This article is the seventh 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.
JOE MOVES INTO TOWN
At 10 am on Monday, Giuseppe, the man who had met me when I first arrived in Italy, helped me move from the Best Western hotel, some 12 kilometres from Castel di Sangro, to the Coradetti, the local “hotel” in the town. The proprietor, bald and burly, seemed as glum as he’d been on Saturday, the day before Castel di Sangro’s 1-0 victory in their Serie B debut match yesterday.
I would be in room number 8, which was up four flights of stairs. There was, of course, no elevator, this being a no-star hotel. There were also no other guests, so the proprietor could just as easily have given me a room that was up only one flight of stairs, but the Coradetti’s motto seemed to be WHEN YOU DESERVE THE VERY WORST.
Having handed me the key, the proprietor returned to a small Formica table at which he’d been looking at Il Corriere dello Sport, the football newspaper favoured by those in Bologna and points south because it was published in Rome and was therefore presumed – by southerners – to be more reliable than la Gazetta dello Sport, which, being published in Milan, was undoubtedly filled each day with all manner of antisouthern slurs and inaccuracies.
The proprietor mumbles something to Giuseppe.
“Oh, yes,” Giuseppe said. “He tell you to remember you that the ‘otel will be closed mercoledi.”
Already, I knew that mercoledi meant Wednesday, but I failed to grasp the larger implications of the remark.
“Closed this Wednesday? Big deal. It doesn’t seem very open right now.”
“No, no, no,” Giuseppe said. “This day she open. Otherwise, we not get in. When he close, like Wen-nesday, you no come in.”
“But I’m already in.”
“But Wen-nesday, you got out, he may not be easy for you come back.”
“Do you mean to say that if I go out this Wednesday, I may not be able to get back in?”
“No, no, no,” Giuseppe said. ‘not be these Wen-nesday. Every Wen-nesday he be close. He waved an arm in a swift, horizontal motion. He advised me to speak to Barbara for more “specification” on this matter.
As I was to learn, young Giuseppe was a man of many hats. Not only was he is charge of “external relations” for “La Societa”, but he was also the Castel di Sangro football correspondent for Il Centro, the daily newspaper of the Abruzzo, and for La Gazetta dello Sport, and for Guerin Sportivo, as well as host of a weekly local television programme devoted to the doings of the team.
This meant, essentially, that if it involved the Castel di Sangro football team, it hadn’t happened unless and until Giuseppe said it had and he wouldn’t unless and until club president, Gravina told him to. In America, this might have been perceived as a conflict of interest, but in America hotels did not close every Wednesday either.
My mass of luggage virtually filled the tiny anteroom that passed for both lobby and bar at the Coradetti. I tried to calculate: 800 pounds times 4 flights of stairs equals 3,200 stair-pounds.
“Ecolle! (Here they are!) I said to the proprietor, pointing toward my many pieces of baggage.
He nodded wordlessly, scarcely looking up from his paper. So I began. At first, I carried up only my two smallest bags, feeling certain that once the proprietor took note of the enormous task confronting me, he’d jump up from the table and with a big, convivial smile, insist not only on helping, but carrying the bags himself, while I, the guest, had a seat in the lobby, a look at the newspaper and while I was at it, why not a coffee, too?
Such did not turn out to be the case. Half an hour later, exhausted and panting, my shirt soaked with sweat, I stumbled back into the anteroom, slumped into a chair and pointing toward the small bar on one side, behind which stood an espresso machine and bottles of various sorts of drinks, gasped at the proprietor, “Una Coca-Cola, per favore?”
He shook his head quickly from side to side, then resumed his study of Il Corriere dello Sport. He was still on the same page, I noted uncharitably, as he’d been on half an hour before.
“No?” I said, disbelieving. “No Coca-Cola? Why not? This isn’t Wednesday.”
He shook his head again, clearly irritated by this sudden outburst in a foreign tongue.
“Scusi,” I said. “No Coca- Cola. Okay. Un’acqua minerale, per favour.” Surely, a glass of mineral water would be available. Now the proprietor actually leaned forward, the first time he’d moved anything but his head.
He pointed toward the bar, which was actually so close to him that if he’d leaned back in his chair, he could have rested his hand on it.
“Chiuso!” he repeated. I was starting to pick up on the fact that this word meant “closed”. Then with a great show of annoyance, he stood, gathered his newspaper and walked out of the anteroom and into what I’d already been told were the family quarters – off-limits to guests – from which I could hear a television blaring. I waited about thirty seconds, then followed him. If I didn’t get something cold to drink within another thirty seconds, my season threatened to be a short one.
He was seated at a table, still gazing: same paper, same page. A portly woman stood at an ironing board. Two hefty children of elementary-school age lay on the floor, glazed eyes gaping unblinkingly at the television.
He looked up. The woman put down her iron and glared at me. The children remained transfixed by the television. I made one of my typical lightning-fast assessments of the situation and instead of inquiring further about the possibility of obtaining a Coca-Cola or mineral water, said, simply,”Scusi,” and left.
I weaved dizzily up the four flights of stairs to my room. The tap water from the cold faucet ran lukewarm. Indeed, it was exactly the same temperature as the water from the hot faucet: not cold enough to drink, yet not hot enough for a shower. A man of few words, this proprietor, but fiendishly clever.
I gulped down eight or ten glasses anyway and then collapsed on the narrow cot that was my bed until my heartbeat and breathing slowed to something resembling a normal pace. Then I changed into a dry shirt and set out to explore this magical mountain village I’d chosen to call home for the next nine months.
My first stop was the newsstand, three blocks away, in the central square. Because it was Monday, the players had the day off, as they always did the day after a match. I spotted Gravina standing just across the street from the newspaper kiosk. He was still wearing dark glasses, suede jacket, jeans and leather boots, still smoking a cigarette and still speaking on his cell phone even as he simultaneously carried on a conversation with someone standing directly in front of him. He called to me as I crossed the street.
“La Potenza della speranza,” he said by way of greeting. The power of hope. Clearly, this was to be the motto of the year. As he said it, he actually smiled. Relieved that my excesses of the previous afternoon had apparently been forgiven, I continued on to a coffee shop, where in addition to an espresso, I drank six glasses of mineral water.
I had purchased all three football papers which all emphasised most strongly the historic nature of Castel di Sangro’s triumph, who were now and might forever be, the team from the smallest town ever to win a Serie B match. The dramatic revelation that had sprung to life was in the person of goalkeeper Masimo Lotti.
In Italy, after every match, each newspaper rates every player’s performance, on a scale of one to ten. In practice, one almost never saw ratings lower than 4 or higher than 8, with the majority clustered in the 5.5-6.5 midrange, with 6 translating as “adequate.”
Lotti received one 7 and two 7.5s. This would be splendid for anyone under any circumstances, but was absolutely dazzling for a substitute goalkeeper making a debut at a higher level. Di Vicenzo, who’d scored the important penalty, fell mostly in the 6-6.5 range, again quite creditable for anyone and a bit more than that for another player stepping up from C2.
The low men were a defender and midfielder, both of whom were destined for the substitutes bench now that defender Fusco and midfielder Bonomi would return. The expensive new attacker, Pistella, also received poor grades, but it had seemed to me he’d spent the first half merely getting his sea legs and in the second might as well not have been on the field, so focused had manager, Jaconi become on defence.
But the win had been the important thing. At the end of the thirty-eight match season, it would be the four teams with the fewest points that would be demoted to C1. In any case, the papers were unanimous in proclaiming that “la favola”, or fairy tale, continued. They had also taken note of the “famoso scrittore Americano”, Alex Guinness!
That afternoon I took my first look at the stadium. Or at what had been and presumably one day again would be the stadium. Somewhere, amid oceans of mud and rubble, stood the remains of the old stadium. All else was chaos. Bulldozers, cranes, flatbed trucks, cement mixers, steel girders and huge slabs of concrete that might have been airlifted from Stonehenge were circled together in a pit – as if conferring about their next step.
Whatever that next step might be, it did not seem likely to be taken anytime soon. I thought it certain that no match would be played here in two weeks, or even two weeks after that, no matter how many assurances to the contrary Gravina was giving to the press.
As things stood, in fact – virtually idle – no match might ever be played here. Although this was a Monday afternoon – and a fine one at that, with strong sun shining and the sky still clear blue – there were only half a dozen lackadaisical men and boys slumping against the heavy equipment, smoking cigarettes, while nearly 100 townspeople – presumably among the many unemployed – gathered outside a locked fence, talking quietly among themselves as they gazed at the inactive site.
That evening, as soon as the sun set behind the high mountain ridge to the west, a cold wind rose…and rose…and rose. At the Coradetti, I turned up the heat in my room. Rather, I tried to.
There was an antiquated thermostat and there were radiators, but clearly neither was functioning. No matter what dial I turned or what valve I twisted, nothing happened, except that the wind-chill factor in the room continued to drop. I took note of the two thin blankets on my cot. No, no, this would not do.
I walked down the four flights of stairs to the anteroom, which was, of course, empty. Once again from behind the swinging doors, I could hear the blare of the television. I could also smell food and through the crack between the doors see light and – I swear it! – feel heat.
I knocked on the door. The proprietor pushed it outward so fast it bumped me before I could move out of the way. He was wearing only an undershirt and dark trousers, while I was clad in long underwear, a woollen shirt and a North Face Steep Tech mountain parka.
He stared at me without speaking.
“Molto freddo,” I said, pointing upstairs. Very cold.
“Il caldo?” I asked. The heat? So this was how you learned a new language: you would either freeze or starve if you did not. The proprietor shook his heavy head. “Ottobre.” I didn’t need Barbara, or even Giuseppe, to help me with that one. October. No matter how cold it got, the heat in the Coradetti would not come on until October. Except, of course, in the family quarters. I nodded and trudged back upstairs, resigned to spending the night wrapped in my parka. I could have all the “speranza” (hope) I wanted, but the “potenza” (power) belonged to the proprietor and to him alone.
Next time, you can read about the team and the manager – another great insight into the miracle of Castel di Sangro.