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One of my favorite books was written by Joe McGinniss. A journalist who started at the Philadelphia Bulletin and then the Philadelphia Enquirer before his first book, The Selling of the President, became a New York Times bestseller in 1969 when he was only twenty-six years old, McGinniss parlayed his initial success into a long career as an author. His book about the marketing of Richard Nixon by the GOP during the 1968 election is one of the seminal works of that campaign. Since then, he has gone on to write ten other works of fiction and nonfiction. Some have stirred up controversy... but it was his voyage to live for a year in the Abruzzo region of Italy which, in my opinion, was his greatest masterstroke and his greatest controversy all in one blaze of fury...

 

Stadio Teofilo Patini in Castel di Sangro...In The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, McGinniss turned down a lucrative advance to write a book about the O.J. Simpson trial -- through which he sat for its entire length before eschewing the fat advance due to "the farce" that was the trial itself -- and instead moved to Italy to witness firsthand the trials of Serie B soccer. Having become smitten with the world's most popular sport when the World Cup visited the United States in 1994, McGinniss was going to one of Italy's far mountainous outposts to follow the fortunes of a club which had earned promotion to the second-highest division in the nation the previous season on a miraculous save in the promotion playoff game. Castel di Sangro, the smallest town ever (population 5500) to have a team as high as Serie B...

 

The book chronicles the season, from the struggle to get the team's elusive owner Signor Rezza to get the stadium expansion finished so that the team could host its own Serie B matches (Italian league regulations require that there be a certain minimum number of seats and amenities depending on the division in which a team plays) to the mismanagement of players to potentially shady dealings in the drug and crime underworlds. McGinniss gives his readers a taste of small-town Italian life off the tourist-beaten path and a feel for the realities of a mediocre team's struggles to survive to simply play another year at such a high level. He also both ingratiated himself and later infuriated the locals, berating team tactics and (mis)management and ultimately forcing all ties to be severed when the nefarious dealings between teams saw Castel di Sangro, who had won la salvezza and secured its safe passage to the next season still in Serie B the previous weekend, throw their final contest...

 

The first peals of the autumn bell are not far off on the horizon. The days get shorter and football season nears in America. Teams across this swath of manifest destiny prepare for another season of attrition as colleges and professional teams anticipate opening contests. Sports fans prepare their fantasy teams, check the latest news on injuries and projected starters. Yet few Americans can even fathom a situation where they would have to cope with knowing that their favorite team is throwing the contest for another. Then again, few Americans truly understand the strange ways in which soccer work. While throwing a game in the United States gets a person labeled alongside a guy like Chick Gandil and Eddie Cicotte, in Italy these favors between teams -- trading unneeded points at the end of the season to a team desperate for them -- are commonplace...

 

In the United States, once a team is part of the fraternity of clubs in a sports league, only contraction or relocation can cause that spot to vanish. In Italy and other soccer leagues throughout Europe and the rest of the soccer-loving world, not only is success rewarded with promotion to a higher division or lucrative spots in intercontinental competitions, but failure is punished with relegation to a lower division. So points are of vital importance not just to the elite clubs but also to the also-rans who wish to have one more season of higher revenues. The razor-thin margin for error leads many teams to strike deals with their opponents when their opponents have little need for victory...

 

I have railed off a lot about hypocrisy in sports recently. This is another great instance in which we can investigate whether American sports fans are being hypocritical when they rail off about the inequities of other sports in other leagues in other countries. McGinniss, when he learned of the plan while sitting poolside with the team which had befriended him and taken him in as one of their own through the course of the season, denigrated the players publicly and later wrote a screed denouncing the team and its management and circulating it throughout the small mountain town. Yet imagine that this year's bottom-feeders in Major League Baseball -- San Diego and Seattle and Washington -- were all struggling to avoid dropping down to Triple-A ball the next season. And say, for instance, that San Diego is traveling to play a series against Houston, a mid-level team which is not among the worst near the relegation zone but also has no shot at reaching a coveted playoff spot. If San Diego could convince Houston to lose all three games of the series, would Padres fans lambaste their team for making such an under-the-table deal if it meant staying in the majors?

 

American sports fans, though, don't have to deal with such consequences. Appalachian State isn't moving up to I-A football, just as teams like Minnesota and Duke and Idaho aren't dropping to I-AA. The Dolphins didn't have to worry about another team taking their NFL spot as they threatened to finish the 2007 season without a victory. Perennial patsies in baseball and basketball don't have the fear of lost television revenue to force them into seeking such dealings. Yet, if they did, would we expect anything less than what happens annually in Italy and Spain and throughout the soccer world?

 

We too often forget that, in the end, we are merely watching grown men play a child's game. Too often the spirit of success trumps the spirit of sportsmanship. Not merely teams and management and players get caught up in this reality; so too do fans from Milan to Milwaukee, from London to Los Angeles, everywhere where sports teams are organized and leagues are formed where players get paid, fans pay to watch, and success and failure are both clearly defined. When we lose sight of the fact that this is merely a recreation from which nothing but emotion will ultimately result, the payoffs and the thrown games can't be far off. Referees throw games; players throw games; team presidents organize thrown games behind the scenes. McGinniss was forced to face a hard reality, and the poignant way in which he recounted his experiences in The Miracle of Castel di Sangro demonstrate the dilemma of balancing moral accountability with a fan's understanding of how sports really work with which we all must grapple from time to time. Ultimately McGinniss came back to America and never returned to the Abruzzo, still recoiling from what he was forced to confront...

 

Twelve years later, McGinniss has written two more tomes while his team back in Italy has plummeted back to its more-natural semi-professional status. Their meteoric rise through the eighties and nineties was followed by an equally meteoric tumble down through the stratosphere. McGinniss truly witnessed a miracle, the alignment of many factors to produce a star-crossed season for the ages. I got to live in Illinois as the White Sox experienced this occurrence in 2005; I nearly witnessed it with the Oregon Ducks football team here in Eugene last year before Dixon's ACL crumpled along with the dreams of a city. So too have Castel di Sangro's dreams crumbled, but true sports fans take stock and rebuild. Win or lose, loyalty is rewarded in any language. That is a message we all can embrace, whether our sport be football or soccer, basketball or hockey... and despite the hypocrisies which ultimately and inevitably creep up from time to time it is far better to have witnessed a sublime moment and then lost it than to have forgone sports altogether for fear of digesting a tainted product...

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