Pro Castel di Sangro Calcio (previously known as Castel di Sangro Calcio) is a football club from Castel di Sangro in the Province of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Their moment of greatness came in 1996, when they were promoted to Serie B, a noteworthy accomplishment for a team coming from a town of only 5,500 residents. Even greater, they were able to survive in that league another year. The story of their first season in Serie B is chronicled in the book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss. The team played at the 7,220 seat Teofilo Patini stadium in Castel di Sangro. The team's colours are red and yellow.
It took them thirty years to earn a promotion to Seconda Categoria, but they did so in 1983, but the jump up a league meant they needed money for league fees, player stipends, and better equipment, and they had none. Their savior came in the form of Pietro Rezza, a southerner from the region of Puglia who married into one of the town's wealthiest families and left the operation of the team to his niece's husband, Gabriele Gravina.
Their second promotion to Prima Categoria came a scant two years later. At this point, it no longer was possible to remain competitive by fielding a team composed solely of local talent and although they were still not professional, Gravina "hired" players from out of town to work in local jobs and play for the team. As such, they quickly moved up the ranks, and by 1989 they reached the professional ranks of Serie C2.
The difference between C1 and C2 is vast. C2 may be professional, but it is barely so, and the teams are generally from small towns. Still, it was mind-boggling that a team from tiny Castel di Sangro deep in the hinterlands of the Abruzzo not only made it there but lasted seven years. For them to get to C1 was inconceivable, for C1 contained truly professional teams, some of whom had even been in Serie A at one point (Ascoli had been there in 1990, and Lecce in 1993; both would later return to Serie A).
Naturally, expectations were low. Simply staying in C1 itself would have been quite an accomplishment, but Jaconi outperformed far beyond that; that season they finished second, meaning they qualified for the playoffs to determine promotion to Serie B. Their first playoff was a two-legged match against nearby Gualdo. They lost the first match 1–0 on the road. At home, it looked as if the match would end in a scoreless tie (meaning that Castel di Sangro would lose on the aggregate score), when Jaconi made a seemingly bizarre substitution. With only fifteen seconds or so left, he sent in a defender who had played in only seven games the entire season. His maneuver worked to perfection: He scored seven seconds after that. Castel di Sangro thus advanced, having finished higher in the standings than fifth-place Gualdo.
The second playoff was a single match against Ascoli, to whom they had lost twice during the season. Ninety minutes went by without a goal, then thirty minutes more of overtime, still without a score, and it was up to a penalty shootout to decide the victor. One minute before the end of overtime, Jaconi had made another inexplicable substitution: He sent in Pietro Spinosa, a goalkeeper who had not played a single minute that season. As the shootout progressed, neither side missed, until the eighth round, when Spinosa made a seemingly impossible save, securing the victory — and promotion — for his team. This was the "Miracle of Castel di Sangro".
Having been in the lower leagues, the team was forced to upgrade their stadium in accordance with Serie B regulations, and as construction hadn't finished by the beginning of the season, they played their first several home matches in nearby Chieti. After months of delays, when it finally did open in December, the severe winter weather and poor fertilizer made the pitch unplayable, causing their first fixture there to be called off. Later that month two of their star players, Danilo di Vincenzo and Pippo Biondi, died in a car crash.
At the beginning of 1997, another player, Gigi Prete, was arrested for drug dealing. His wife had been caught smuggling in cocaine from Chile. Gravina, was also arrested in conjunction. All charges were eventually dropped.
It looked like they were going to get some help in the form of Joseph Addo, who had just left FSV Frankfurt of the German Bundesliga. He was also captain of the Ghana national football team, which had made the semifinals in the 1996 Summer Olympics. However, Jaconi refused to sign the contract and Addo went on to Sparta Rotterdam of the Eredivisie.
Following this, Gravina announced the team was to sign a Nigerian player from Leicester City F.C. of the FA Premier League named Robert Ponnick. Being the first Premiership player to play in Serie B, the press crowded his debut in an exhibition match. The match was a disaster, with Ponnick showing almost no sense of understanding football and getting into a fight with one of his team-mates. At the end, it was revealed that the opposing team was an acting troupe and he was one of its members. The whole charade had been cooked up by Gravina in order to generate publicity. As might be expected, it worked, but all of the press was sharply negative.
Throughout the turmoil, the team was near the bottom of the standings, and only monumental performances by goalkeeper Massimo Lotti as well as critical goals by Claudio Bonomi and Gionatha Spinesi (obtained on loan from Inter Milan) kept them from falling to the bottom. In the second-to-last game, they scored a 2–1 victory over Pescara to keep from being relegated, and the miracle continued.
The first year back in Serie C1, however, saw some success in the 1999 Coppa Italia, where they were able to defeat Serie A teams Perugia and Salernitana before losing to Inter Milan in the quarterfinals.
Since then, they have not done nearly as well, falling back down to Serie C2 and then being cancelled from Italian football in 2005. Out of its ashes a new club was formed, called Pro Castel Di Sangro.
Both Bonomi and Spinesi eventually made their way to Serie A teams, and Bonomi was the first ex-Castel di Sangro player to score in Serie A.