Book of the Week

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro By Joe McGinniss Little, Brown and Co pounds 17.99
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CASTEL DI SANGRO is a tiny town, a big village really, 3,000 feet up in the mountains of Abruzzo in central Italy, and not exactly near anywhere. Incredibly, the local football team found themselves promoted to the heady heights of Serie B in 1996, meaning they would find themselves lining up the following season against such giants as Torino and Italy's oldest club, Genoa. Imagine Okehampton taking on Manchester City or Wolves and you'll get the idea.

McGinniss, the 53-year-old American writer best known for such works as The Selling of the President and his Kennedy account The Last Brother and a fan of calcio for over three years, ever since the World Cup was staged in the United States, moved to the town to write an account of their first, and possibly only, campaign in such exalted company.

In the process the American became something of a mascot, the town's crazy foreigner, and as rabid a tifoso as any local. One hates to resort to the cliche "a heady roller coaster ride of a season", but quite honestly how else can you describe nine months which featured untimely deaths, the arrest of a defender in connection with a $25m cocaine smuggling ring, a performance art piece disguised as the unveiling of a new player, much to the disgust of the bemused fans and media, and a pounds 5m embezzlement scandal. And some astonishing scalps. If Sky's Dream Team had a plot like this, it'd be laughed off the screen.

Central to the drama are the author's attempts to cope with his surroundings, this book being as much a testament to cultural misunderstanding as sport. Frequently telling the manager, Osvaldo Jaconi, what team and formation to pick, despite never having played football in his life, and soon picking up enough colloquial Italian to offend effortlessly, McGinniss is a hilarious, exasperating guide, quite aware of his own absurdity. He's also astonishingly incisive about the game, and more importantly its hold over his, and our imagination.

It would be churlish to reveal what happens to the team with "legs of pianos, but the hearts of lions" as a newspaper report describes them, but it's fair to say that American and Italian attitudes remain unreconciled. This wonderful, compelling book seems destined to join the short list of football classics.


1 Rothman's Football Yearbook 1999-2000, edited by Glenda Rollin and Jack Rollin (Headline, paperback, pounds 18.99)

2 Managing My Life - My Autobiography, Alex Ferguson with Hugh McIlvanney (Hodder and Stoughton, hardback, pounds 18.99)

3 News of the World Football Annual 1999-2000, edited by Eric Brown (Invincible Press, paperback pounds 5.99)

4 Addicted - Tony Adams with Ian Ridley (Collins Willow, paperback pounds 6.99)

5 Playfair Football Annual 1999-2000, edited by Glenda Rollin (Headline, paperback, pounds 4.99)

6 Mick Doohan - Thunder from Down Under, Mat Oxley (Haynes, hardback, pounds 14.99)

7 Carling Opta Football Yearbook 1999-2000 - The Complete Guide to the FA Carling Premiership (Carlton, paperback, pounds 16.99)

8 Inside the All Blacks - Robin McConnell (Collins Willow, paperback, pounds 7.99)

9 Ruud Gullit - My Autobiography (Arrow, paperback, pounds 7.99)

10 The Sporting News Pro Football Guide 1999 (The Sporting News, paperback, pounds 13.95)

List compiled by Sportspages Bookshops; 94-96 Charing Cross Road, London, 0171 240 9604; and St Ann's Square, Manchester, 0161 832 8530.