Castel di Sangro is a tiny town situated in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and has a population of around 6,000 people. In the mid 1990’s, the townsfolk and supporters of A.S.D Castel di Sangro Calcio experienced a journey which saw them come within touching distance of what was – during that period – the greatest league in the world, Serie A. To put it into perspective, a team whose stadium capacity (7,000) was bigger than their population were just one promotion away from brushing shoulders with legends such as Roberto Baggio and Gabriel Batistuta.
Castel di Sangro’s incredible rise from obscurity even prompted an American writer, Joe McGinniss, to spend an entire season with the club in 1996. While living and eating with the squad on a daily basis he penned his book, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro.
From humble beginnings, the club was founded in 1953 and battled in the regional amateur leagues before reaching the professional ranks of Serie C2 in 1989. This rise was funded by owner Pietro Rezza and club president Gabriele Gravina.
The Giallorossi continued to defy the odds in Serie C2 but it wasn’t until the appointment of experienced manager Osvaldo Jaconi that the ‘miracle’ happened. Jaconi steadied the ship and in the 1994/95 season, he led his side to promotion to Serie C1. Expectations were low given the jump in class from C1 to C2, but Il Giallorossi took the division by storm and finished second.
This secured the Sangrini a spot in the play-offs and after squeezing past Gualdo in the semi-finals, Jaconi’s men found former Serie A side, Ascoli, between them and a place in Serie B. The game was a tedious affair and after 120 minutes passed without a goal, a penalty shoot-out was beckoning. However, Jaconi had a trick up his sleeve. As extra-time ebbed towards its conclusion, he brought on substitute goalkeeper Pietro Spinosa. Spinosa went onto to save the decisive spot kick and promotion was secured in the most dramatic of circumstances. The substitution proved to be a Jaconi masterstroke, although at the time it was considered a moment of madness, especially given Spinosa had not seen one minute of playing time all season.
This amazing story continued throughout their debut season in Serie B. Events off the field, however, threatened to conspire against them. For the first-half of the season they had to play their home games in Chieti (a mere 64 km away) while their ground, Lo Stadio Teofilo Patini underwent major work to bring it up to Serie B standards. Then tragedy struck as two players, Danilo di Vincenzo and Pippo Biondi, died in a car crash. The saying goes ‘bad luck come in threes’ and shortly afterwards defender Gigi Prete was arrested in connection with a drug smuggling ring. The defender was later cleared however it goes without saying these tribulations made Castel di Sangro’s survival mission that much harder.
Thankfully, amidst all this, some football was played and it was on the field that the Giallorossi excelled. Against the odds, they won 12 games that season, beating some established and historic teams like Torino and Genoa. A 2-1 victory in the penultimate game of the season guaranteed the unlikeliest of survivals and the ‘miracle’ was complete.
For anyone who has read the book, Joe McGinniss, is left scandalised by the controversial fashion in which the season ends. During the team’s trip to Bari for the last game of the season, the American author overhears players discussing the logistics of letting the opposition win 3-1, with Castel scoring a penalty. Low and behold the final score was 3-1 to Bari, and Castel did indeed score from the penalty spot.
After the accomplishment of staying in Serie B, the following season sawCastello come crashing back down to reality. Players were sold, Jaconi was sacked and the team inevitably failed to live up to the highs of their magical debut in Serie B. Second season syndrome hit the club hard and they were relegated back to Serie C1. Although it was short lived, their return to Serie C1 wasn’t all doom and gloom after the club defeated Serie A sides Perugia and Salernitana in the Coppa Italia, earning them a glamorous quarter-final against Inter. But that was as good as it got for the Giallorossi and after dropping back into Serie C2, Castel di Sangro Calcio eventually folded in 2005 due to financial problems.
That same year, the club reformed as Pro Castel di Sangro and started life in the Promozione level of Italian football, or the sixth tier of the league system. The club endured promotion and relegation under its new guise but once again their story had an unhappy ending after they failed to register a team for the forthcoming season in 2012. Over sixty years of history and tradition had gone and it appeared no football club would be associated with this picturesque town, encircled by the Apennine Mountains.
Luckily though, as one club perished a new one rose from the ashes. Castello 2000 were formed during the same year Pro Castel folded and they currently ply their trade in Girone Abruzzese B. It’s a long way from the dizzy heights of Serie B and the ‘miracle’ that was Castel di Sangro but the footballing tradition lives on in this remote town. That can perhaps be considered a mini ‘miracle’ in itself.