I will be in Frisco, Tex., in October for the NASL 50th anniversary event and I’m planning to play in the NASL Legends game. I’m still pretty fit, playing in a league a couple of times a week up here in Toronto. I play a lot of golf, but also play soccer … indoors and outdoors.
I has been nearly 18 years since the noted author Joe McGinnis published his tale about a minor-league team in Italy that turned into the book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro. By sheer coincidence Carmine Marcantonio knows the story … and the town in the Province of L’Aquila, in Abruzzo in central Italy quite well.
Marcantonio — who played in the NASL for Toronto Metros-Croatia, the Washington Diplomats, the Montreal Manic and the New York Cosmos — was born in Castel di Sangro (population, about 6,500) and emigrated with his family to Toronto when he was 14, in 1968.
“Of course I’ve read the book, I still have a few copies,” Marcantonio said. “There is some truth to what’s in the book and some exaggeration. Everyone knows there’s a bit of match-fixing that goes on there. It’s part of the culture. Hey, the guy had to sell books. It’s funny, because I was recently talking about it with Bill [Bill Manning, the president of Toronto FC].
“It was a miracle that a small town went all the way to second division, there was a great astonishment about it. My cousin is deputy mayor in the town and we talked about it when I was there in January. He knows the owners.”
In 1976, Marcantonio was part of the Metro-Croatia squad that won the NASL championship. The team’s title was recognized by Toronto FC in 2016 when Manning helped organize a tribute to the team and the players.
“Up until TFC winning the MLS championship, Metros-Croatia was the last time the city had a champion other than the Blue Jays,” Marcantonio said. “Bill had guys flying over from Croatia. It was the 40th anniversary and they had the guys introduced at halftime. I feel like all the NASL players were pioneers. The reason MLS is becoming a top-notch league in North America, if not the world, is because of those days.”
On June 18, 1976, Marcantonio was preparing for only his second or third game with Metros-Croatia, a match at Yankee Stadium against the New York Cosmos, Pelé and the newly signed Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia.
“That game sticks out because of the guys on the other side of the field,” Marcantonio said. “I think it was Giorgio’s first game since coming over from Lazio and we talked before the game. I remember it all so vividly because I was a 21-year-old kid and Pelé was on the same field. It was every soccer kid’s dream at the time.”
After being out of the NASL in 1977, Marcantonio signed on with the Diplomats in 1978, playing 65 games with Washington through 1980 — and that’s the year that sticks out the most for Marcantonio.
“In 1979, Sonny Werblin and Madison Square Garden took over the team,” he said. “Werblin knew he needed a big star in Washington to make a difference. So he went out and got Johan Cruyff from Los Angeles. Johan was so advanced for that time. We went on a streak, he and I became close friends and from a career standpoint, that was my best year as a footballer. I learned quite a bit from him, it was the kind of soccer I preach one still love to follow. That type of total football.”