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The incredible story of Robert Ponnick: How an ambitious Serie B owner pulled off football’s greatest stunt by signing a Premier League ‘goal machine’ to save his club from relegation… but all was not as it seemed


The incredible story of Italian team Castel di Sangro and their rise from local football to Serie B ranks among football’s greatest miracles.

Their journey, chronicled by the American writer Joe McGinniss, also ranks among the best works of football literature.

But one particular chapter, above all else, stands out as truly stranger than fiction – the bizarre cameo of Robert ‘Raku’ Ponnick.

It’s the autumn of 1996 and Castel di Sangro – the miracle-workers from the tiny Abruzzo town of only 5,500 residents – are at their zenith.

In just over a decade, they have soared from the Seconda Categoria of the Abruzzo regional league through six promotions – each more unlikely than the last – to the second tier of the Italian game.

The footballer Robert Raku Ponnick shows off his physique at his Castel di Sangro unveiling

The footballer Robert Raku Ponnick shows off his physique at his Castel di Sangro unveiling

Castel di Sangro, from a tiny hillside Abruzzo town, were Italy's miracle team of the 1990s

Castel di Sangro, from a tiny hillside Abruzzo town, were Italy’s miracle team of the 1990s

As recorded by McGinniss, this modest team had achieved too much, too quickly.

Their tiny Stadio Teofilo Patini required a serious upgrade to comply with Serie B regulations and these took almost half the season to complete.

There was tragedy when players Danilo Di Vincenzo and Pippo Bondi died in a car crash. Defender Pierluigi Prete was wrongly imprisoned for 22 weeks in connection with an international cocaine smuggling operation before being acquitted.

Poor results left them facing an inevitable relegation struggle and that is when their president Gabriele Gravina, who would later lead the Italian Football Federation, thought a little stunt was in order.

The extraordinary story of Castel di Sangro's time in Serie B was recored by the American author Joe McGinniss

The extraordinary story of Castel di Sangro’s time in Serie B was recored by the American author Joe McGinniss 

One Wednesday, the local newspaper Il Centro published a sensational story. Little Castel di Sangro had signed the Nigerian striker Ponnick from English Premiership club Leicester City and he would be unveiled at a specially-arranged friendly the next day.

Amid the tumult that spread around the town, nobody stopped to consider the crippling cost of such a signing or why, indeed, a player like Ponnick might come to such a remote place.

Naturally, fans and journalists scrambled around for information about Ponnick in these pre-internet days but it proved thin on the ground. No matter, he would tell all at a press conference that night.

The Italian news agency ANSA broadcast the Ponnick news far and wide and all the nation’s media – already enchanted by Castel di Sangro’s miracle rise from obscurity – flocked there.

Ponnick was to be the first player to move from the English Premiership to Italian football since the great Paul Gascoigne joined Lazio in 1992 – and would be the first to play in Serie B.

Wearing club colours, Ponnick walked out before the hordes of assembled media alongside Gravina and a translator for the English-speaking signing. The new boy didn’t seem to lack confidence.

‘I know I come late to the season but still I will score the most goals in this league,’ Ponnick boasted, as recounted by McGinnis in his book.

Members of the squad training at the Stadio Teofilo Patini in the tiny town of Castel di Sangro

Members of the squad training at the Stadio Teofilo Patini in the tiny town of Castel di Sangro

Goalmouth action involving Castel during their staggering rise up the divisions in the 1990s

Goalmouth action involving Castel during their staggering rise up the divisions in the 1990s

‘I have seen this Serie B and I am so far superior, it will be a joke. I will score the most goals that anyone has ever scored in Serie B.’

Asked if his goals could keep Castel di Sangro up, Ponnick scoffed: ‘You mean stayin’ in this rinky-dink Serie B division? Shee-it. Forget that, my man. That be negative thinkin’.

‘We’re going to Serie A! This year, no question… Now that I’m here, Castel di Sangro is a Serie A team. There’s no one who can stop me.’

Continuing his monologue and leaving the translator in the dust, Ponnick proceeded to leave jaws on the floor.

‘I got to warn the people of this Castel whatever-dever. If you value your women, keep ’em inside. ‘Cause if they be sweet-lookin’, I’m gonna f**k ’em. And I don’t care who they are.

‘I don’t care whose daughter, I don’t care whose wife. To score my goals, I need my p***y. And I tell you right now, I got the biggest d**k in Italy.

‘So get ready, ladies, get ready. Your magic moment and magic man have arrived. Robert Raku Ponnick will rake you over the coals and entertain you like you never been entertained before. And I mean on and off the pitch.’

As the TV broadcasters scrambled to cut Ponnick’s microphone, the whole place exploded into tumult.

An aerial shot of Castro di Sangro's modest home in the 1990s, the Stadio Teofilo Patini

An aerial shot of Castro di Sangro’s modest home in the 1990s, the Stadio Teofilo Patini

This ramshackle stadium, surrounded by mountains, witnessed a true footballing miracle

This ramshackle stadium, surrounded by mountains, witnessed a true footballing miracle

The following day, 5,000 people crammed into a stadium that only held 3,000 for the hastily-arranged friendly against amateur opponents in which Ponnick would show he was god’s gift to football.

After being welcomed with a standing ovation, it soon became apparent that Ponnick didn’t care much for tactics and wasn’t afraid to foul his own team-mates to get the ball.

The book 'The Miracle of Castel di Sangro' is a classic of football writing

The book ‘The Miracle of Castel di Sangro’ is a classic of football writing 

His long limbs often tripped him up and one shot missed the goal by 30 yards.

When Ponnick won a soft penalty, he shunned the regular kick taker and demanded the ball, leading to a wrestling match. Coach Osvaldo Jaconi had to intervene.

Stepping up to take the penalty, Ponnick bizarrely tried to move the ball six inches to the left of the spot. Was he arrogantly disobeying the rules of football, or did he simply not know them?

Running up, Ponnick then collapsed to the ground and feigned an injury. Just as the medical team reached him and with the opposition goalkeeper distracted, he leapt up and shot into an empty net before bounding off in celebration.

After the referee shouted ‘no goal, no goal’, Ponnick grabbed his red card and waved it in his face before an ugly fracas ensued.

Sent for an early bath, Ponnick responded to jeering fans by giving them the middle finger. In return, he was pelted with bottles.

It was at that moment the opposition assembled into a curtain call line and applauded the crowd before the lead actor – Ponnick – sauntered back out from the dressing room.

The public address announcer asked those gathered to show appreciation for the ‘performance’ of the Guastafeste Professional Acting Troupe.

It transpired that Ponnick was an actor from London hired as part of a big prank

It transpired that Ponnick was an actor from London hired as part of a big prank 

The acting troupe from Mediaset show Guastafeste salute the crowd after the staged match

The acting troupe from Mediaset show Guastafeste salute the crowd after the staged match

A close-up of the Castel di Sangro kit, sponsored by 'Soviet Jeans', during their 90s heyday

A close-up of the Castel di Sangro kit, sponsored by ‘Soviet Jeans’, during their 90s heyday 

What they’d witnessed was all a show and Ponnick was a mere actor, hired from London, not their footballing saviour. 

To complete the charade, the fake referee pulled down his shorts and mooned the baffled crowd, who didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It transpired the Castel di Sangro players were reluctantly in on the whole scam, which had been devised by Gravina to ensure maximum press and publicity across all of Italy.

Guastafeste was a comedy programme on the Mediaset network and the joke was on the whole country. 

The reaction was not good at all. ANSA were furious at having their reputation for accuracy trashed. The prestigious sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport accused Gravina of treating the club as a personal ‘plaything.’

One paper summed it up as a ‘boorish, vulgar mistake’, another a ‘huge blunder’. In the end, Gravina had to come clean and apologise for his actions.

But ultimately the con worked. The press attention brought in more money, which allowed the club to sign Gionatha Spinesi, an up-and-coming player at Inter Milan.

The controversy caused by Castel president Gabriele Gravina didn't affect his career - he is now head of the Italian Football Federation

The controversy caused by Castel president Gabriele Gravina didn’t affect his career – he is now head of the Italian Football Federation

Gravina with the actor playing Ponnick on the Guastafeste studio set back in 1996

Gravina with the actor playing Ponnick on the Guastafeste studio set back in 1996 

He helped them achieve another miracle by staying up in Serie B, secured with a dramatic 2-1 win over Pescara in the penultimate game.

Of course, Castel di Sangro couldn’t fight gravity forever. They finished last in 1997-98 and by 2005 the club had to be wound up because of financial issues.

There was also a match-fixing scandal over the final game in 1998, when the players were allegedly ordered to lose 3-1 to promotion-chasing Bari.

Castel di Sangro reformed and now play at the fifth level of Italian football. None of this affected Gravina, who became Italian FA president in October 2018 and remains in post.



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