How Gabriele Gravina led Miracle of Castel di Sangro and now fights the corona virus crisis in Italy
Gabriele Gravina, like most at the top of the football boards, needs a miracle. The coronavirus crisis has decimated the sports calendar and nowhere more than in Italy.
COVID-19 has hit the country harder than any other in the world, and amid a relentless closure, Gravina, as president of the Italian FA, has been tasked with finding a way to organize the rest of the season.
It’s a complicated process, and Gravina has been honest in recent days, admitting the season can now last through August. It seems like a huge task to resolve the situation.
The Castel di Sangro story of the 1980s and 1990s is one of the greatest marvels of football
Gabriele Gravina, the man who oversaw it, now works as the president of the Italian FA
The now 66-year-old posed alongside FIFA President Gianni Infantino (left) in October 2018
Fortunately for Gravina, he knows a lot about miracles.
This is the man who arguably accompanied the most sensational rise in football history during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Gravina was there for everything – a real sports wonder. This is, as author Joe McGinniss called it in his brilliant book, the miracle of Castel di Sangro.
Castel di Sangro Calcio started like all good football stories do – with a ball made of socks tied with rope.
The village of Castel di Sangro is a town of only 6,491 inhabitants in Abruzzo, central Italy. It is located in a valley with mountains surrounding it and is now best known for the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta.
However, during World War II, it was badly damaged and in an effort to keep the spirits up, a priest named Don Arbete organized a football team using that ball mentioned earlier.
While they won their very first game, against a neighboring village, they joined the lowest league in Italy when they formalized the squad in 1953 – the Terza Categoria, an amateur competition.
The Stadio Teofilo Patini, located in the valley where the city of Castel di Sangro can be found
They played for 30 years without disturbing the higher divisions. But in 1983 they were promoted to the Seconda Categoria. The problem was that they now needed financing to pay the fees and wages and improve their facilities.
First came Pietro Rezza. He had moved to the region after marrying one of the city’s wealthier families. Then he turned to his niece’s husband – Gravina. Gravina was put in charge of the team’s activities.
Castel di Sangro flew. They were promoted to the Prima Categoria in 1985 and then started recruiting players by offering them work in local jobs, making them available to the team.
In 1989 it had become a ridiculous reality. They earned promotion to Serie C2 and thereby became a professional side. Few saw the journey go much further.
Team members train at the Stadio Teofilo Patini in the small town of Castel di Sangro
That seemed to be absolutely the case in their first season in C2. They seemed to drop early on before Gravina Osvaldo hired Jaconi. Jaconi would become something of a lower class specialist and holds the record in Italy for most promotions. He stabilized them and led them to the seventh campaign.
Then somehow he took them into another division, in the Series C1, where they were met with the relative power of people like Ascoli and Lecce.
Few expected anything from them. Survival would have been more than an achievement.
However, Jaconi demonstrated his nous for the first time in his coaching career. They would finish second over the course of the campaign, qualifying for the promotion’s playoffs.
They faced Gualdo and lost the first leg on the road. At home, the match was the same in the last minutes. Bizarrely, Jaconi brought up a defender who had barely played all season.
Goalkeeper Pietro Spinosa makes a wonderful save from a penalty to send Castel
But seven seconds after he arrived on the field, the substitute justified his manager’s confidence. The draw meant that Castel reached the final because they finished higher in the league than Gualdo.
The final was against Ascoli, who had been in Serie A in 1990. The scores were the same again and so continued through the normal and overtime. Jaconi then sent goalkeeper Pietro Spinosa, who had not played a minute all season.
Neither team missed their first seven penalties. Castel scored their eighth. Ascoli’s husband got on, shot to the top corner, and Spinosa dove across, making a sensational stop to send his team.
The players went wild. They had somehow reached Serie B.
McGinniss’s book covers that their next season was their first in Serie B. Now they were really huge parties they competed with, big names like Turin and Genoa.
That campaign was full of struggles – with Gravina in the spotlight from time to time.
A serious problem was the site, the Stadio Teofilo Patini, which needed a serious upgrade to comply with the new regulations. It was not yet ready for the campaign to start, meaning they had to play their home games in Chieti.
When the ground finally opened in December, the weather and a problem with the fertilizer made the field look awful and Castel had to cancel their first game there.
There was a tragedy when players Danilo Di Vincenzo and Pippo Biondi were killed in a car accident while another team member, Gigi Prete, was arrested in connection with a drug smuggling operation. He was eventually acquitted, but not before he was detained for 22 weeks.
Jaconi also made a strange decision. A deal was signed for Joseph Addo, the captain of Ghana and formerly of Eintracht Frankfurt. However, the manager refused to sign him.
A Castel di Sangro player fighting for the ball during their first season in the second division
Gravina had a new plan. He announced to the media that they would sign a Nigerian player named Robert Ponnick from Leicester City. Ponnick gave a press conference in which he said he would lead his club to the top flight with his own hands.
The press gathered for its debut, which was to take place in a friendly match. Ponnick would be the first Premier League player to move to Serie B, making it a great opportunity.
But Ponnick was terrible, seemingly didn’t know how to play football, and ended up fighting another member of the Castel squad. He also stole the referee’s red card and tried to dismiss the game officials.
When the match was over, it appeared that the opposition had been actors. Ponnick was not a player, but a member of their company. Gravina had brought everything together to generate publicity.
Seemingly counterproductive. The press coverage was hugely negative and there was a backlash.
Goalmouth action involving Castel during their dizzying rise in the divisions in the 1990s
But to some extent, it eventually saved them. The attention made them bring in more money, which allowed them to sign Gionatha Spinesi, an emerging young player at Inter Milan.
Spinesi would earn eight caps for Italy’s Under 21s, scoring five goals, but first helped Castel stay up. Together with goalkeeper Massimo Lotti, he played towards the end of the season.
In the penultimate game, they made a dramatic game for a 2-1 victory over Pescara. They were safe mathematically. The miracle had continued.
Then the scandal. McGinniss joined the side, claiming that he heard a conversation between the players prior to the last game of the season.
They took on Bari. Bari was on track for promotion to Serie A, but needed a win to confirm it.
The conversation McGinniss listened to explained that Bari was allowed to score three times. Castel would get some consolation back after a penalty. An unnamed player in the book explained that Castel would never win anyway, given the toll of staying in Serie B.
Bari would eventually win the match 3-1 and as planned Castel scored from a penalty.
In 2018, a program on Italian television channel La7 claimed that the game had been repaired.
Luca Albieri, who played for the game, said: “The order that came directly from the club caused a lot of problems.
Luca Albieri, who played for Castel di Sangro, claimed that the players should lose 3-1 to Bari
“Playing a game knowing we had to lose and lose 3-1 really hurt a group and a coach who had worked well that season.
“It had built up a week that was not done as professionals, as a serious team that we should have been.”
Another player was caught on a hidden camera explaining how the week had gone: ‘The order reached the’ senators’ of the team and then we realized in the locker room on Saturday morning during the training session, they said it would end like this.
“We received a bonus for achieving Serie B safety and another bonus for Bari. At least he was honest and did what he had to do!
He said, ‘I’ll leave you 300 (lira), you split it between you based on who played and who did what. ‘
The miracle was over at that point. Castel was relegated a year later and Jacomi was fired. The club has since been reformed and has never bothered the upper reaches of Italian football again.
Gravina became the head of the Italian Football Federation after being elected in 2018
Gravina was never negatively influenced by what happened in Castel. In fact, the rise he oversaw probably helped him. He took charge of the Italian Third Division in 2015 before becoming President of the Italian FA in October 2018.
Now Gravina still has a monumental task. Sure, Juventus leads the Serie A table, but Lazio is only one point behind and is bidding for his first title in 20 years.
There are solutions and problems to be solved. It will take a lot of planning on the part of the 66-year-old to find a positive result.
He has already shown creative thinking by suggesting the season could be played in July or August and simply declined to hand the title over to Juventus.
Yet this can be just meat and drink for a man who has already turned water into wine in his life.
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Gravina hands over an award for reaching 100 caps to defender Giorgio Chiellini (left)