Joe McGinniss, who died on Monday at 71, wrote about politics and scandal and hypocrisy. In his foray into Italian soccer, he found himself at that very same intersection.
In his 1999 book, “The Miracle of Castel di Sangro,” he was living in a small hill city in the Abruzzo, getting to know the players. Then he watched them blunder away a final game that allowed the team from nearby Bari to advance into Serie A. Soon he accused some of the players of throwing the game, comparing them to the Red Brigade of the ‘70’s.
“Tu non sei costretto a parlare,” one key player said. You don’t have to speak.
This was revolutionary stuff in 1999. Seven years later, the world discovered that major teams in Serie A were leaning on referees and some players were gambling on their sport. Joe was not surprised. By that time, he was back in Massa-chusetts. The beautiful game was much like the rest of life.
We had one thing in common – awe of Roberto Baggio, the wispy pigtailed Buddhist genius, who created beautiful moments, from nothing.
“Other than my sons, he's the only man I've ever truly loved,” McGinniss wrote in an e-mail.
We never met. I remember seeing a very young sportswriter with a lean and hungry look, working for the Bulletin (“In Philadelphia nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.” But not anymore, inasmuch as that paper is long defunct.)
He soon wrote “The Selling of the President,” about the Nixon campaign of 1968, and later “Fatal Vision,” about the conviction of an army doctor for killing his pregnant wife and two children.
Janet Malcolm and others have accused McGinniss of misleading the doctor by professing to believe him to keep his access. I have never fully understood that. As a reporter, I have sat and listened to politicians, business people, sports officials, religious leaders and entertainers tell me all kinds of stupidità, and usually I kept a straight face, The trick is to keep them talking.
McGinniss and I never discussed that, or his time in Alaska, living next door to the Palins. I was jealous that he had lived in the Abruzzo. I’ve got dozens of his e-mails, deploring the gun culture in America or bad soccer on the tube, but he never bemoaned his wretched medical luck – inoperable prostate cancer, 14 months ago.
“Welcome to the Hotel Carcinoma," he wrote last year. He could not hang in there for the World Cup – Pirlo and Buffon and Balotelli in Brazil. I would have loved to hear his critiques.
Buon lavoro. Buona vita. Riposate in pace.
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.