This article is the ninth 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 MOVES NEXT DOOR TO THE MANAGER AND MEETS THE CLUB OWNER. IT’S ALSO TIME FOR THEIR SECOND SERIE B MATCH. CAN CASTEL DI SANGRO MAINTAIN THEIR 100 PER CENT RECORD?
I walked down the four flights of stairs in my ramshackle Coradetti “hotel”. The door to the small room where the front desk was located was closed. Not only that, it was locked.
It was Wednesday. I had been told the hotel was closed on a Wednesday, but had not got round to truly understanding what that meant. The Coradetti never really seemed open anyway, so I simply stepped to the glass door that led directly from the bottom of the stairwell to the street.
The door would not open. It was locked and it could not be opened from the inside. It took me a moment to realise I was trapped. What if there was a fire? Mercoledi. Chiuso. Wednesday. Closed.
I was locked in this no-star fleabag of an igloo and the fat proprietor and his sullen family had probably gone off on a picnic and I wouldn’t be able to get out until tomorrow! I unleashed a long, loud string of obscenities.
The noise filtered through the glass door to the street and attracted the attention of several teenagers walking past. “Aiuto!” I shouted, somehow remembering this was Italian for “help”. They just started laughing. What, did they think the American comes all the way to Castel di Sangro to practice bilingual stand-up comedy? Then I remembered I had with me the English-Italian dictionary I carried everywhere.
I paged frantically through the book looking for the word “imprisoned”. “Sono imprigionato in questo albergo!” I shouted hoping it meant “I am imprisoned in this hotel” or something close to it. But these damned kids were loving it! I could hear their laughter right through the glass, which, if I’d had a suitable implement, I would have broken in a moment.
I looked back at my dictionary, which was still open at the page containing “imprison”. This time my eyes fell upon a word that might truly prompt action. “Aiuto! Subito!” I shouted looking at the tallest girl straight in the eye and pointing right at her. “Oppure ti ingravido!” Help right away! Or else I’ll impregnate you!
The rest of the group laughed at the tall girl and even she began to smile. They moved on, but no more than five minutes later I heard footsteps from the anteroom and the door swung open to reveal, in what I would have sworn were silk pajamas if that would not have been quite so far out of character, the hotel proprietor.
He glared at me with maximum ferocity and thrust into my hand a tiny key. He pointed out the keyhole and as the tiny key slid in, I turned my hand slowly about one inch to the right and heard a click. The door handle now moved freely and the glass door itself swung open.
Barefoot, the proprietor lumbered past me into the street, which was clearly not some place he wanted to be seen in silk pajamas. He grunted and pointed to a similar incision beneath the outside door handle. Then he pointed to the key. I nodded, smiling a broad smile of gratitude and understanding. Using the tiny key, I would be able to leave and enter the hotel at will, even on Wednesdays!
But just so I didn’t forget, he shouted at me: “Mercoledi! Chiuso!”
On Friday morning, Barbara, my guide and interpreter, returned from Rome, to be sure, she said, I had received her message.
“Barbara, I have now been here for four nights. I am the only person staying here, except for the family. Every time I walk through the 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 am I staying in. I tell him room eight. He looks at me as if I’ve just insulted his mother. Then he stares at me. Finally, he hands me the key. Do you really think he’d give me a message?”
“That’s why I came in person,” Barbara said. “Because it’s very important. Signor Rezza wishes to meet with you in his office at noon to officially welcome you to Castel di Sangro. I will meet you at ten minutes before noon.”
Barbara collected me and we headed for the club owner’s office. From behind a door there was a grumble and we were motioned inside. Signor Rezza was seated behind a large desk, the surface of which was absolutely bare. His hard eyes looked a little watery through the cloud of cigar smoke in which they were enveloped.
He grumbled again. Barbara and I said good morning. He took a long pull on his cigar, though never moving his eyes, which stared hard at us. All was silent. He grumbled again. This one was longer than the two that had preceded it.
When he stopped, Barbara said to me, “Signor Rezza would like to know why you are staying in a hotel so unpleasant as the Coradetti.”
“Tell him I did it on short notice. It’s only temporary. Next week I’ll start looking for an apartment.”
She repeated this to him and he grumbled again. “Signor Rezza says you do not have to look. He has one for you.”
I started to splutter a few words to explain how I was happy to look around, compare prices……….Barbara had begun to speak before I could finish. Whatever she said elicited a grumble quite similar to the others.
“What did you say?”
“I told him you were immensely grateful for his hospitality and you would be ready to move in as soon as you returned from America.”
“But wait a minute, Barbara.” I was however interrupted by another grumble.
“Signor Rezza says that for your convenience, the apartment will be located next door to the one occupied by Mister Jaconi (the manager)”.
“Really? Wow, that would be convenient. But is it vacant? And how much do you think the rent will be?”
“Those are merely details. Not to bother Signor Rezza with personally. He has assistants for the details. Whenever you wish to move in, it will be vacant.”
Then Rezza spoke again. This time actual words were distinguishable, though I could not, of course, understand them.
“Signor Rezza is asking if on Monday morning you would like a tour of his mountaintop estate to be followed by a lunch prepared by his cooking staff and your answer will of course be yes, so I will simply ask him what time he would wish you to arrive.”
“We, Barbara. We!” I’d already heard about his security measures and did not wish to pass unaccompanied through his ten-foot-high steel gates.
“Yes, I have been invited also, in order that he might be more convivial. He also insists that under no circumstances are you to bring either a camera or any sort of recording device. I will assure him that you would never have considered doing so.
“Signor Rezza says we may leave now, unless you have any questions and I shall assure him you do not.”
“Wait a minute, Barbara, I do have one.”
“Joe! This had better be nothing about the new stadium.” (Much delayed for no apparent reason other than perhaps a lack of funds!).
“Barbara, please. I may be crazy, but I am not suicidal. I only want to ask if he is going to the match in Foggia on Sunday.”
In response, Rezza actually took his cigar out of his mouth. He grumbled in what seemed a darker tone.
‘No he will not attend. He says he does not travel to a match when he anticipates an unpleasant result.”
Anticipated result notwithstanding, on Sunday I rode with my other guide, Giuseppe to the hotel where the team had spent the night. The players were just finishing lunch when we arrived and my first task involved the dreaded language barrier.
All week at their training sessions, I’d felt like an idiot whenever I’d seen the goalkeeper, Lotti. He would smile and make a point of walking over to me and shaking my hands. Although Jaconi was still being coy with the press, he had told both Lotti and the other keeper, De Juliis on Friday – and on Friday night he’d also told me – that Lotti would play against Foggia. De Juliis was still number one, Jaconi stressed, but Lotti had played so well in the first match that there could be no justification for making a change so soon.
Knowing this, I handed Lotti a note I’d spent two hours composing that morning, also uttering the new phrase I had learned. The phrase was “In bocca al lupo!” The literal translation was “in the mouth of the wolf,” but for some reason this was the real Italian way of wishing someone good luck before a competition of any sort. “Crepi il lupo!” Lotti replied, as the saying required – “Death to the wolf!”. He then gave me a strong squeeze on the shoulder and a big grin. Then he looked down at the note. “Io la leggo.” I’ll read it.
What it said, in the best Italian I could muster, was no more than “I know what it feels like to be an outsider. And I know that even after your great match against Cosenza (the first in Serie B last week which Castel di Sangro won 1-0), you are still an outsider to this team and to Mister Jaconi. This must put extra pressure on you, so please know I will be rooting especially hard for you today and no matter what happens, I know from what I saw last week that you are a goalkeeper who carries with him the potential for greatness.”
I walked back toward the hotel feeling quite pleased with myself. But standing on the first step, just staring at me, was De Juliis.
“Ciao, Robert,” I said. For reasons having to do with Abruzzan dialect, people did not pronounce the “o” at the end of his first name. He nodded but said nothing.
“Il bocca al lupo,” I said. ‘A lui,” he said, gesturing toward Lotti. “Io sono in panchina.” Good luck to Lotti, sure. As for me, I’m on the bench.
Jaconi invited me to ride to the stadium on the team bus. We arrived shortly before 3pm, an hour before the match and walked quickly through a short, dank tunnel into a locker room located beneath the grandstand. As soon as the players dropped off the bags containing their uniforms, they headed down a dark corridor, turned right, then walked up a flight of stairs and stepped out into the brilliant sunshine that flooded the field.
I quickly joined them. This was, after all – and especially for those who had been with the club in the previous promotion season – their Field of Dreams. It was here, only three months earlier that “il miracolo” had occurred.
I had a hard time imagining it as I gazed around at the 25,000 empty seats and dreary, run-down surroundings. Foggia was not a thriving city and the stadium which looked as if it had survived every Italian war since the time of Garibaldi, was definitely not in the high-rent district.
True, down the centuries, many miracles had occurred amid shabbiness, but it was beyond any mental leap I could make to picture a Foggia team having beaten the Juventus of Baggio here only two years earlier. And only a year before that as Castel di Sangro had struggled in C2, Foggia had finished in the top half of Serie A. Then, as frequently happens, a shortsighted management had rushed to cash in, selling off all the talent at once and now here was Foggia, about to face us, having slumped to twelfth in Serie B the year before.
I noticed De Juliis pacing the scrubby, dusty field in solitude, pausing occasionally to squat and to rub his hand through the thin patches of grass. I approached him, a bit afraid that he might have been displeasured by having observed my sudden cordiality with Lotti.
“Che fai?”. What are you doing.
He looked up. Then he smiled at me with what I thought was a trace of embarrassment. “Sto cercando i quadrifoglio”. I shook my head helplessly. I didn’t understand. He bent down and tore a clover loose from the grass. He held it toward me, counting, “Uno,due, tre,” he said.
“Niente.” Then he held up four fingers and smiled. Of course, a four-leaf clover!
“I quadrifoglio portano bene, no?” he said. They bring good luck.
“Si, si,” I said smiling.
“Anche in America?” Also in America?
“Si, certo. In tutto il mondo.” All over the world. My late nights with the phrase book were already paying off.
But now that we’d begun to quasi-converse, there was something I wanted to ask him.
“This field is special to you, isn’t it? Because of last June?”
He suddenly understood that I wanted him to reminisce. He placed a hand on my shoulder and guided my eyes toward the substitute’s bench at the side of the field. It was at the end of that historic game in June, that the twenty-four-year-old Roberto De Juliis was taken off just before the penalty shoot-out was going to take place. He had left the field in tears as the thirty-four-year-old Pietro Spinosa, who had not played a minute all season long, was brought on for that miraculous event. For the blessed Spinosa, the eighth round of kicks produced a stunning save. This was the instant that would become known overnight as the Miracle of Castel di Sangro.
“When I saw Spinosa, I said, No, no, no! Yet here we are. Let’s hope for the best.”
Just as in June, buses arrived bringing hundreds (though not thousands) of Castel di Sangro supporters. This time, of course, the Club President, Gravina, had not paid for the transport to get them here. Also, this time the Castel di Sangro supporters were confined to one end of the field, behind a goal and “protected” by phalanxes of armed police. This was standard procedure at matches in Italy. Even though attendance at Foggia had dropped sharply since relegation from Serie A, I estimated that our people were outnumbered by at least ten to one.
From the start, it appeared that our players were outnumbered, too. Jaconi has succumbed to what seemed the greatest temptation for the away team in Italian football: to approach a match with undue caution, if not outright fear. He had chosen to leave forward, Di Vincenzo on the bench in favour of an extra midfielder, whose presence he hoped would relieve the pressure on the defence.
The tactic proved ineffective from the start. In the first three minutes Foggia attacked three times, forcing Lotti to block a menacing shot on each occasion. After only eight minutes Foggia scored. An attacker dribbled nimbly past the stumbling and backpedalling Cei, then simply pushed the ball past an already prone Lotti, whose frantic dive had come too soon.
From that point, matters worsened rapidly. After only ten minutes I wrote in my notebook that Castel di Sangro were being “outclassed and outpaced”. Nothing that happened later changed my mind. It was only another phenomenal display by Lotti that held the final score to 2-0.
THE CASTLE FALLS TO PIECES was the headline in the next morning’s press. DEFENCE WAS UNRECOGNISABLE, TOO MANY ERRORS AND BAD GAME PLAN said the Abruzzo edition of “Il Messaggero”.
Jaconi, while he could not mask the reality with words, had told reporters, “It’s only one stop along the way. We’ll proceed calmly and think ahead to Cremonese,” which would be the opponent the following Sunday.
I admired his attempt to keep an even keel, especially given how deep-seated was the Italian tendency – win or lose – toward hysterical overreaction each week.
At the same time, in my own private moments of hysteria, I feared that the season could be longer and harder than anyone yet suspected. Our offence had managed one goal in two matches and even that had been a penalty. Our defence seemed, in essence, to be composed only of Lotti, fortified by any four-leaf clover De Juliis might be able to find.
This concludes the first nine instalments of this wonderfully crafted book and the last for the 2018-19 season.
Pick up the story in August as we see read how Castel di Sangro’s season unfolds. Meanwhile, enjoy the break and come back again for some interesting pre-season action as our management sets about preparing for another year at Step 4 of the non-league pyramid.