The Miracle of Castel di Sangro

June 14, 2012

Joe has a problem. He has fallen in love. It happened fast and it won’t leave him a free moment. It’s not only an old story, it is a widely shared story. Millions share the same passion that has knocked Joe head over heels, but while it works for them, it’s all wrong for Joe.

“Joe” is Joe McGinniss, a middle-aged American journalist and writer, who discovers his passion for top-flight Italian soccer during the 1994 World Cup. Normally, this would be a harmless love affair, leading at worst to marital troubles of a certain kind, but Joe has an idea. He will write about his love, about Italian soccer, but because there are already dozens of journalists covering Italian soccer, he needs an angle. Worse, because he knows next to nothing about the game of soccer, or the language and culture of Italy, an angle is hard to come by. What can he do?

The result is The Miracle of Castel di Sangro: A Tale of Passion and Folly in the Heart of Italy, a story about the soccer club in a small, impoverished mountain town, that has miraculously risen through the stages of Italian professional soccer, from C1 to C2 to Serie B, and is groping for yet one more miracle to keep them from an all-too-likely relegation at the end of their first Serie B season.

Joe’s unrelenting enthusiasm for the team, and his outsider status as the “American writer,” create several kinds of problems for him and the reader. Readers should be warned: the fact that a “miracle” put the team in Serie B and only another “miracle” can keep them there should tell you something. They are expected to lose to most of the B level teams they will face. The owners know this. The coach knows this. Even the players know this. Only Joe seems blissfully unawares.

So Joe becomes Fan #1. He follows the team everywhere. He is credited as a ‘good luck charm’ for some of their early successes. He gives interviews pumping up the team to everyone who asks. And he throws public temper tantrums on the team’s behalf when the coach, or the owners, or even the players, fail to live up to his expectations. It’s the classic battle between Love and Reality, and while we think we know the inevitable outcome, some strange things can happen along the way.

Although the book has won a “soccer book” award, actual accounts of soccer play get short shrift. Presumably, the team’s low level of play, along with Joe’s fairly low knowledge of the game, make stories about the players’ on-field exploits relatively uninteresting. Lacking a “main act,” we are offered the sideshows instead. Low expectations combine with diverse forms of corruption (adultery, illegal drugs, racism, game fixing, broken contracts, and more) to offer a view of Italian society that seems to step straight off the pages of an Aurelio Zen detective story. I found it rather hard to keep track of all the players, and I didn’t like the way the book abruptly left off without any sort of epilogue, but Joe manages to write his “soccer” book in the end so who am I to complain? The real question is, is he still in love?

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One Response to “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro”

  1. […] Italy of Aurelio Zen is so thoroughly corrupt that paranoia is no longer an unhealthy mental state. It is a basic requirement for […]

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