Saturday, July 15, 2006

Right Book at the Wrong Time - "The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro" (Bookblogging #13)

[N]ot all fairytales have happy endings. Just like not all miracles last forever
- Joe McGinnis, last line of "The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro"

In response to a long ago recomendation from Bill, and to quell my post-World Cup soccer detox shakes, I finally picked up "The Miracle of Castel di Sangro" by Joe McGinnis...and didn't really put it down until I was finished. First of all I very much enjoy the "Season Inside" sports book. Second, soccer, probably better than any team sport, lends itself to intriguing dramatic arcs over the course of a season - part of that is related to the 'squad system', 11 play, the rest largely do not. A much starker contrast to someone's minutes going up or down. Second, the game itself is almost inherently irreducable to simple statistics or a book score. Each match is its own novella in many ways, with heros, villains and themes emerging endogenously.

But those structural factors don't capture the maginificence of this story - it is the perfect example of the cliche about the movie no one would make, because it is too unbelievable. A team from a backwater town of 5,000 in a region of Italy that seems analagous to darkest West Virginia rises to the second level of Italian football, the Serie B - imagine Juneau, Alaska playing ACC Basketball. McGinnis, having caught the madness that is soccer fandom during the 1994 World Cup in the USA, decides to move to Castel di Sangro for the entirety of the teams first season following promotion from Serie C1 to Serie B. Speaking not a word of Italian, and having never been off the beaten Milan/Rome/Venice tourist trail he is welcomed with varying degrees of openess by the town, the team and management. (As for the last group, suffice it to say that describing one as involved in the scare-quoted "construction business" means much the same thing in the Abruzzo region of Italy as it would in say northern New Jersey.)

What unfolds is an almost magical tale as McGinnis becomes something of a team mascot (the scritorre Americano brings good luck, according to the players), and the team becomes something of a family. All sports teams are 'families' to some degree - some more functional than others - but in Castel di Sangro, McGinnis discovers a group which lives up to the very best connatations of the word.

Along the way, American directness co-exists (and often collides) with what might be stereotypically be termed Italian subtlety and cunning (one of the players reminds the author that Italy is not only the birthplace of Dante, but of Machievelli as well.) The results range from the humorous to the tragic - and the final reversal is as incongrous and jarring as was the capstone to Zidane's glittering career. Il Calcio has a way of reminding us that reality trumps romance all too often.

Though when I finished, I was once again feeling Just Not Right, I can't recomend this book highly enough.

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