Tuesday, November 20, 2007
A Miraculous Season
Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro has acquired a sort of cult following among football fans, and, upon reading it, it's easy to see why. This is not the best football book I've read, by any means, but it's certainly the most extraordinary...and, in many ways, the most confronting.
McGinniss is an American author (previously considered chiefly a political writer), who caught the football bug in 1994 with the unexpected arrival of the World Cup in America. He subsequently, and quite naturally, focussed his attention on Italy, arguably the home of most of the world's top players at that time.
Yet he chose not to write about AC Milan, Juventus or Fiorentina. He made the perhaps inspired choice of following a team from an impoverished town in the Abruzzo region, who had astonished the calcio establishment by making their way to Serie B, alongside such erstwhile giants of the Italian game as Torino and Genoa. He spent a whole season with this group of modest professionals and their irascible, headstrong coach, Osvaldo Jaconi.
Yet the story that emerges is anything but the clichéd small-town-boys-make-good heart-tugger. Instead, the book scratches (or rather lacerates) the frightening underbelly of the Italian game, where powerful self-made men engage in behaviour that veers from the comic to the criminal...and beyond.
And although McGinniss clearly develops a hero-worship of many of the players, they are by no means spared his often rather supercilious analysis. The book's final chapter is heart-breaking in many ways, but not, given what has come before, entirely unexpected.
McGinniss's audience is American, and thus the first part of the book contains a fair bit of Soccer-For-Dummies information that does grate at times. And his constant accounts of how his tactical advice was constantly scorned by the proud Jaconi do make the reader cringe somewhat.
Yet he writes very well, and the book cannot help but draw you in, even when the events severely stretch the reader's credibility (especially the incidents concerning the mysterious Signor Rezza, who comes across as something of a hackneyed stereotype). Non-fiction it may be, but one does suspect that the history of Castel di Sangro's 1996/97 season has been jazzed up just a bit.
If McGinniss brings his own personality into the text rather too much, it's a forgivable flaw in this case; the book is a highly personal account, and he rarely makes any attempt at impartiality.
Let me repeat: there are better football books. But this one is something distinctly out of the ordinary...and a fascinating read.
Try "A Season With Verona" by Tim Parks. I haven't read the McGuiness book but this one comes from a real supporter and supporters group perspective. It is extremely well written and is one of my favourite football books of all time.
I enjoyed it, but TBH McGinniss's book is something else. Ultimately I thought Tim Parks's book got a bit too obsessed with "fan kulcha", whereas McGinniss focuses almost entirely on the players, the manager and the two figures in charge. A very different perspective, put it that way.
Just bought it. I now can't wait until it arrives in the post. Will be interested to see how it compares to "A Season with Verona".
I have heard about a book on the history of the game in Italy and another on South America but can't recall their names.