin the work of the season’s second week. The field on which Castel di Sangro trained, adjacent to, but separated from, the mess that might someday become a new stadium, was uncommonly picturesque. Even as it absorbed the warmth of a mid-September sun, snowcapped mountains rose above it on two sides.
I had gone to the session hoping to meet a few of the players, but primarily to introduce myself to Jaconi and to determine how tolerant of my presence he might be.
Unfortunately, print journalists and TV crews swarmed all over me. The American was here! It was true, for one day at least. I was “una curiosita” – a curiosity – a new element. One after another they took their turn to speak to me. A few did speak English. As for the others, I would listen with a polite, but blank expression and when they stopped, I would smile and nod.
It proved educational to see the results that night and the next day. In the case of the television, my incomprehensible mumblings quickly gave way to an authoritative voice-over, summarising what were said to be my comments and impressions, as I was seen staring helplessly at the camera.
But it was in the newspapers that the true magic occurred. There, my one or two shards of badly broken Italian were somehow transformed into full paragraphs within quotations marks that seemed not only grammatically flawless, but gave evidence of an extensive vocabulary and of a speaking style that appeared to border on the eloquent.
When I commented on this Giuseppe, my interpreter, he said, “But for sure. Since you cannot speak in our language, they must write what they wish for you to say if you could.”
“But they could have stayed in their offices. If they were going to make it up anyway, they didn’t even need to speak to me.”
Giuseppe looked troubled. ‘No. Is not possible. First you must interview. Then you make up.”
With Guiseppe serving as interpreter, Jaconi extended to me a warmer welcome than I could have hoped for. He considered my presence a gift to his team and I should feel free to talk to him or any of the players at any time, except during the actual training sessions. I would also be welcome in his office, his apartment, which was only three doors down from my hotel and in the locker room. In addition, where the unmarried players ate as a group at Marcella’s restaurant, he had reserved a seat next to him at the head of the table. While the players were expected to address him as “Mister”, a long-standing carryover from the game’s introduction into Italy by the English, he and I would be on a first-name basis.
“I, Osvaldo, you, Joe”, he said.
“No, Signor,” I replied. “You, bulldozer; I, Joe.”
He threw back his head and laughed loudly.
Having no assistant except the newly promoted Spinosa – without whose “miracle” save of the penalty kick in last season’s play-off final none of this would have been possible – Jaconi had to do everything himself, from devising tactics to conducting conditioning drills to lugging bags of footballs back and forth between the locker room and the field. This might be Serie B, only one rung down the ladder, but it seemed a long way from A.C. Milan.
With twenty one players in the squad, my first task clearly would be to match faces with names. All the players were Italian. Expensive foreign talent was imported almost exclusively by Serie A teams, with only a few of the upper echelon of Serie B, such as Torino, Genoa and Bari, making forays into the import market.
The first to approach me was a tall, sturdy and almost absurdly handsome man who introduced himself as the team captain. This was Davide Cei, a native of Pisa, who had been at Castel di Sangro for eight years, having taken the whole ride up from C2. He now found himself the linchpin of the defence of a Serie B team, surely not something he’d ever envisioned.
“A rising tide lifts all boats” was a phrase I thought I should learn in Italian because it seemed applicable to at least half the team, who were C2 players, who together had won that coveted and unlikely Serie B status for themselves and one another. It was clear that they took pride in their accomplishment of having made Castel di Sangro, the smallest town in all of Italy ever to have risen to Serie B and that they would fight to the death to keep it there.
Cei actually apologised for his and his teammates’ inability to speak English, as though they should have spent their summer vacations learning for my benefit!
Over time and with two talented teachers, I grew able to meet the players more than halfway linguistically and eventually to amuse them occasionally as I groped my way toward an extremely attenuated understanding of their tongue.
Cei ended our first “chat” – if it could be called that – by calling to a player who was passing nearby. This was Danilo Di Vincenzo, Roman by birth, twenty-eight years old and the man who’d scored our first goal in Serie B. It seemed that Cei wanted to be sure I was properly introduced to such a personage.
Di Vincenzo had remarkably bright eyes and a luminous grin that seemed ready to surface at the slightest provocation. “Grande Joe, you bring good luck.”
“Speriamo,” I replied. Let’s hope so.
Unfortunately, my prompt use of one the few conversational responses I’d so far learned gave Di Vincenzo the erroneous impression that I spoke and understood Italian and being Roman, he was at least five sentences into his next remarks before Cei was able to flag him down to tell him that my riposte had been merely a lucky stab. I felt an embryonic bond start to form with this high-spirited forward.
The player I made a point of seeking out was Lotti as I wanted to point out what a strong match he had in their opening day win. He had blue eyes and curly, sand-coloured hair. He stood six foot two, was half my age and obviously fit in a way I had not been for years – or, frankly, ever. I wanted to tell him that I hoped over time we might establish a more easy-going and familiar relationship after he initially spoke formally. He was born on the Mediterranean coast, south of Rome, but north of Naples. Using “lei” rather than “tu” as he did was the formal way to say “you”. My mind was working frantically how to deal with this, but I didn’t want to offend him. Ah, now I remembered the key phrase.
“Per te,” I said lapsing into the informal mode of saying “for you,” “it was, it was – un bel pasticcio” – a beautiful match. Lotti looked at me oddly. I turned away from the bewildered goalkeeper, looking for a private place where I could glance at my phrasebook to see what I had said.
Damn! I had used the wrong word for “match”. I should have said una bella partita” – a beautiful match. Un bel pasticcio, unfortunately, meant a “fine mess.”
A few hours later at Marcella’s, where over the next nine months I would spend more waking hours than in any other location in Italy, I also blundered with the number one goalkeeper, Roberto De Julius.
He was twenty-four, from Teramo, a city of 50,000 in the northern Abruzzo. He never played professionally for any team except Castel di Sangro and had become the squad’s number one the previous season, until making way for the penalty-saving reserve keeper, Spinosa, in the last seconds of the last one, gaining promotion for his team.
It had not occurred to me to think about whom I might be dispossessing as I took the proffered empty seat immediately to the left of Jaconi. I soon learned, however, that the seat had belonged to De Julius, who had moved down one chair to make way for me.
I soon learned also that the seating at the team table at Marcella’s could be viewed as a latter-day Kremlinology, as one read significance (correctly or not) into who was seated closest to Jaconi and who was seated farthest away. There was no written chart, but the pattern never varied and it was the “golden boys” that Jaconi valued highly (often for their personal loyalty more than for their talent) who claimed the coveted seats closest to the master.
Thus Jaconi was flanked on his left by De Julius and Giacomo Galli, respectively the number one keeper and top scorer from the year before and on his right by midfielder Tonino Martino and the scrappy Neapolitan defender Pietro Fusco, two close friends who had joined the club at the start of the 1992 season, even before Jaconi himself. The newcomers filled the seats farther down the table.
The other veterans of the miracle – who were, in many cases, veterans also of many bleak seasons with Castel di Sangro – were married and thus did not eat regularly at Marcella’s.
Besides Cei, these included the defenders Prete and Altamura, midfielders Bonomi, Alberti and Michelini and of course, Spinosa himself, who lived with his wife and young son in an ancient stone house only a corner kick’s distance from the thirteenth-century church that has been spared annihilation in World War II. It was only fitting, it seemed, that the man who’d actually performed the miracle of that penalty save to live so close to the church.
My arrival had disrupted the orderly universe of Marcella’s. That first night I simply took the empty chair as if by birthright and when De Julius, to my immediate left, murmured only the most subdued of greetings, I mentally wrote him off as rather churlish. I’m afraid that nearly two weeks passed before I realised how graceless I had been.
One night I simply arrived and took a seat midway down the table. When De Julius walked in, I motioned towards the chair I had been occupying and said only, “Per te.” For you. He said, “Grazie,” and nodded towards me and that was the end of that. It was one of my first, though far from last, lessons in innate Italian subtlety – not all of which, I must confess, I absorbed with equal grace and understanding.
Marcella was a short, blond woman of forty-some years. About fifteen years earlier, she, her husband and three small children moved from an outlying village. At first, she and her husband worked as janitors at the school, but soon they opened the pizzeria. Over the past ten years Marcella’s had grown into perhaps the only true landmark in Castel di Sangro. This had far less to do with the quality of the food than with the quality of Marcella.
For the past several years she’d contracted with club owner, Gravina, to provide lunch and dinner to the unmarried players and to Jaconi, whose wife and children remained in Civitanova throughout the season. This meant the same thirteen or fourteen men would gather twice a day, five days a week, at the same long, rectangular table next to the kitchen, eating the same food and hearing the rasp of Jaconi’s voice week after week from September to June.
Yet because of Marcella – her spontaneity, empathy and innate warmth – even the married players would bring their wives and children for dinner every week. Laundry was dropped off and picked up at Marcella’s. Mail for players was delivered to Marcella’s. International cup matches were watched on the television and bets were phoned in (legally) to offshore bookmakers. Romances bloomed, withered, died and were reborn on her pay phone, not to mention the dozen or so cell phones that were in use on her premises at any given time, day or night.
Marcella was earth mother to all, radiating warmth and good cheer on even the darkest days and providing a degree of emotional sustenance throughout the season, without which it might not have been possible to survive intact, given the deprivation imposed by Castel di Sangro.
Seated among the veterans, I noticed quickly that despite having been dispossessed of his chair, De Julius enjoyed privileged status. He had in fact, assumed a number of proprietary duties, chief among which was smelling the cheese. There were times when he would shake his head, grimace and call out for Marcella or one of her sons to remove the offending vessel from his presence and to repair to the kitchen to grate cheese afresh.
The chair to his left was occupied by Giacomo Galli, twenty-five, nicknamed “Boom Boom” by the fans, in honour of the team-leading nine goals he’d scored the previous season, as well as for his ebullient personality. Like Di Vincenzo, Galli was a native of Rome, possessing an ego strong enough to dwarf the light of the brightest Roman candle and a mouth that kept pace with it in every way. Despite having spent several nomadic seasons in C1 and C2 without any achievements of note, Galli reeked self-confidence and assured me on our first meeting that as soon as his ankle was healed, I would see offensive fireworks on a scale I’d never imagined.
Opposite me sat the two players who – aside from Claudio Bonomi, the fleet midfielder with braces on his teeth who was married to a woman from Castel di Sangro and thus ate only rarely at Marcella’s – were probably Jaconi’s favourites, something the manager made no effort to disguise.
Despite markedly different personalities, Fusco and Martino had played together for so long (a year with the C2 squad Lanciano before joining Castel di Sangro together five years earlier) that in the hurly-burly, rapidly changing world of minor-league football, they were the equivalent of Siamese twins.
Pietro Fusco was a short but muscular twenty-five-year-old defender, born and raised in Napoli and not in one of the wealthier sections either. A laconic young man with tired eyes, he made clear that one would accept him on his terms or not at all and that even then, there was no reason to believe he would accept you on any terms whatsoever.
Martino could not have been a greater contrast. He had short, curly hair that he dyed blond. He sported a large, gold ring on his left ear, drank red wine at both lunch and dinner, but insisted on diluting it with Sprite. He was a native Abruzzan, having been born in a small town near Pescara.
Tonino, who never failed to greet me by first yodelling the mane of his favourite American sports hero – KaarEEEEEEEEM AaabDDUL JabbbAAARRRRRR! – with the finest rolling of a final “r” I ever heard in Italy, was without doubt among the most extroverted, warm-hearted and gregarious members of a notably open and sociable team, but no one would have termed him an intellectual.
One night, after my language skills had improved considerably, I came upon him puzzling over a new Nintendo game he’d just rented. “A problem, Tonino?” I asked. “Oh, Joe, this one is going to be the most difficult yet. I cannot even understand the instructions!” He handed me the box to show me just what he was up against. I looked at it quickly. Then I handed it back to him. “Tonino,” I said, “these are in Spanish.”
Then, of course, there was Jaconi. Within five minutes, I became aware that he had given me the seat to his immediate left not only as a courtesy, but so he could more easily and repeatedly expound to me his philosophy of football and of life, without permitting anything so fragile as a language barrier to interfere.
The first matter to be pronounced upon was garlic. It was strictly prohibited from his table. He believed garlic to be unhealthy in the extreme, especially to the digestive system of athletes. In addition, hot peppers, while not strictly forbidden, were frowned upon.
The smoking lamp, on the other hand, was always lit. Players could and did smoke before, during and after meals, as well as at other times throughout the day and night. The notion that such a practice might be deleterious to the health – not to mention to the stamina – of the players was something that Jaconi insisted was nothing more than American-inspired gobbledygook, akin to the preposterous belief that consumption of animal fat in large quantity might be harmful.
On the very first night, Jaconi moved to the subject of football, which was, after all, the reason why both of us were there. “In Serie B”, he said, “the season is long and hard. He said it once, twice, then a third time. Then he tapped my notebook with the thick fingers of his right hand. I thought for a moment that he was going to tell me to move to a separate table and to write out the sentence one hundred times before returning for my dinner.
Yes, they had won their first match. But that meant nothing. What was one match of thirty-eight? They’d earned three points, but those might be the only points they’d earn all year. What then of the fairytale? What if the miracle had only been a cruel hoax? I had to understand: this was Serie B! And they were only Castel di Sangro! Not Torino, Palermo, Padova or Genoa or Bari or Venezia. Not even Foggia, the team they’d face in their first away match on Sunday.
The monologue was delivered in Italian. Yet so unmistakable were Jaconi’s gestures, so marked his inflections, so great the range of volume of his voice, that even though I recognised only about ten percent of his words, I had no doubt that I’d absorbed the full meaning.
There was nothing I could yet say in response, but Jaconi was not looking for a response. As I would learn, Jaconi seldom spoke with the intention of eliciting a response. His words were the words that mattered. He was the one who knew, who understood, who controlled. Thus, a response was seldom in order, be it in regard to garlic or to a shift from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 formation.
I listened transfixed and more than a little terrified and I wasn’t even a player. This, of course, was exactly the reaction Jaconi hoped to provoke. Having seen that he had succeeded, he leaned back, slapped me on the shoulder and called to Marcella for a lemon liqueur sipped only on special occasions.
Jaconi spoke again and Marcella brought her son, Christian, who spoke discernible if primitive English, out from the kitchen.
“Mister Jaconi,” Christian said, “he say to welcome you, no? Bot more, he say always you welcome in his home. And any helps he can be for you, he want to. And always from you the questions about anything, he will be glad to have them and to answer, to help you to learn.”
“Christian,” I said, “please tell Mister Jaconi that I am more grateful for his hospitality than I could say even in English. He is very, very kind and he makes me very, very happy and I wish him and the team very, very much success and I will be very, very much the number one supporter. It is a great honour for me that he should give me this welcome and someday I will find the right way to repay his extraordinary generosity.”
Christian was nodding as I spoke, but it seemed ever more doubtfully as my words of gratitude spilled forth. Before, he could even begin to translate, Jaconi spoke again, then laughed loudly and slapped me on the back even harder than before.
“Mister say it be OK. He sees you as a bullsh***er. Not to bother. He is glad you are here. And he say, you save the rest until you learn the bullsh** in Italian!”
In the next instalment of this wonderfully written book, you can read how Joe is moved to more comfortable accommodation and it’s also time for Castel di Sangro’s second Serie B match away to Foggia. They have a 100 per cent record after one game – will it last?