I’ve been to northern Italy enough times in the winter to know that it falls victim to gionata piovosa (daily rain) as much as England in February. The promise of travel – and of Italy – can still lead to disappointment when one arrives in worse weather than one left behind at Heathrow.
Such was the case on a pretty wet weekend in Tuscany. I met my friend Claus, who runs the Danish-language football travel website VisitFootball.dk, in Florence. We were at the beginning of a road trip that started with a Friday night match at Empoli, a Saturday afternoon in Perugia, then switching codes to the oval ball on Sunday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome for Italy against England in the Six Nations.
With Fiorentina away at Bologna on Sunday – annoyingly, clashing with the Italy v England match, and even more annoyingly, not confirmed until well into January – we opted for Empoli v Palermo, which turned out to be a top of the table clash in Serie B.
Empoli is only 20km west of Florence. The city sits roughly equidistant between Florence and Pisa, but lacks either of those cities’ fame or landmarks, so you’d be forgiven for overlooking it. We rocked up in the afternoon and bought our tickets from the club shop in the main square.
Chloe Beresford, a fellow Gentleman Ultra contributor who recorded a podcast with me on groundhopping in Italy, kindly connected me on Twitter to Empoli season ticket holder, Francesco, who I arranged to meet in the Tribuna Maratona at the Stadio Carlo Castellani.
The Castellani is a classic Italian communal stadium: two main stands, two exposed curve at either end, and an athletics track separating the crowd from the pitch. I immediately felt at home among the blue and white scarves: I am a lapsed Queens Park Rangers supporter who watches his nearest top-flight club, Brighton & Hove Albion, a lot more nowadays.
Thankfully, Francesco’s English is better than my rusty Italian. He beckoned us into the stand with the Empoli ultras, introducing us to some. This match was on TV and Empoli’s most animated tifosi are front and centre in the lower stand of the Tribuna Maratona, opposite the TV cameras, not out in the curve behind the goals.
The same could not be said for Palermo’s dedicated 150 or so fans in the exposed curva to our left. In the floodlights, the rain reminded me of the monsoons when I used to work in Singapore, drifting in sheets. These fans had left mild, dry Sicily for a night in this squall.
Some 5,147 souls had braved the elements. Last year, when Empoli were in Serie A – finishing third bottom, one place above also-relegated Palermo – the average gate was nearly 9,500, which was still way short of the Castellani’s 16,000 capacity.
The Empoli fans were pretty lively from start to finish, aided by a regular stream of goals: two in the first half, two in the second, 4-0 the final score with a hat-trick for Francesco Caputo. The scoreline was unfair on Palermo, who had chances but were thwarted by poor finishing and excellent keeping from on-loan Milan stopper, Gabriel. Empoli played some great stuff on the deck. I’m sure Brian Clough would have approved.
What I liked about being among the Empoli ultras is that they were friendly: there were kids in there, older women, the songs were mainly supportive and – former Empoli defender Giuseppe Bellusci’s treatment aside – pretty placid. Their songs are pretty easy to pick up –“A-zzu-rro! A-zzu-rro!” for example – and they did an excellent rendition of “Volare” towards the end. A song made famous, of course, by Italian American, Dean Martin.
My assumption that Fiorentina would be Empoli’s big rival – being their nearest – proved incorrect. According to Francesco, it’s Pisa and Siena that the Blues fans want to beat most. It’s a historical regional loyalty rather than football that drives these rivalries, and Florence was an ally.
The rain didn’t stop and neither did the singing or the flag-waving. Poor old Palermo fans – they had travelled all that distance to watch a heavy defeat in the biting wind and relentless winter rain. We slunk away at the final whistle to drive back to Florence, but for a first experience of Serie B, it was a pretty good night.