'Castel di Sangro': sport as life itself

May 09, 1999|By Mike Leary | Mike Leary,Special to the Sun

"The Miracle of Castel di Sangro," by Joe McGinniss. Little, Brown. 416 pages. $25.

Well into this story of a provincial soccer team that improbably scaled the heights of the sport in a land where il calcio has a more devoted following than Catholicism, I began thinking I had mistakenly picked up a Giovanni Guareschi novel. Was I reading one of those charming and humorous Don Camillo-type tales of eccentric but lovable Italian villagers?

"I had come to the Abruzzo to write a beautiful story about wonderful, humble people who had dared to dream and who'd then seen their dream become reality," proclaims the author.

Could this be the Joe McGinniss of "Fatal Vision," skewerer of Kennedys, dissector of Nixons?

Soon enough, though, McGinniss veers onto more familiar ground of sex, drugs, death, corruption, stupidity and cupidity. The tip-off is even in the title, "Castel di Sangro" ... Castle of Blood.

Early on he invokes the fearsome name of O. J. Simpson to deflect an effort to share his book proceeds with the local don, who lives in a fantastic mountain redoubt surrounded by exotic wildlife, some of it human.

He loses all detachment as he becomes emotionally involved with the players and the game, as he cheerfully confesses: "Call me irresponsible. Call me juvenile, irrational, selfish, foolhardy and neurotic ... I could no more control my obsession than I could reverse the direction of tides."

At book's end, there are threats, and threats of lawsuits as the author rails against the cynicism of "the system" and stands four-square for the purity of the sport.

McGinniss had become enamored of soccer during the 1994 World Cup, and a particular fan of the Italian strain epitomized by the ponytailed star of the Forza Azzuri, Roberto Baggio.

When he read of how the team from a pig-farming town of just 5,000 had swiftly risen from the amateur ranks to Serie B, just one notch below the sport's top level, how these Lilliputi, as the Italian press called them, were playing the teams of Genoa, Turin and Venice, he thought book.

What resulted is a very engaging read -- sophisticated yet emotionally raw -- in which McGinniss immerses himself into Italian culture, of which soccer seems at times to be the most important constituent. This is an intelligent book about sport, which is much more than what merely happens on the field of play.

As skillful a reporter as ever, McGinniss wrings startling confidences from those he writes about, even though his Italian, at least at the outset, is comically inadequate. At one point, he tells a player he has made "a fine mess," instead of a "fine match."

Only Roberto Alberti, a clever defender, manages to fend McGinniss off. As Alberti's son explains in schoolboy English, "He makes the point of never speak to you because he think you act too much like an idiot."

McGinniss has set himself a much more difficult task than, say John Feinstein or David Halberstam, who have written about sports such as basketball that Americans understand. And it is to his credit that he largely succeeds, though there are tedious sections in which McGinniss, fancying himself an expert on the game he never played, explains the intricacies of on-field strategy.

But this is merely evidence of the degree to which a 53-year-old Irishman from America managed to turn himself into a raving soccer fanatic, a transformation, he allows, about as an unlikely as "my becoming an astronaut."

Castel di Sangro's ascent to the heights was almost as fantastic a notion, so the team and the writer seemed made for each other. It is too bad for him that his book comes to end before the Lilliputi took the field against mighty Inter of Milan, the team where the fabled Baggio now plies his game. Had McGinniss been there he would have been over the moon.

Mike Leary, a former national and foreign correspondent, is the editor for amateur sports at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Leary has also been the Inquirer's books editor.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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