The Empoli Hero Sent To His Death At Mauthausen

WORDS: PAOLO BRUSCHI

Carlo Castellani was Empoli’s record goalscorer for almost a century and gives his name to the club’s stadium, but his story is a tragic one. With the Second World War nearly over, he was rounded up and deported along with 100 anti-fascists as part of a desperate last stand by the occupying Nazis…

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Image: Carlo Castellani (middle) with team-mates ahead of his Empoli debut

Giorgio La Pira once said that Empoli can be considered the “moral capital of anti-fascism in Tuscany”. The Christian Democrat, a former mayor of Florence and member of the assembly that wrote the Italian Constitution after World War II, referred to the mass persecutions Empoli suffered during Benito Mussolini’s regime, not to mention the many who opposed the dictatorship and paid with their lives.

Among them was Carlo Castellani, a footballer for Empoli Football Club in the twenties and thirties, who died in Mauthausen concentration camp in the summer of 1944. Now, the city’s stadium is dedicated to his memory – the only one in the national professional leagues named after a martyr of nazi-fascist fury.

Castellani was born in 1909, in Montelupo Fiorentino, a small town located about 20 kilometres southwest of Florence. When he was a boy, football blossomed in the area as Foot Ball Club Empoli and the football section of Unione Sportiva Empoli merged into a single local football club in August 1920, six years earlier than Fiorentina was founded.

Empoli used to play on a pitch next to the river Arno, into which ball after ball was lost. Football had been introduced by English businessmen and at first was regarded as a very odd game by Empolitans, who were accustomed to a different sport called “gioco del pallone” (ball game) or “bracciale”. This local game was centuries old and was promoted by fascism as an indigenous Italian game, as opposed to football and its English origin. In it, players stroke the ball back and forth with a wooden cylinder (a bracciale) worn over the forearm, and Empoli were strong enough to win two national championships in the early thirties.

Castellani, however, was a natural-born footballer and he often skived off of school to kick a ball down the streets. It was an overpowering passion of his, which thrived despite the lack of interest from the other men in the family: his father David, a reformist socialist who had refused to get a National Fascist Party membership card, used his energy and time up running the family timber business.

Yet Carlo took advantage of living in such a stable family to develop his talent at a time when playing football did not pay the bills. He put his money towards renting the horse-drawn coach that took the squad to away games and, at the age of 16, he made his debut with the first team. The following year, he played 18 matches, scoring 16 goals, as his team earned promotion to the third tier of Italian football.

Castellani was an elegant, technically gifted midfielder, with a keen eye for goal. In the 1928/29 season, he netted 22 goals in as many games and he is still best remembered for having recorded five goals in a single match, a feat still unequalled by any Empoli player.

Unsurprisingly, then, he became the first product of Empoli’s youth football academy to play in Serie A, when he made the move to fellow Tuscan side, Livorno. Here, he was handed the No10 jersey several times but his new side struggled and so, in truth, did he, scoring just three goals as Livorno were relegated.

After staying for another couple of seasons in Serie B, Castellani moved on for a brief spell with Viareggio before returning to where he belonged, rejoining Empoli in 1934 for five more seasons. He ended his career in Serie C on the eve of the Second World War, having amassed 145 matches and 61 goals with the Azzurri, and remained the club’s all-time leading scorer for many years, until he was finally surpassed by Francesco Tavano and Massimo Maccarone in the last decade.

When he came back to Empoli, times had changed, however. The club had been renamed Dopolavoro Interaziendale Italo Gambacciani, in tribute to a young fascist who perished during the violence preceding the 1922 “March on Rome” that swept Mussolini to power. Traditional opposition to fascism died down but did not vanish, as demonstrated by the 1934 shop-steward election in the glass making sector, when communist trade union representatives got the upper hand. The anti-fascist soul of the city flourished again in the aftermath of the armistice between Italy and the Allies, which was signed in September 1943 and led to huge confusion due to its unclear terms.

The first Resistance battles on the hills around Empoli took place at the beginning of 1944 and were followed by a general strike against Nazi occupation, the resurging fascist government and extremely harsh working conditions. However, this mass unrest led to a severe retaliation and on the night of the 7/8 March more than 100 people were deported.

Blackshirts, policemen and occupying Nazis jointly listed the addresses of those who were to be rounded up and in the night they went from house to house, telling them they were requested at the police station due to routine control. Most of them proceeded unaware, fathers accompanied their sons, sons asked to join their fathers and the numbers increased more and more. At dawn, only David Castellani was missing, so they knocked at his door. But he was ill and so it was his son, the famous footballer Carlo, who came to the window, at which point he noticed a friend of his among the persecutors outside. Relieved to see a familiar face, he followed them in his father’s place. He would never return.

En route to Florence, someone suggested to Carlo that he jump off the military van. After all, Carlo still had the body of an athlete and stood a good chance of escaping, but he and his companions were convinced everything would be okay in the end.

Instead, when they reached the main station at Florence, they were packed onto trains for the three-day journey to Austria.

Ordered abruptly into the bitter cold in a language they could not understood, they emerged from the train at the bottom of a hill, under the gloomy towers of Mauthausen extermination camp.

They passed through the customary process: standing in the wind and rain with no clothes on; sleeping in fetid, overcrowded barracks; being punished and beaten for any minimal fault; working beyond any physical resistance with the only comfort a cup of undefined slop; quickly degrading until their bodies finally gave up.

That was the case for Castellani, who died of dysentery on 11 August 1944, according to one of the very few who survived. Today, Empoli Football Club’s home ground is named the Stadio Carlo Castellani in his honour.

Paolo Bruschi is an Italian football blogger. If you read Italian, you can find more of his writing here.

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