A half an hour drive away from the city of Florence, Empoli has struggled to make a name for itself outside of italy as the club is not known to many non-serie a followers. But once, the team was not just a team of professional players, but also a team that gave up their dream of playing in the top tier division to join armed forces and helped their nation in winning many strategic battles during World War II, a decision of utmost sacrifice. This is the untold story of Empoli FC.
Empoli is a small municipal town of the Tuscan region of Italy. It lies in between the Florence-Pisa route, approximately 30 minutes away from both the cities. Just like the other two cities, even Empoli is widely renowned for its culture, inventions and its contribution in the Renaissance movement in Europe. Infact, Empoli is famous for glasswares and the people of Empoli are known to have created the first ever “Long neck green vasses,flasks and gennie bottles”. Having a population of little over 50,000 , the town is often considered as a “Big Family”, as the citizens here are very generous and helpful. But when it comes to football, Empoli does not have a lot of silverware to boast like the other two rivals, Fiorentina and Pisa.
After seeing Pisa SC dominating the Tuscan region for a few years, citizens of Empoli were finally given the privilege of their own local club, as Empoli FC was finally founded in 1920, making the team part of a select group of Italian football clubs that do not belong to a provincial capital city that have participated in the top-flight. The next season, they were offered a chance to play in the regional top division after getting affiliation but did not take part due to economic problems. Instead, they chose to join “Terza Categoria” , which is the ninth and the lowest level in the Italian league football system. Finally, after spending a few seasons in lower divisions, they finally got the promotion to play in the top division in the 1928-29 season. Unfortunately, they refused the invitation once again because of the ongoing economical crisis. Empoli FC dedicating the next few years to improving their financial condition and trying to build a team that can actually challenge for promotion. Soon, the club became financially stable. When promotion was finally looking closer than ever in the 1935-36 season, the club was left with a conundrum: whether to keep playing for promotion or join arms in World War II, a choice that could affect the club’s history forever. The dream of the citizens of Empoli to watch their club play in top division had to wait once again, as the club withdrew halfway through the season because of the call to arms for many of its players. Most of the squad members went on to represent Italy in war as they were deployed on various fronts in war against various African nations and also during the battles of Pre World War II. Some of them even engaged in strategic battles,helping Italy win against neighbouring as well as African nations. Few weeks back, these were ordinary players who were winning games on the pitch. Now, they were fighting on various fronts in a war. After months of service, the players were welcomed back to the town with the banners of “War Heroes”. One of them was a player that went on to become the greatest player and an Empoli legend, Carlo Castellani.
Carlo Castellani was born in Fibbiana, a nearby town of Empoli. He played his majority of career at Empoli FC for 9 years. He went on to score 61 goals in 145 matches for Empoli across his two spells at the club, making him their highest scoring player until 2011, when he was overtaken by Francesco Tavano. Even after retiring from football in 1940, he continued to support Empoli financially, helping the club out in multiple occasions during their economical crisis. Carlo’s life was full of hardships and sacrifices. His father was a socialist and vocal critic of Benito Mussolini and fascism. As a result, there were strikes at a nearby glass factory and
the occupying German forces looked to arrest his father. As his father was ill at the time, Castellani sacrificed himself and volunteered to go in his father’s place in the belief that he would be sent to a nearby barracks where he could explain the situation. To his surprise, Castellani was instead taken to the railway station in Florence from where he was forcefully deported to Gusen concentration camp, Austria. While Empoli were playing a friendly match, a heartbreaking news came near around the halftime that they wished should have never happened. After bearing torture for a while and suffering from continuous Dysentery, Carlo died on 11 August, 1944 in the Nazi camp. He was just 35 years old at the time of his death.
Fans and the club itself, have not forgotten the sacrifices of their players. In 1965, Empoli named their newly-built stadium Stadio Carlo Castellani, in the memory of their club legend making it one of the most unique stadium that was named after a victim of concentration camps. Empoli FC’s home jersey is mainly of solid blue colour with white accents at the sleeve cuffs and collar. It also has a subtle lion graphic print on the front in a darker shade of blue, alluding to the difficult journey the club has endured with utmost bravery. Empoli’s crest is also of dark blue coloured, with EFC written with white in a very artistic way, giving them the nickname of Gli Azzuri or The Blues. The club has managed to stay true to their Tuscan roots even in the modern times. Infact, Empoli FC is the only Tuscan club that is still owned by a Tuscan firm. Even though they have faced financial problems many times, it remains the only Tuscan club that has never went bankrupt in their entire history.
In 1986, this small town club was finally promoted to Serie A for the first time, ending their 66 years of wait. This achievement was followed by a massive celebration, as the fans painted the streets of the town “blue” . Managers like Luciano Spaletti (Napoli manager) and Maurizio Saari (Lazio manager) have managed the club in past. 21st Century has been quite lucky for the club as they won Serie B thrice with the most recent one being the last season’s, under the management of Dionisi, who is now the manager of Sassoulo. Empoli FC has also played in the UEFA Cup in 2007-08 season.
One of the most impressive things about Empoli is their youth academy. The club is one of the best in Italy, when it comes to promoting youth prospects. Empoli FC won the last season’s ‘Primavera’ (U-21) scudetto, defeating the likes of Atalanta, Inter and Juventus. Also, the club won U-16 scudetto few years back. As we speak, there are more than 85 professional players playing in Italy that are the graduates of Empoli FC. Some of the most notable graduates in the past are Italian legend Antonio Di Natale, Roma legend Montella, Lazio defender Hysaj and Juventus defender Daniele Rugani. This year, Empoli has been incredible under the management of Aurelio Andreazzoli. Empoli FC has been punching above their weights (considering they just got promoted to Serie A), defeating Juventus and Napoli, both by 1-0. Also, they won the explosive Tuscan Derby against local rivals Fiorentina by 2-1. Andrea Pinamonti is one of those players who has been flourishing under Andreazzoli, scoring 9 league goals and assisting once. Empoli currently sits on 13th in Serie A, 9 points away from relegation.
Tonight, they will be hosting Juventus at their home. If they keep grinding results, Empoli can aim for a comfortable Top-10 finish. They need to stay in the Serie A for as long as they can, so they can keep improving their brand image and keep earning the respect that they never got for their fair share not just in the Italian football history, but also in the World War history. They need to stay in the Serie A for as long as they can and keep doing what they are best at: serving their ‘family’.