Book review: The Miracle of Castel di Sangro

Plenty of weird, unexpected things happen to every team throughout the course of a season in any sport, and when an American author went to Italy to track a minor league soccer team from a small village that definitely held true.

Joe McGinniss tells the story of Castel di Sangro Calcio, which managed to earn promotion to Serie B, the second-highest league in Italy, despite being from a village of less than 10,000 people. He follows the team during its first year in Serie B and its quest to hang with teams with bigger stadiums, bigger fan bases, more money and better facilities.

It starts a bit slow. McGinniss gives his own background as an American that manages to become obsessed with the sport just as the dark days of American soccer are ending in the 1990s. He explains his love of the sport, and especially Italy’s Serie A, which was regarded as the best league in the world at the time.

When he heads to Castel di Sangro for the 1996-97 season, he finds just how remote and small-time the village is. Then, he finds himself stuck in a number of lost-in-translation situations.

The beginning portion of the book is basically a travel log. McGinniss is getting used to the country, the culture and is wowed by his trips throughout Italy as he travels with the team on bus rides to away matches.

It’s a bit of a slow start. There’s a bit of repetition to the interactions until he starts to learn the language and gets comfortable with the players around him. There’s also some over-explaining if you’re familiar with Calcio, but that explaining makes the book easy to understand for anyone coming in without any prior knowledge.

Things really pick up steam towards the middle though as those weird, unexpected things start happening to the team and McGinniss becomes a character in his own story. He doesn’t give you a journalist’s perspective. McGinniss is simply telling the reader the story of his experiences in Italy with the team, including surprisingly detailed conversations (seriously, was this guy walking around with a recorder constantly rolling?) with players, staff members and people from the town.

The book reads like its fiction. There are storylines that you want to read on to see what happens next. Then, of course, there’s the broader question of whether the team will achieve la salvezza (literally salvation, but in this context it means to avoid relegation). Speaking of Italian words and phrases, be sure to have a translate app or a web browser nearby. McGinniss gives you the translations you need to know, but not all the time. Especially as he starts to learn Italian, the Italian he writes in the book grows and can become harder to keep track of.

It also feels like fiction because a few of the twists and turns, and even the two major events in the conclusion, feel too hard to believe. That’s why the story is worth reading though. McGinniss knew he was hopping into the middle of an already unbelievable story, but he had no idea just how wild the story ended up being.

Overall, it’s an unbelievable story that is worth reading, even if the 402-page book is a bit longer than it probably needed to be. It’s worth sticking through the slow pace of the start to see it through for a crazy finish.

Next up: Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece: The Inside Story Of The Best Franchise Launch In American Sports History (this time for sure, I already started it before being loaned Castel)

Filed under: Soccer books

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