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How Gabriele Gravina led Miracle of Castel di Sangro and is now battling Italy’s coronavirus crisis

Gabriele Gravina, like most at the top of football’s governing bodies, needs a miracle. The coronavirus crisis has decimated the sporting calendar and nowhere more than in Italy.

COVID-19 has hit the country harder than any other in the world and amid a brutal lockdown, Gravina, as the Italian FA’s president, has been tasked with finding a way of organising the rest of the season.

It is a complicated process and Gravina has been honest in recent days, admitting the season might now stretch until August. It seems a herculean task to resolve the situation.

Luckily, then, for Gravina, that he knows plenty about miracles. 

This is the man who oversaw arguably the most sensational rise in football history over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Gravina was there for it all – a genuine sporting miracle. This is, as author Joe McGinniss titled it in his brilliant book, the Miracle of Castel di Sangro. 

Castel di Sangro Calcio began as all good footballing stories do – with a ball made out of socks tied up with twine.

The village of Castel di Sangro is a city of just 6,491 people in Abruzzo, central Italy. It is situated in a valley with mountains surrounding it and is now best known for the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta.

During World War II, though, it was heavily damaged and in a bid to keep up spirits, a priest called Don Arbete organised a football team using that aforementioned ball.

While they won their first ever match, against a neighbouring village, they joined the lowest league in Italy when they formalised the side in 1953 – the Terza Categoria, an amateur league.

They played for 30 years without troubling the higher divisions. But in 1983, they were promoted to the Seconda Categoria. The issue was that they now needed funding to pay for league fees, wages and improve their facilities.

First came Pietro Rezza. He had moved to the region after marrying into one of the town’s wealthier families. Then he turned to his niece’s husband – Gravina. Gravina was left in charge of the team’s operations.

Castel di Sangro flew. They were promoted to the Prima Categoria in 1985 and then started bringing in players by offering them work in local jobs, making them available to the team.

By 1989, the ridiculous had become reality. They earned promotion to Serie C2 and therefore became a professional side. Few saw the journey going much further.

That absolutely seemed to be the case in their first season in C2. Early on, they looked likely to go down before Gravina hired Osvaldo Jaconi. Jaconi would become something of a lower-league specialist and holds the record in Italy for the most promotions. He stabilised them and led them to seventh that campaign. 

Then he somehow took them up another division, into Serie C1, where they were met with the relative might of the likes of Ascoli and Lecce.

Few expected anything from them. Survival would have been more than an achievement. 

Jaconi, though, demonstrated his nous for the first time in his coaching career. Over the course of the campaign, they would finish second, qualifying for the promotion play-offs.

They faced Gualdo, losing the first leg on the road. At home, the match was level in the final minutes. Jaconi, bizarrely, brought on a defender who had barely played all season.

Yet seven seconds after he arrived on the pitch, the substitute justified his manager’s faith. The draw on aggregate meant Castel reached the final as they had finished higher in the league than Gualdo.

The final was against Ascoli, who had been in Serie A in 1990. The scores were again level and stayed that way through normal and extra-time. Then Jaconi sent on goalkeeper Pietro Spinosa, who had not played a single minute all season.

Neither team missed for their first seven penalties. Castel scored their eighth. Ascoli’s man stepped up, fired towards the top corner and Spinosa dived across, making a sensational stop to send his team up.

The players went wild. They had, somehow, reached Serie B.

McGinniss’ book covers that following season, their first in Serie B. Now it was genuinely huge sides they were competing with, big names like Torino and Genoa. 

That campaign was full of strife – with Gravina occasionally at the centre of it.

A serious issue was the ground, the Stadio Teofilo Patini, which needed a serious upgrade to comply with new regulations. It was not ready for the start of the campaign, which meant they had to play their home games in Chieti.

When the ground did eventually open in December, the weather and an issue with the fertiliser meant the pitch was in an awful state and Castel had to call off their first fixture there.

There was tragedy as players Danilo Di Vincenzo and Pippo Biondi died in a car crash, while another member of the squad, Gigi Prete, was arrested in connection with a drug-smuggling operation. He was eventually acquitted, but not before being detained for 22 weeks.

Jaconi also made a strange decision. A deal was made for Joseph Addo, the Ghana captain and formerly of Eintracht Frankfurt. Yet the manager refused to sign him.  

Gravina had a new plan. He announced to the media that they would be signing a Nigerian player called Robert Ponnick from Leicester City. Ponnick gave a press conference in which he said he would singlehandedly lead his club to the top flight.

The press gathered for his debut, which was to take place in a friendly. Ponnick would be the first Premier League player to move to Serie B, making it a big occasion.

But Ponnick was awful, seemingly did not know how to play football and ended up fighting with another member of the Castel squad. He also stole the referee’s red card and tried to send off the match officials.

When the match was over, it was revealed that the opposition had been actors. Ponnick was not a player – but a member of their troupe. Gravina had put it all together to generate publicity.

It seemingly backfired. The press coverage was hugely negative and there was a backlash.

Yet, to an extent, it ended up saving them. The attention meant they brought in more money, which allowed them to sign Gionatha Spinesi, who was an up and coming young player at Inter Milan.

Spinesi would go on to earn eight caps for Italy’s Under 21s, scoring five goals, but first he helped Castel stay up. Along with goalkeeper Massimo Lotti, he starred towards the end of the season.

In the second to last match, a dramatic game saw them manage a 2-1 win over Pescara. Mathematically, they were safe. The miracle had continued.

Then, the scandal. McGinniss embedded himself with the side and claimed that he overheard a conversation between the players ahead of the final game of the season.

They were taking on Bari. Bari were on course for promotion to Serie A but needed a win to confirm it.

The conversation McGinniss listened in to explained that Bari would be allowed to score three goals. Castel would get a consolation back from a penalty. An unnamed player in the book explained Castel were never likely to win anyway, given the toll of staying in Serie B.

Bari would end up winning the game 3-1 and as planned, Castel scored from a penalty.

In 2018, a programme on Italian television channel La7 featured further claims that the game was fixed.

Luca Albieri, who played for the side, said: ‘The order that came down directly from the club caused us a lot of problems.

‘Going to play 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 was a week building up to it that was not done as professionals, as a serious team that we should’ve 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 realised in the locker room on Saturday morning during the training session, they said it’d 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! 

‘He said: “I’ll leave you 300 (lira), you split it up between yourselves based on who played and who did what.”

On that sour note, the miracle was over. A year later, Castel were relegated and Jacomi was sacked. The club has been reformed since yet has never troubled the upper reaches of Italian football again.

Gravina was never negatively impacted by what went on at Castel. In fact, the rise he oversaw probably helped him. He took charge of the Italian Third Division in 2015 before becoming the president of the Italian FA in October 2018.

Now Gravina has another monumental task on his hands. Sure, Juventus are leading the Serie A table, but Lazio are just a point behind and bidding for their first title in 20 years.

There are solutions to be found and problems to be solved. It will take a lot of planning on the 66-year-old’s part to find a positive outcome. 

He has already shown creating thinking by suggesting the season could be played in July or August and refused to just hand the title to Juventus.

Still, this could just be meat and drink for a man who, in his life, has already turned water into wine.

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