Mafia Madness and ‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’ – A Book Review

Joe McGinniss’s The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is everything a story should be. Tom Bogert tells you exactly why this maddening tale of mafia mischief and football is a book everyone should read. Especially you.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro's author, the late Joe McGinniss, when writing about a small provincial Italian football team, went down the rabbit hole and came out into a real-life Mario Puzo novel, with a larger-than-life cast of characters.
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’s author, the late Joe McGinniss, when writing about a small provincial Italian football team, went down the rabbit hole and came out into a real-life Mario Puzo novel, with a larger-than-life cast of characters.

Stay with me here: You need  to read a 400-page nonfiction book about an inconsequential Italian club you’ve never heard of, from an inconsequential area you’ve never heard of, with inconsequential players you’ve never heard of, under an inconsequential manager you’ve never heard of, that had one improbably inconsequential season in Serie B from the 1990s.

Being overly simplistic is the framework and reality in which the story lives. But atop that framework rests a mansion of a novel, with an eclectic range of rooms featuring separate, idiosyncratic subplots, all interesting on their own, but which converge together under the roof that is the 1996/97 season in the Serie B.

A distinct description that continually made an appearance was referring to the Serie B as glamorous, without a hint of jest. Many fans, dare I say all fans outside of Italy, pay little to no attention to the Serie B, let alone the tiers below. Then, there are few that would describe the Italian second division as glamorous.

But it’s an important description, one that needs to be reinforced regularly, that the league is well above what most of the players could have ever dreamed of representing.

Again, the story of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro on the surface doesn’t exactly pull many people in. It’s about football, but it’s also really not about football. Author Joe McGinniss mentions every result, as well as many detailed passages from games, but the reason this book is transcendent is the people uncovered.

First and foremost: The manager, Osvaldo Jaconi.

“I, Bulldozer”- Osvaldo Jaconi

That is the only phrase of English known to Jaconi, but you wouldn’t need him to tell you. You’d figure it out all on your own.

“As I would learn, Jaconi seldom spoke with the intention of soliciting a response. His words were the words that mattered,” McGinniss writes.

Jaconi’s managerial history is extensive, mildly entertaining, and appears to scroll on forever. From 1982 to 2016, his magic-carpet-ride  of a career guided by belligerence, with an apathetic view of attacking as well as only a rudimentary concept of tactics saw him have 22 separate appointments. Though the book regularly reads as fiction, it’s true.

The manager, and neighbour of McGinniss for the season, bans his players from consuming garlic, but encourages the odd cigarette. Such is life in 1990s Serie B. His tactics match his anachronistic view of the peak physical condition, but it couldn’t have been all too different from many other managers of the time.

Jaconi insists on defensive football as a way of life, as if its legitimacy is tied to his own vitality, refusing to devote more than the bare minimum resources into attack unless absolutely necessary. He’d rather go down playing his style than stay up by attacking, as it would disvalidate his career’s work and ethos.

McGinniss, performing the role of naive American quite well, implores Jaconi to go for it once in a while, both in the pages of his book and to his face.

Jaconi is stubborn, which can appear annoying, yet relatable. Jaconi is a leader, which is admirable. Jaconi is just-perhaps-maybe-a-little-bit racist (nothing overt, he’s just never coached a player of colour and doesn’t seem much interested in doing so), which is difficult to grapple with. Jaconi’s reality also elicits empathy, as he’s in an impossible position; a team of insufficient quality, with insufficient funds, under a corrupt infrastructure.

The character comes to life akin to a military general throughout McGinniss’ words, as readers can’t tell if they love him, hate him or are indifferent. The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle.

Rezza and Gravina: Crime and corruption

The hierarchy of the club is sketchy, to put it lightly. Pietro Rezza owns the club and made his money in “construction” in Naples. McGinniss quickly learns that “construction” is very vague and, more than likely, fails encompass the full scope of Rezza’s enterprise. Especially when the “construction” is done in the Mafioso-ridden Naples.

Rezza is depicted not dissimilar from a menacing cartoon character. He perpetually puffs from a giant cigar, says few words and is most greatly offended by guests failing to eat every bite of eight-course meals. And he’s always accompanied by bodyguards. He owns, essentially, a personal zoo–an actual fucking zoo!–on his property as a tax haven.

The property, of course, is in a mountain that he privately owns, allowing Rezza the divine ability to carve the earth’s beautiful surface however he sees fit. And he does see fit.

Rezza didn’t agree with how Mother Nature formed Earth over billions of years. So, he argued with Mother Nature and won.

“And so, over several years, he had set about changing the terrain,” McGinniss writes. “Using dynamite and bulldozers, and maybe even arranging for a small, localized earthquake or two, he put peaks where none stood before and eliminated those that offended his aesthetic sense.”

Rezza is so finicky about controlling every aspect of his property, as one expects someone who takes to literally rearranging mountains, he has his army of servants scour the property, on his command, whenever he thinks he has identified a misplaced rock. For hours, if need be, as he watches from a lawn chair through binoculars.

Previously, Rezza owned property overlooking Lake Luongo in Switzerland, but sometimes the colour of Lake Luongo wouldn’t clear his standard of perfection.

It would “displease Signor Rezza, but because it is not his lake, there is nothing he can do to change the colour… But here, everything belongs to him. So this is the one place on earth that he can make perfect, according to his version of perfection,” McGinniss writes.  

McGinniss dares to do what few ever did to Rezza: adventure anywhere near the neighbourhood of questioning him.

To be fair, I’m afraid of the guy just by reading a book with his influence described on the pages I’m holding. Full marks to McGinniss for throwing caution to the wind and treating Rezza as he would anyone else, by making his opinion known, rightly or wrongly–more on that in a few paragraphs.

Responding to Rezza’s prompt on how he might improve the team, McGinniss tells the man writing the club’s checks that more money would suffice. Emboldened by booze, he travels further into perilous land by suggesting the money should already be in his possession by way of a promotion bonus, insinuating that Rezza has withheld money that should have been put back into the team.

But, despite the probable scale of his immorality, there is no worse character in the book than Rezza’s son-in-law, Gabriele Gravina, who runs the football operation.

As the book goes on, Gravina reveals himself to be a despicable, superficial human being. The only consistency in Gravina’s dangerously erratic behavior is his insistence to place himself above all others.

Gravina attempts multiple distasteful publicity stunts, meant to further his own career in football and politics, at the expense of his club. It includes introducing a “new signing”, a Nigerian striker who enjoyed a prolific goal-scoring record in England.

It is a ruse from the beginning; the “new signing” is a British actor playing the part of the African striker. At the press conference, McGinniss’ mouth is left agape as the English-speaking “new signing” talks about how many women in the town he would sleep with.

No one knows of the charade until after a staged friendly the next day. This includes the players, who are taken for a ride by Gravina, specifically one who has been told he was sold to make the money to sign the new striker.

It is…disgraceful.

Disgracefully still, Gravina cheats on his wife. (Remember: his wife is Rezza’s daughter.) One of the women he has an affair with is the wife of one of his players, Gigi Prete. Prete would later be arrested, as well as his wife, for being involved in a large-scale cocaine racket. They’d be released only after the divine Rezza moved mountains to influence jurisdiction.

As the story unfolds, Rezza’s cartoonish aura fades from the page to reality as you realize that men in power like this exist. It’s not a cartoon nor a charade, like the “new signing”.

For Gravina the truth, going against where it often lies, is not in the middle. It’s an easy character evaluation.

But neither Rezza nor Gravina is the singular star of the book, if you were pressed to pick one. Not even Jaconi.

That characterization is held for the writer himself: Joe McGinniss.

Author turned protagonist

An emerging favorite niche of mine is when accomplished writers from non-sports subjects make a foray into writing a football book.

McGinniss, the author of “The Selling of the President 1968”, easily ticks the box of an accomplished writer. He even walked away from a $1million contract to write a book on the OJ Simpson trial to spend his year with Castel di Sangro hoping to witness “Il Miracolo”.

This book is persistently human: all of mankind’s delicate curves and its callous warts. The story reveals the author’s hand, as McGinniss is very much the main character of the book. It’s human nature, and it would be irresponsible for him not to include himself.

McGinniss personifies the tour bus we all ride along with through the story, with McGinniss telling stories and providing great detail of the sites and people we pass by. We get to experience everything, vicariously through him, from the comfort of our cushiony tour-bus seat.

Many of McGinniss’ interactions add to the story, and it was a smart decision to insert his dialogue rather than to just report the information he mined. It adds to the book.

There are times, though, when McGinniss’ involvement in the story is cringeworthy.

More than once, he forces unsolicited tactical opinions on Jaconi. McGinniss would, occasionally, accompany those sentences of prose with a disclaimer that he knows he shouldn’t have done that, though those disclaimers have the same weight as my own weekly, and very false, proclamations of #DietStartsMonday.

The only critiques of the writer stem from him blurring the lines for where his own role in the plot was. McGinnis seems to overstep his boundaries on numerous occasions. His insistence on idealistic, righteous action grows naively tiresome at times.

But, even this negative can be seen as a positive when viewed in a different light: it adds even more entertaining passages. Plus, he cannot be accused, in the slightest, of allowing the club’s warm reception, and their setting him up with a prime apartment next door to Jaconi, to sway his prose. He sticks to the facts, as best he could, with brilliant description and storytelling throughout.

I cannot stress enough the degree of difficulty to tiptoe that highwire. McGinniss, obviously, has a journalistic and moral obligation of remaining objective. But writing a book on humans you spend nine months with, and not to mention the covert and overt attempts to ensure his book is a sparkling reflection of all those involved at the club, makes that task more complicated than it may seem.

Read this book. Now.

Personally, I’m not much of a marathon reader. I like to sprint through some pages at a time, get up, do something, then return and read some more. My scatterbrain is a bit too jumpy to focus on one thing for too long, like many other millennials.

But, I couldn’t put The Miracle of Castel di Sangro down when I got toward the end. I avoided all other responsibility for a few hours until I turned the last page. And when that last page was turned, I sat in stunned silence.

“My word,” I actually said; verbalized into the stagnant air of my empty room. “What a phenomenal read.”

I immediately located my laptop, flipped it open and pleaded with Google to give me more information. I needed more. What happened next? I wanted to hear McGinniss talk more about that magical year. Reflect on it. Something. Anything.

There is no better nod to the powerful magnetism from the story’s pages than that. It pulls you in. I even scoured digital records for Castel di Sangro’s current goings-on. For once, Wikipedia let me down.

But, to return to the opening words of this review, let’s amend that first paragraph. Everyone loves a second chance, let’s try again:

Stay with me here: You need to read a 400 page nonfiction book about a club from a genuine, non-tourist area of Italy, with captivating players hoping to reach the pinnacle of Italian football, with a colourful, enigmatic manager from an almost-too-crazy-to-be-true season in the Serie B from the 1990s, stuffed with impossibly entertaining characters, death, familial values, mafia ties and the disheartening reality of the unglamorous underbelly of Italian football.

Better.

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Tom Bogert

A fan of repetitive disappointment and frustration, I hold Liverpool and the New York Red Bulls near and dear to my heart.