The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinnissLate last year, inspired by Villan of the Week Donal Neligan, I finally made time for a book that had spent far too many years in my to-be-read pile: The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss. McGinniss, whose classic The Selling of the President 1968 changed the whole way we look at the political process, and who also has written about Teddy Kennedy, Sarah Palin, and several controversial trials, seems at first an unlikely sports fan. But, he assures us, he is crazy about soccer—and, inspired by the unlikely promotion of tiny Italian team Castel to the Italian Serie B, he is unable to resist moving to Italy to see the whole thing play out for himself.

What happens next is nothing short of amazing. The team, as you would expect, is no contender for Serie A. Playing against big teams like Genoa and Bari, themselves struggling to return to the big leagues, Castel di Sangro is barely able to compete. They’re further hamstrung by bad coaching, poor management, and an owner who can’t seem to decide whether to finish building the stadium the Italian football federation requires if they’re to play, and stay, in the big time.

But what’s truly remarkable is the characters, from the intimidating, mobbed up owner, to the team’s Neanderthal coach, to the players and the locals and everyone else. McGinniss, too, is quite a character, so sure of himself and his opinions that he doesn’t hesitate to make them known to anyone at any time. (Because McGinniss, the famous American author, is himself newsworthy in Italy, what he says is guaranteed to be heard.) At times I cringed, wishing the author would observe the story and not participate in it—and yet, his participation is one of the things that makes it so great. That, and an amazing confluence of events, from death to drug-dealing to a scandalously inappropriate attempt at a pep rally.

It’s tempting to think that McGinniss has merely lucked into a great story but, because of his eye for a possible story, his willingness to insert himself into it, and his masterful ability to chronicle the whole thing, luck really has nothing to do with it.

It’s a famous book, and probably many of you already know how it ends. If you don’t, I’ll issue a SPOILER ALERT. The end of the season is decidedly bittersweet. Two players die in an unfortunate car crash, Castel di Sangro avoids relegation—but the players throw the very last game, guaranteeing a favorable result for another, bigger club. Money clearly changed hands at a higher level. McGinniss, the romantically minded American who treasures fair play, is bitterly disillusioned. Feeling the team has dishonored itself, he can’t celebrate their success, and leaves for home with a great story and a broken heart.

The Miracle of Castel di Sangro clearly belongs on the shortlist of the best soccer books of all time. Funny and sad, insightful and informative, and, above all, brimming with passion, it’s not easy to put down and impossible to forget.