After nearly a century of football, Empoli FC could achieve in their highest-ever league position once 2015-16 draws to a close. Wins at Udinese, Palermo and Bologna have helped push the Azzurri into the top ten, perhaps matching the seventh-placed finish of 2006-07 – in a weakened Serie A in the immediate aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal.
Now competing against the likes of Juventus, Napoli and Genoa, Empoli seemed to most enjoy the 3-2 pre-Christmas win over Bologna when veteran ex-Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone took a gulp of beer with friends in the crowd after scoring twice in the space of six minutes. With young forward Alessandro Piu and centre-back Federico Barba also breaking into the side, these are cheery times for this modest club from the province of Florence.
Founded in 1920, Empoli have spent most seasons in the third tier. Thanks to goals from pre-war star Carlo Castellani, promotion to the highest division was achieved in 1928-29 – a year after economic problems had denied them the right – but Empoli set a trend for short stints with the big boys.
Castellani had two spells at the club, scoring prolifically in the 1920s. By the outbreak of World War II, though, the goals had dried up and the club had been shut down by the Fascist authorities. Castellani was hauled in as a suspected member of the Resistance and was later taken to the concentration camp at Mauthausen. He never came home.
Reformed and dressed in blue after the war, their stadium named after Castellani, Empoli spent decades in the lower divisions. In 1983, ex-Fiorentina midfielder Vincenzo Guerini arrived on his first full coaching post. With goals from Gianfranco Cinello, Empoli made eighth in Serie B in 1985 before Guerini went to local rivals Pisa. In stepped Gaetano Salvemini, who had played for Empoli in the early 1970s.
Cinello was top scorer again when Empoli gained promotion to Serie A the following season. In 1986-87, their top scorer was later Swedish World Cup star Johnny Ekström – on three out of a grand total of 13. But Empoli survived their first season in Serie A, despite having to play their first home games in Florence.
A five-point penalty, and Empoli were down a year later.
Shortly afterwards, a journeyman midfielder played out the last seasons of his career at Stadio Carlo Castellani: Luciano Spalletti. Joining Empoli for his first coaching post, he took the club from Serie C1 to A in two straight seasons. Working with a limited squad, he kept the Azzurri safe from relegation, before climbing the coaching ladder around Italy then Russia.
After Spalletti, Empoli yo-yo’d between top and second flights, goals coming for five years from Francesco Tavano. Under previously unsung coach Mario Somma, they achieved promotion again in 2005. Tavano stayed to help Empoli to a highest-ever eighth place in 2005-06, Somma replaced by the experienced Luigi Cagni halfway through. Despite Tavano’s departure – for frustrating stints at Valencia and Roma – Empoli performed well again under Cagni in 2006-07 in a weakened Serie A.
With goals from Luca Saudati, the Azzurri achieved a first-ever European place of seventh. The subsequent debut appearance in the UEFA Cup only lasted one round – after beating FC Zürich 2-1 in the home leg – and Empoli were also relegated from Serie A.
Recent seasons have been underlined by a fruitful end-of-career stint by Massimo Maccarone, complemented by Tavano’s successful return, achieving the all-time goalscoring record at the club previously held by Castellani. Now star turn and captain, Maccarone has been spearheading a creditable campaign in 2015-16 – one that just might result in another European place by the end of it.
Built in 1965, on the site of a previous municipal ground that dated back to Empoli’s earliest days, the Stadio Carlo Castellani sits on the viale delle Olimpiadi, just north-east of the town centre by a bend in the Arno. It is named after the pre-war Empoli forward, Carlo Castellani, who died in a concentration camp in 1944.
Somewhat showing its age, still with temporary stands at each end, plus a running track, the Castellani holds just under 17,000. The home ultras gather in the Curva Maratona, away ones allocated a sector in the Curva Sud.
The stadium is strolling distance from town: take via Andrea Bonistalli from near the main square, which becomes via Emilio Bardini. Veer right at the junction with via Bisarnella, then over the footbridge. The stadium is ahead of you – allow 10-15min from the main square. Any buses that pass close are so infrequent, they’re not worth bothering about.
In the week before the match, tickets are sold in the week from Empoli Point, beneath the Tribuna Laterale Sud in the stadium, nearest the Curva Sud. Opening hours are 3.30pm-7.30pm, occasionally 10am-1pm. You’ll need to provide ID.
Online tickets are distributed through TicketOne.
For major the visit of major clubs, prices are €35 in the Curva behind the goals, €50 on the sidelines, in the Tribuna Laterale Sud or Nord. Rates drop significantly for lesser opponents.
The club only distribute merchandise online, log-in required. Opposite the stadium, the Holly & Benji sports store (Mon 4pm-8pm, Tue-Sat 9.30am-1pm, 4pm-8pm), by the Bar Stadio at viale delle Olimpiadi 46 sells replica shirts (€50) and kits (€80).
Across from the stadium on viale delle Olimpiadi, the plain Bar Stadio earns its name because of its location rather than any football affiliation. It does sell beer, though. A couple of standard bakeries and cafés line up alongside. In the stadium, you’ll find outlets for soft drinks, coffee and Sammontana ice-cream.