Dangerous play

Joe McGinniss tackles an Italian soccer club president.

Topics: Books,

Anyone who’s been following “Fatal Vision” author Joe McGinniss’ career over the past four years knows about his obsession with soccer. His latest book, “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro,” chronicles his love for a soccer team in a tiny Abruzzi town, but it’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of bringing purist values to the dark world of Italian athletics. As one player warns McGinniss, “Remember. We are the land of Dante, but also of Machiavelli.”

During his season with the Castel di Sangro club, McGinniss made himself into its de facto mascot, endearing himself to many of the players. But as he relates in the book, one night when he discovered treachery on the team, he had a confrontation at a hotel with the team’s president, Gabriele Gravina, a powerful local figure flanked perennially by a pair of bodyguards and married to his niece. After Gravina warned McGinniss not to publish anything about what he had discovered and told him he’d make sure that he never came back to Italy, he started pushing the writer around. McGinniss countered with his own abuse: “You believe DHEA will help your cock to stay hard. What fucking stupidity! You shit! You Southerner!” Not surprisingly, relations between the two men are still strained.

In the fall of 1997, McGinniss referred to the slow construction of Gravina’s new stadium in an article in the London Sunday Telegraph Magazine. Despite an 11 billion lira ($6.5 million) subsidy contributed by the National Football Federation for the dual purpose of making the club more competitive and refurbishing the venue, the team had made no remarkable acquisitions in the off-season and still had no place to play.

“For the foreseeable future, the Lilliputians would be banished from Lilliput and would be forced to play their matches at a distance in front of an uncaring public,” McGinniss wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. “This didn’t augur well, nor did the fact that [club owner Pietro] Rezza and Gravina had apparently taken the multi-million pound bonus they had received for promotion and were widely believed to have salted it away for future private uses, which eventually came to include the expansion of a water-bottling plant, a shoe factory, and the incorporation of a bank.”

According to McGinniss, a friend of Gravina’s saw the article in Scotland and sent it him. “He claimed that I had defamed him,” McGinniss told Salon Books. “But he couldn’t be defamed if no one knew about it. The article appeared in Britain, not Italy! As it stood, he was walking around with this defamation privately.” But Gravina went public, McGinniss says, by posting translated copies of the article all around Sulmona, the provincial county seat where he lives. “He called his friends and told them about it. He put up posters near, you know, Johnny’s Barbershop.”

In a few months, the mail brought McGinniss an Italian writ charging him with libel. “It was in a beaten old envelope with stamps all over it. A lot of the letter was in handwriting. I could barely make it out in any language, let alone Italian.” Through a Florentine friend, he arranged to have a local lawyer defend him last December; a couple of months later, the lawyer billed him $10,000 for out-of-pocket expenses. “He sent me two faxes,” McGinniss says. “I was asking myself, How much could fax paper cost in Sulmona?”

Despite Gravina’s threats and the libel charge, McGinniss has returned to Italy unharmed, most recently in February. “Gravina told some people that the most he can do is keep me out of the stadium,” McGinniss says. “But I’ve written him a few times. [Italian soccer great Roberto] Baggio was playing there, and I asked Gravina for tickets. He never responded. I also sent him a card this Easter, letting him know that it was the season of joy. He didn’t respond to that, either.”

The club had a terrible showing this year, but McGinniss’ faith isn’t shaken: There’s always next season.

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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