This article is part 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
Joe McGinniss was born in New York on December 9, 1942. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1964 and became a general assignment reporter at the Worcester Telegram in Worcester, Massachusetts. Within a year, he left to become a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Bulletin. He then moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as a general interest columnist. At his death, he was at work on a memoir chronicling his adventures as a writer and his experience with prostate cancer. He died on 10 March 2014 at UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. The cause of death was pneumonia and septic shock secondary to metastatic prostate cancer.
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 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.
In the summer of 1996, in a tiny, impoverished town deep in the remote heart of southern Italy, a sporting miracle took place. The footballers of Castel di Sangro – population 5,000 – won promotion to Serie B, the division directly below the most glamorous league in world football. In little more than a decade, the team had risen from the lowest depths of regional amateur football to within touching distance of Baggio and Batistuta.
Feeling something of a football curio himself – an American who understood and loved the game – Joe McGinniss followed their fortunes throughout their first remarkable season in the big time. Populated by characters only the passionate, frenetic, absurd world of sport can produce, ‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’, dramatically reveals football’s limitless potential for magic, wonder and improbable romance.
In 1994, I travelled to Italy in pursuit of a fresh passion. During the first week of December, I was riding a train from Padua to Rome, where four days later my new friend Alexi Lalas would play soccer.
Lalas was the tall, bearded redhead who had been a star of the 1994 United States team in the World Cup, which had taken place that summer in America. So well had Lalas played that he’d attracted attention from the club representing Padua in the Italian Serie A, at that time, not only the best league in Italy, but also in the world. He’d signed a contract with Padua and moved to Italy in August. Three months later I had followed, hoping Lalas might let me spend some time with him so that I could learn more about this game that had quite recently become my obsession.
Both Alexi and his girlfriend had been more than hospitable, devoting extravagant amounts of time to me. Now it was December and after watching Lalas play this one last match, it would be time for me to go home.
I had just taken my seat on the train to Rome when a man spotted me reading a copy of ‘La Gazetta dello Sport’. I’d found that reading it in public was an infallible way to meet Italians. Its pink pages made it unmistakable, while the fact that I clearly did not look Italian invariably engendered a curiosity that overcame reserve. So the man, who was perhaps in his late thirties, with a medium build and brown hair, was wearing a business suit and conservative tie and spoke good English, asked if I was British. No. Dutch? No. Norwegian? No. Not German, surely? No, actually I’m American.
I might as well have thrown a glass of cold water in his face. “No!” he cried. “Non e possibile!” No American could possibly be reading ‘La Gazetta dello Sport’, because it was well known the world over that Americans did not care about ‘soccer’.
Naturally, we got into a conversation. He was an army air corps paratroop commander who had just been to Padua to face court martial on charges of embezzlement. Only one hour earlier he’d been found not guilty and was understandably relieved. Already that paled next to his having met an American who actually liked soccer. One who not only liked it, but who, even then, knew a fair bit about it, especially the Italian variety. Less than three months earlier, my wife, Nancy and I had been to our first match at the San Siro in Milan – the La Scala among the world’s soccer stadia. Before that, we’d followed the Italian team closely enough during the World Cup so that I was able to dazzle this paratrooper with what, coming from an American, seemed a dizzying array of names and arcane facts, though any eight-year-old in Italy could have recited them in his sleep.
My new friend told me he was now engaged to the woman who had finished fourth in the Miss Portugal contest of 1992, but prior to meeting me, the most amazing moment of his life had been when he’d gone to a Christmas party at the U.S. embassy in Lisbon and needed to use the bathroom. When he reached for the toilet paper, the roller played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Forever after he had thought of America as a magical land because not only did it have Disney World and Hollywood and Las Vegas, but it supplied its embassies with toilet paper that played the national anthem.
He said, no, no, I must not go directly to Rome. There were still four days before the match. I must come with him to the town of Orbetello, where he now lived, south of Grosseto, so he could display to his friends and colleagues this American who knew about soccer.
When we changed trains in Bologna, he went directly to a pay phone and called my hotel in Rome to cancel my reservation and then called about eight people in Grosseto and Orbetello to tell them this science-fiction story about meeting me and that he would actually bring me to meet them! Also, to say he’d been found not guilty and would not have to go to prison for twenty years.
I should say that everything was amplified considerably by the fact that I was carrying an A.C. Milan travelling bag and that this man – whom I have always thought of as the Major, although he quickly had told me his name – was a ‘tifosi’, or rabid fan, of A.C. Milan, the club that had won the Serie A championship for the past three years in a row.
Moreover, that very day, A.C. Milan was in Tokyo playing against Velez Sarsfield of Argentina, in what was, and still is, billed as the world championship of clubs: a single match between the winner of the previous season’s European Championship Cup against its South American equivalent.
Within Italy, this Toyota Cup, as it’s called, is considered more a curiosity than a match that induces passion and hysteria…except as I quickly learned, in the Major. For him, nothing A.C. Milan did, had done, or had ever had done to them was take lightly.
As it happened, I’d watched the first half of the match before leaving my hotel for the train, so I knew the score at that point was 0-0. But the match would be shown again in prime time for those particularly disadvantaged Italians, such as the Major, who were being court-martialled or for some other reason had been unable to take a morning week off work in order to watch a soccer match from Japan, as well as for the millions who, assuming a Milan win, would want to see it again.
I mentioned to the Major that I’d just seen the first half before boarding the train, and that – “NO!” he screamed. “No, no, no, no, no! You must not say nothing that occur, because tonight in Orbetello, in my apartment, we will watch this together and I must not know nothing!”
But surely, I said, somewhere on our journey we are going to learn the final score, however inadvertently, for this is Italy and people will be speaking of the match on the trains when we change again, which we would have to do in Florence. “No, no, no, no, no! This must not appen! It is a weekday, in December, the train are not full and you and I, we sit by ourself and never stop the conversing so in accident we do not ear the score. In Firenze station, I plug my ears and walk behind you with my eyes in the ground, so you can look ahead to be sure that no news of the match is display.”
When we got off the train in Florence, he walked along behind me like a blind man, one hand gripping my shoulder, with pieces of pink newspaper torn from my ‘Gazetta’ sticking out of his ears. Nobody gave us a second look: this six-foot-three American leading an Italian gentleman in a business suit and tie with pink newspaper sticking out of his ears, into the main terminal of the station. It is not merely a cliché that the people of Florence are not easily flustered.
Finally, at 7.30pm, we reached Orbetello. We’d never had lunch, what with changing trains and all and I was desperate to eat. The videotaped replay of the match was scheduled for an 8.30pm broadcast and the Major said we did not have time for a respectable dinner before then and besides, a restaurant would be a most dangerous to go in terms of not learning the score. As soon as the match was over, however, he promised me a magnificent meal in the finest restaurant in all of Orbetello, of which there must have been about three altogether. At this point, however, we had to proceed directly to his apartment.
The apartment was a perfectly typical and featureless sort of middle-class residence in which an unmarried Italian man might live. By the time we’d washed up, it was 8pm and the Major began to pace nervously in front of his television set while I looked at about 5,000 pictures of the woman who had finished fourth in the Miss Portugal contest of 1992 and who was indeed good to look at, but maybe not 5,000 times. It occurred to me at about this point to ask the Major why we were not watching the match in a restaurant with his comrades in arms, sworn to silence, for always in Italy the viewing of an important match is a significant social experience. Because, the Major told me, this was A.C.Milan, and when A.C. Milan played, he watched alone, or only in the company of someone such as myself, who would know enough to keep his mouth shut during the match and not disrupt the Major’s concentration.
The match began. As the Major watched, in utter silence, totally fixated by the screen, he began to perspire. Large stains began to spread darkly from the underarm area of the blue shirt, into which he’d changed. Half an hour into the match, his entire shirt was as soaked as if he himself had been playing.
At halftime, he stared at me with a look of utter misery on his face. He said he needed to lie down. When he returned, only seconds before the second half began, I noticed that had towelled off his face and changed his shirt.
He took his seat, which was about three feet from the screen, on a frail, straightbacked wooden chair. I was sitting in a comfortable armchair, about ten feet away and slightly off to one side. Six minutes into the second half, the Milan defender, Costacurta fouled a Velez player in the penalty area and the Argentine team converted the kick to take a 1-0 lead. It was totally dark in the living room, except for the glow of the screen, but for the first and only time in my life, I could actually feel someone turn pale. And the foul had been so obvious that he could not even curse the referee!
Another six minutes later, the same Costacurta – a member of the Italian national team – attempted to kick the ball back to Rossi, the goalkeeper, but did so with such inappropriate casualness that an onrushing Velez Sarsfield player, to whose presence Costacurta had seemed totally oblivious, got to it first and put it quickly into the net: 2-0 in favour of Velez Sarsfield. And that was the final score.
At the final whistle, the Major leaned forward in his chair and turned off the set. Then he took the straightbacked wooden chair and turned it, so that when he sat again, he was facing me directly, from about five feet away.
“In the spring,” he said, “the floods ave come in Torino. They wipe out everything for me. My ouse, where I was born and grow up, she is gone. Destroyed with the floods. My mother, she ave then suffered the emotional collapse. So bad, I must go there and put this lady in the…manicomio…in English is…okay, ospital for the people with no mind anymore. The crazies. So all I ave, the floods take.”
He looked over his shoulder at the television set. Then he looked back at me. “And now this," he said. “And now this.”
He took a deep breath. “I am sorry, but I cannot take you for the dinner. But Orbetello, she is small, no trouble for you to find the restaurant. Now, owever, it is necessary that I be with myself. I am sorry. I take a walk. I take a long walk with myself. You ave a good meal. You ave a good sleep. Tomorrow maybe is better. We will see.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “About the floods. And about tonight.”
“Thank you. But in truth is for me to be sorry. Because a man does not put troubles on his friends and already you are my friend. I should ave just find out the score in Bologna.”
Then he walked out the door – and he didn’t come back. I waited for him all day Saturday and again stayed in his apartment on Saturday night. I did not know whom to call or what to do in order to see if he was all right. I could not speak the Italian necessary to find out and Orbetello was not a town where English was spoken.
So, on Sunday morning, as I had to, I boarded the lone train for Rome, leaving behind a note thanking the Major for his hospitality and saying I hoped he was all right and that we would be able to stay in touch with each other.
The next day I had to return to America and I never heard from him again. Although I wrote to the military authorities in Grosseto and later in Rome, giving his name and to the town officials of Orbetello and even the officials in Turin, I was never able to find out what had happened to him.
By June, I began to fear the worst and still do. The Major might have survived the weekend, but given his suffering in the aftermath of the floods, I doubt he could have made it through a season in which A.C Milan not only failed to win the championship, but fell ignominiously to fourth place.
In the next instalment, Joe tries to make his way to Castel di Sangro, for the real football journey to begin.