This article is the sixth in 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 above) 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.
THE HISTORIC DEBUT OF CASTEL DI SANGRO IN SERIE B
If the city of Chieti – population 50,000 – a few miles inland from Pescara, had attractive aspects, they escaped me during our rush to its stadium, a charmless hunk of concrete that seated the requisite 10,000.
The afternoon was glorious. As 4 pm approached, the sun remained hot and strong in a clear blue sky. The grassy field that spread out before us was impeccably green. Yet – something new in my experience – the stadium was only half full. Having seen only World Cup and Serie A matches before, it had not occurred to me that seats in a football stadium might be left unoccupied. But here, outside our immediate VIP section, vast benches of concrete devoid of spectators stretched to the goal lines and beyond.
Only at each curved end of the stadium were there signs of life: to the left Castel di Sangro fans waved red-and-yellow flags and set off red flares, while, to the right, a far smaller band of Calabrians who’d come up from the south to root for the opening-day opponents, Cosenza, unfurled their blue-and-white banners and set off blue flares.
“Where is everybody?” I asked Barbara, my guide and interpreter, who was seated one row behind me. “At the beach?”
“Many are. That is where I would be if I had not agreed to be here.”
“But this is historic.”
“Yes and there are probably three thousand people here from Castel di Sangro – sixty per cent of the population. If sixty per cent of the population of Torino had come to this match, that would be more than half a million. You must always remember how very, very small we really are.”
Then the teams took the field, giving me my first look at the miracle workers with whom I’d be spending the next nine months. It came as a bit of a shock to see the eleven Castel di Sangro players who trotted on to the pitch for their historic debut in Serie B wore jerseys that said SOVIET JEANS.
I turned to Barbara. “Soviet Jeans?”
She laughed. “It must look strange to an American. But this is a manufacturer of leisurewear from Napoli.”
“But there isn’t even a Soviet Union anymore!”
“Yes and that is why the name is trendy.”
“Trendy where?” This brand name isn’t exactly Calvin Klein.”
“No, but as Castel di Sangro becomes even more famous, people will learn of Soviet Jeans. Besides, one must do the best one can. The big brands want the famous teams.”
“So, how about the jeans? Are they any good?”
“Well, I wouldn’t wear them!” she said.
More to the point, was whether the Castel di Sangro team was any good. If the club was hopelessly overmatched in Serie B, my experience with them, while not uninteresting, would be of a different quality than if they somehow contrived to make a legitimate try for “la salvezza”, that beautiful state reached at the end of the season by an exhausted and desperate club that narrowly escapes relegation.
For Castel di Sangro, success in the coming season would be synonymous with only one thing: survival. Their goal was nothing more grand than to get to the end of the thirty-eight match marathon in a position of no worse than sixteenth out of twenty, which would permit them to live to fight another year in Serie B.
From an American perspective, to say that a team was starting a season hoping to finish in sixteenth place would be laughable. Yet so logical and unbending was the system of promotion and relegation in Italy that there was nothing amusing about it.
Serie B was a no-nonsense, blue-collar league, barren soil in which no fairy tales took root. A club did not survive at this level on heart and pluck. Talent came to the fore and that sort of talent did not come cheap.
As a promotion bonus, Castel di Sangro had received 5 million dollars from the Federazione that governs football, yet club owner, Gabriele Gravina had been quoted in La Gazetta dello Sport as saying, “We are only a poor team from small village in the Abruzzo and we cannot pay to obtain the finest players.” He apparently intended to scrape by with essentially the same team that had won promotion, which was also, in large part, the squad that had won promotion from C2 the year before. Whatever they lacked in talent, Gravina said, they would make up through the power of hope.
Cosenza, who had finished twelfth the previous season and represented a poverty-stricken Calabrian city with a population of 100,000, promised to test the strength of this somewhat ephemeral power. We, meanwhile (and by “we” I mean Castel di Sangro, for as soon as the squad took the field, I felt all traces of objectivity and detachment vanish for better or worse, this was MY team now, in a way no other in any sport had ever been) were not even at our C1 best.
I’d learned from the morning papers that the goalkeeper, De Juliis, was suspended for this match because of an accumulation of minor infractions carried over from the previous season. Also suspended was a thirty-two-year-old midfielder named Michelini, who’d been with the team for nine consecutive seasons, starting at the “Dilettanti” level. In addition, injuries to a first-team defender named Fusco as well as a player reputed to be the club’s best, twenty-four-year-old Claudio Bonomi, who’d played in all but one match the year before. For some weeks to come, we also would be without injured forward Giacomo Galli, whose nine goals had led the team in C1. [Editor: seems to me they were getting their excuses in early ahead of a game at a level they had only dreamed of up to now!].
Gravina had reinforced the power of hope only meagrely. He’d made one expensive acquisition: a thirty-year-old attacker named Pistella, purchased from the Serie B team Luchesse, which represented the Tuscan city of Lucca. For far less he had acquired another forward, Danilo Di Vicenzo, who had been voted Player of the Year the previous season in C2; a young defender named Luca D’Angelo, from right here in Chieti; and an ageing midfielder named Di Fabio, whose last Serie B experience was five years behind him.
As an afterthought, only two weeks earlier, Gravina had apparently decided that the now fabled goalkeeper, Pietro Spinosa, who saved the penalty in the play-off shoot out to get Castel di Sangro into Serie B, should be allowed to retire with his miraculous aura intact. As a back-up keeper he had obtained Massimo Lotti, a twenty-seven-year-old who’d played the last three seasons with an undistinguished C2 blub located not far from Napoli. Due to the brief suspension of De Juliis, our first emergency was occurring today, in our very first match in Serie B.
Then with no ado whatsoever, the referee dropped the ball in the middle of the field and Castel di Sangro – and I – began life in Serie B.
Once my defence mechanisms against the glories of the sport had broken down, among the first of its elements to enchant me was the degree to which skilled players could execute all the basic manoeuvres of a basketball player – dribbling, passing accurately and shooting no target – using only their feet. Also while running nonstop (no time-outs in “soccer”) over an area considerably larger than an American football field for an hour and a half, all the while at the mercy of defenders who, unlike in basketball, were permitted to make frequent and often violent bodily contact [Editor: bear in mind this was the mid-1990s and things have changed a bit!].
At the very highest level – that of Baggio, for example – there is introduced into these physical executions an element of the sublime, or even mystical: “actions that refuse to submit to existing logic and knowledge of the possibilities of foot and ball,” as expressed by the Dutch writer Oosetreijk.
Sublimity, however, as I would soon learn, was not a quality on frequent display in Serie B. Indeed, my first great revelation in connection with Castel di Sangro came as I watched the lustreless early minutes of the match: none of the elements that had combined to produce my obsession in the first place was anywhere to be found in Chieti.
I didn’t expect artistry, I didn’t want bursts of spectacular skill, I didn’t want transcendent moments: I JUST WANTED US TO BEAT COSENZA! And I hadn’t even met the players yet.
Eventually, a bit of my excitement began to show. To be precise, it was the nineteenth minute. Di Vincenzo, who was starting alongside Pistella in attack (in place of the injured Galli), was fouled by a Cosenza defender in the penalty area and was awarded a penalty kick. He scored with ease, thus scoring his and Castel di Sangro’s first goal ever in Serie B.
I screamed as I jumped up and down hysterically and, in my excitement began punching and squeezing simultaneously the left arm of Gravina, the president of the club! He sat perfectly still and stared at me coldly.
“Gabriele! Gabriele! I shouted. “We scored a f*****g goal! We are winning!” I turned back toward the field and shook my fist in the air. “Bravvvoooo, Di Vicenzo!”
Still Gravina said nothing, leaving me an opportunity to consider that my reaction might have been inappropriate. As the half-time whistle blew, I took the opportunity to say to Gravina, “Scusi. Grazie mille. Lei e molto gentile.” (Thank you very much, you are so kind). He said nothing and simply lit a cigarette, stood up and walked away.
As the second half began, it was obvious that during the “intervallo” Cosenza realised just what an embarrassment it would be to lose to Castel di Sangro. From the first moment, they attacked, displaying the poise, focus and confidence that one would have expected of an experienced Serie B team from the start.
It soon became evident that Castel di Sangro might have been only masquerading as a team worthy of Serie B. Seeming to fear this and in an attempt to protect his – OUR – unexpected one-goal lead, manager Osvaldo Jaconi sent the squad into a totally defensive formation.
In this alignment, we battled tenaciously in the midfield for a time, but eventually Cosenza began to penetrate, firing shots on goal from every distance and direction.
Jumping up and down in rage and fear, racing back and forth in front of the bench on which the substitutes sat, Jaconi, who from my vantage point looked like a cinderblock wearing a necktie, seemed to be trying to create a barrier around our goal with only the sound of his voice. Increasingly, the question seemed to be not if, but when, Cosenza would score and after that, how often.
Yet this did not take the new goalkeeper, Lotti into account. As second-half minute piled upon minute and the sun gradually made its way westward, this afterthought, this backup goalkeeper from C2 seemed to grow larger and larger, until his presence in the goalmouth dwarfed everyone else on the field. He was playing not as if he were a new arrival in Castel di Sangro, but as though he was a veteran of the national team.
Time after time, Cosenza overran or passed through or around the scrambling, but tiring Castel di Sangro defenders, yet Lotti, standing six foot two and looking for all the world as if he were enjoying a relaxing afternoon in the park, repelled every thrust. He blocked corner kicks, free kicks, one-on-one breakaways, sixty-five-mile-per-hour blasts from twenty yards out – anything and everything he had to, even as Cosenza’s frantic barrage became incessant.
Exactly at the ninety-minute mark, the referee awarded Cosenza yet another corner kick. The rules generally protect the goalkeeper from deliberate physical attack from an opponent. On corner kicks, however, as the ball curls towards the goal at high speed and as six or eight players leap for it at once, this right of the keeper to be protected from harm slips into a decidedly grey area. It is a brave man indeed who will outjump half a dozen onrushing opponents in order to pluck from mid-air and hold it safely.
From this ninetieth-minute corner, Lotti showed himself both brave and skilled beyond anyone’s reasonable expectation. His spectacular save preserved our fragile lead. Then, for four minutes of extra time, Cosenza continued to pound away, kicking and kicking, shooting and shooting and in the process transforming the previously anonymous Lotti from a scrub goalkeeper into a world-class juggler, acrobat and magician.
Those extra four minutes seemed like forty, but finally the whistle blew. It was over. Castel di Sangro 1 Cosenza 0.
I couldn’t help myself. I turned to Gravina and embraced him. “Bravo, Gabriele!” I said.
‘Grazie,” he muttered, then lit another cigarette and stood up.
As for me, I climbed on top of my seat and shouted as loudly as I could: “Bravo, Lotti! Bravo, Lotti! Bravo, Castel di Sangro!”
I could see that hundreds of other Castel di Sangro fans – the ones able to afford the more expensive midfield seats and not forced to watch from the distant “curva” – were staring at me. As they heard my last “Bravo!” and saw my upraised arms, they, too, began to shout and cheer, waving at me and grinning.
My heart filled with joy. Finally, at the age of fifty-three, I had been united with my people.
Catch up with the next instalment of this enthralling story through our media outlets soon.