Context is everything. Think of a town near you which barely qualifies for the name, with 5 000 residents and no natural claim to greatness. Now, think of them reaching the heights of the English Championship. Well, as far-fetched as it seems, Castel di Sangro’s team of the same name not only got to Serie B in the mid-1990s, but managed to earn the right to stay there a second season.
Formed in 1953, (as part of an effort to rebuild the community in the aftermath of World War II),the club entered into the Italian amateur leagues and stayed in the lowest level of Italian football until 1983. With the backing of Pietro Rezza, a man who’d come to L’Aquila from the south, they steadily rose through the amateur ranks and reached Serie C2 in 1989.
The jump to the fourth tier of Italian football would prove a steep one, with Castel Di Sangro taking some time to adjust. Part of the way through the 1993/94 season, a new Coach came to the club. He was Osvaldo Jaconi, a man who would play a leading role in the next few years. After guiding them to safety in his first season, Jaconi took the Giallorossi into Serie C1 for the first time with automatic promotion as champions in 1995. The following season would see them finish 2nd, with play-offs to decide who went up to Serie B. Victory over Gualdo set up a final against Ascoli which would enshrine Giallorossi, and Jaconi in particular, into folklore. In extra time, with the game heading for a stalemate, Jaconi sends on Pietro Spinosa, a goalkeeper who had not played during the entire season. Whether the replacement was a penalty specialist or Jaconi just wanted to convey that idea to Ascoli is unclear. What is certain is that Ascoli’s eighth spot-kick was saved by Spinosa and Giallorossi had reached a level hitherto unthinkable.
The gap between Serie C1 and Serie B (after all there are only two truly ‘national’ leagues in Italy) and Castel di Sangro’s comparatively meagre resources meant that in reality, survival was the sole aim for the 1996/97 season. That they managed to do so was remarkable, considering some of the off-field events that unfolded. Firstly, they had to play their home games at Chieti until Christmas, with Stadio Teofilo Patini undergoing work to bring it up to Serie B standard. Indeed, the new ground would hold 7 200 – more than the resident population of the town itself. Then they had to contend with the tragic death of two of their players, Danilo di Vincenzo and Pippo Biondi, in a car accident. When another Giallorossi player, Gigi Prete, was arrested (later cleared) in connection with a drug-smuggling ring operating from Chile, it was the sort of blow that would have derailed many a season.
Many, however, did not possess the momentum that Castel Di Sangro’s magical run had given them, and the contributions of Claudio Bonomi and the on-loan Gionatha Spinesi gave them a shot at survival. They would win 12 games that season – 11 of them at home. Cremonese, Padova, Salernitana, Palermo, Torino, Reggina and Pescara reads like some phone book of yo-yo clubs who’d all spend time in Serie A in the years either immediately before or after. All came away from their visit with no more than a bloody nose and a long ride home. The 2-1 win against Pescara, in the penultimate match of the season, would guarantee mathematical safety and ensure the miracle would continue for at least another season.
Literally from that day onward, the Castel di Sangro story would lose its fairy dust and like all great historical stories, the only direction from the zenith is rapidly downward. In his book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro Joe McGuiness details how the last match of the season at the San Nicola in Bari was tainted by suggestions the Giallorossi lay down and died. The hosts, needing a win to secure promotion, were said to have asked a ‘favour’ in the form of a less-than-committed performance from a team with nothing to play for. The eventual 3-1 win for Bari is seen as an instance of a virtual walkover, something that had been rumoured to be common on the last day of an Italian season until 2006.
Thus, the heart and fire that had embodied much of their work in the previous three seasons disappeared in 1997/98. The sale of Bonomi to Torino was like a stake through the heart and Jaconi would pay for an awful run that would eventually spread to 18 matches without a win. Five wins, 30 points and a last-placed finish tells its own story. The only plus from that season would be the emergence of a fine young goalkeeper named Carlo Cudicini.
A renaissance of sorts followed with a run to the quarter-final of the Coppa Italia in 1999, eventually ended by Inter. Previous giant-killings of Perugia and Salernitana were in part due to the efforts of another emerging talent, Vincenzo Iaquinta. It would be the last time they would make major headlines to date. In 2002, they were relegated again, to Serie C2. The financial impact of their years of over-achievement caused the club to disband in 2005 re-forming in the sixth tier of Italian football. The current guise of the club, ASD Castel di Sangro, currently resides in Eccellenza, having won promotion in 2007.
Whether the club can get much higher than that is doubtful, and the odds of a club like Castel di Sangro punching so far above their weight in the future seem at best remote. The dynamics of football have changed so much, even in the last 10 years that it is hard to see someone putting such a glaring anomaly on the graph that correlates wealth and success. For the sake of those whose faith in the game occasionally flags in an avalanche of corporate slogans, this writer hopes he’s wrong.