Lower Toscana

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The rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside have long been inspiration for painters, writers, photographers and tourists alike, all seeking pastoral beauty. The capital of the region, Firenze is the star attraction, with all its history of Medici skulduggery and Machiavellian goings on of yesteryear, as well as Michelangelo paintings by the shed load, and the awe inspiring architecture of il Duomo or il Ponte Vecchio. You may not have been in the region to watch some football, but with Tuscany also famed for its cuisine and wines, as well as all the culture, history and splendours, benvenuti a Toscana!

Fiorentina are obviously the big draw in the area, the Viola of Firenze are now stabilised after a few patchy years of financial issues and once again they are a staple on the Serie A roster, as well as being back on the European stage too. The return from the fourth tier to the top table included a “double promotion” in one season from 4th to 2nd tier on the grounds of “sporting integrity”!? Only in Italy!! Livorno, Pisa, Empoli and Siena are maybe the quartet who have been jousting for the right to be Viola’s local rival over the years. Livorno-Pisa is a real proper derby, but they haven’t played each other much in recent times. Livorno had been nibbling at the lower end of Serie A but collapsed into the third tier following bankruptcy issues before gaining promotion this season to Serie B, where they are struggling to get a foothold. Livorno the Red article on my site will expand on their story.

Pisa have been largely wallowing in the third tier, (not without financial issues!) but they had a brief sojourn in Serie B where they hilariously replaced Livorno . With one of the “hub” airports of Italy at Pisa, it couldn’t be easier to go see a game there. Indeed, once off the plane, the city is less than 2 kilometres away and when in the city, follow any notice toward Torre Pendente (Leaning Tower) and you will be going in the right direction for the stadium. I once tried to get into a Pisa game, but I was being a bit cheeky, tagging a second match that day onto an early kick off at Empoli. These were the initial days of heavier ticketing/security requirements in 2009. Pisa-Frosinone should not have been a hard match to get in to see, but it was the clubs first game back in Serie B that time around, and despite joining a slow moving queue, the penny eventually dropped everyone else already had a ticket! With no booths selling biglietti in the vicinity?! I resorted to enjoying the sun on the grass near the Leaning Tower and listening to the atmosphere from the stadium, which listed away on a hot day to a 0-0 draw. Maybe I was the lucky one, but with only 5,000 in the stadium it was a shabby situation. Earlier, I had seen my passport and ticket checked at least 4 times at Empoli, before taking my seat in a home stand, or so I thought until Inter scored and the whole stand erupted!! Empoli are the current provider of Tuscan opposition to Fiorentina. They are a quiet, unassuming, but obviously well run club, words that could be used to largely describe Empoli the town, but read more in my blog article below if you want more chat on them!

The last of the four clubs mentioned above come from the amazing southern city of Siena, perhaps the third most visited Tuscan town behind Firenze and Pisa. Here the famous Il Campo Grande, and it’s legendary bareback horse race, il Palio guarantees a huge volume of visitors. The Campo is quite extraordinary, breathtakingly large and undulating for a town square! The stadium, the Artemio Franchi-Montepaschi arena is one of the most picturesque in Italy, situated right at the gates of the old city, and even on a non match day, it’s almost impossible not to notice the ground, as the main transport hub for the city is right beside the stadium. Siena were punching above their weight in the top flight a few seasons ago, but like the clubs main sponsor the Monte Paschi di Siena Bank, (the world’s oldest bank which is still in big trouble) Siena went bust in 2014 and had to start from Interregionale as Robur Siena. Having got back into the 3rd tier immediately, this is where they have spent huge passages of their history!

You know you have earned your Tuscan footballing spurs when you step off the train in San Giovanni Valdarno, 30 minutes south of Firenze on the Roma bound train line, although don’t take a “fast train” (Frecciarossa), or you’ll whizz by! San Giovanni is an uninspiring town. The local side, Sangiovannese were hosting my beloved Ancona, an opportunity not to be missed! This was third tier action, and at that time Sangiovannese were riding as high as they have ever attained. They are now back in Interregionale, but the small, quaint stadium, while on the edge of town is no more than a 15 minute walk from the railway station.

Having thus far largely failed to pander to Tuscan beauty, let me address that now by highlighting for four real treat sized towns, all within easy reach of the capital, Florence, starting with Arezzo, which is in continuation down the Roma line after San Giovanni. Arezzo is one of my favourite places anywhere, a real hilly wee gem! Arezzo’s Centro Storico climbs up and up from the railway station area with a magnificently preserved centre, a place you may inadvertently have seen in the cinema if you ever saw Roberto Benigni’s film, Life is Beautiful. Arezzo’s stadium, Stadio Citta Di Arezzo is a lovely venue with the hills that shelter the town’s eastern side a wonderful backdrop. If you are day-tripping and arriving by train, turn right when you get out of the station and it’s a good 30-45 minute walk. I had been in Arezzo a number of times, but in October 2016 I finally got too see a game there, hardly a top draw tie with Racing Roma in town for a third tier fixture, but since 1984/85 when I started buying Guerin Sportivo, which long before the internet made the global game at any level immediate, this weekly magazine was a bible of Italian and European results! The very first edition I ever bought saw Arezzo top of Serie B! It was perhaps the highest league position they ever reached, but it didn’t last, and not only did they fail to go up that season, they were soon back in the third tier where they have largely been ever since, aside from the obligatory bankruptcy in 2010 and working their way back from non-league, a tale that includes a slice of Fiorentina-esque good fortune. At the 11th hour just before the start of the season a few years ago one of the third tier divisions was a club short due to yet another bankruptcy, and Arezzo won the place having been a runner-up in the previous seasons Interregionale. They had a major wobble last season when the authorities docked them 15 points late in the campaign, and they needed two games postponed to steady the ship. However, whether it was the indignation that united the team or not, victory on the last day of the season saved them from any play out that may have seen them relegated. This term Arezzo are performing well at the right end of Serie C.

The sizeable main stand at the City of Arezzo stadium is flanked on the right by a scaffold curva of a towering size, home to the main body of the fervent tifosi. The terracing opposite the main stadium is unused, and should the visiting team have any fans, unlike Racing, they would be housed on a relatively shallow open terrace to the left of the main stand. I returned to Arezzo a few months later to see them play Lucchese, and a good number of away fans occupied this terracing, leaving happy after nicking a 1-0 win! The stadium has a capacity of 13,100. 

North and west of Firenze are three stalwarts of the third tier; Prato, Pistoiese and Lucchese. Prato is only twenty minutes north of the capital by train, and the stadium is right beside the railway station, what could be easier! Well, this is Italy and nothing is straight forward, let me explain! Similar to Arezzo I have been staying in Prato regularly over the years and I have had a peek or two at the Lungobisenzio stadium by virtue of its sheer proximity to the station, however I had never seen a game there. As luck would have it, just days after the game in Arezzo, Prato were hosting them in a Coppa Italia C fixture, on a Wednesday afternoon! I was staying in Pistoia, so nipped down the tracks to head to the game. Lo and behold, the busy road that goes by the outside the ground was closed with fences erected. The two minute walk from the station then became a convoluted crossing of the river, down the opposite embankment walkway to the next bridge, well past the stadium, and then a doubling back! Yet another fence and no ticket office at the stadium! The tickets were being sold at a small cafe back near the bridge we’d just crossed! All this bureaucracy and security for 8 visiting Arezzo fans in a crowd of no more than 300!! It was a ridiculous situation that tainted my 150th game outside the UK, and a game between two clubs for which I have great fondness. Prato were having a wretched season, and they were woeful in this game too. My travelling companion, enjoying only her second ever football game, both involving Arezzo! wasn’t impressed by what Prato had to offer, and her new found support for Arezzo was to bear fruit with an easy 0-2 away win. The Lungobisenzio is a real mish-mash of stands from differing era, with even more temporary seating around too, increasing the capacity well beyond anything Prato would ever need in modern times at 6,800, even though it is merely a three sided stadium! The imposing hills that line the eastern side of Prato are a fine backdrop. After the game, we had the same circuitous route, and yet, by the time we had nearly got to the second bridge to cross back to the railway station, the 8 visiting fans had long scampered and the fences were gone! If you are heading to watch a game here, allow at least 30 minutes after the game if you are going for a train, despite the proximity! 

Prato’s annual jostle with relegation finally saw them come unstuck last season, and they have dropped into Serie D, where they had yet another sluggish start, but they have recovered to mid-table, doubtlessly sufficient to avert any further demotion, but too many points off the play off places at the top end. If you are ever contemplating going to see Prato check websites before going, as they seem to have fallen out with the local city council owners of the stadium this term and had been playing a lot of the earlier games  quite a distance away, ground sharing at Pontedera, more about them soon!

Prato’s local rivals are Pistoiese, from the lovely wee town of Pistoia, see blog below! This is another unheralded wee jewel of Tuscany. It’s main square, and restaurant zone, are as delightful as you will find anywhere in the region. The ground is a good long way from the railway station, almost on the opposite side of the town with the same hills that hug Prato a little further off, but the stadium still affords a wonderful view. The Stadio Marcello Melani is a very well appointed stadium, capacity 13,195 with a fully covered main stand and considerable home Curva complete with roof. The terracing opposite the main stand doesn’t look like it’s been used for many a year, and the visiting fans get housed in temporary seating open to the elements at the opposite end of the ground from the main hub of the Pistoiese support. The clubs Blackpool-esque colours make the stadium bright! Gli Arancioni (The Orange) have had their financial issues having had to be re-founded 4 times most recently in 1988 and 2009! Like Prato they are similarly unspectacular in progress, with the exception of 1980/81 when they reached the promised land of Serie A for a mere, all to brief solitary season at the summit of Italian football! That was about as exciting as it has been at Pistoiese in the last 40 years, but personally a Pistoiese v Prato fixture remains on my roster of “must see” games!!

Lucca is another 35 minutes along the train line heading further west toward the coast from Pistoia. It is for sure on the tourist map, a magnificently preserved historic town complete with an entire ancient wall of yesteryear circling the old town, where the more adventurous visitor can walk or cycle a full circumference of Lucca looking down on it from on high. About a third of the way around the wall to the right of the railway station you will see the home of Lucchese. I was there in April 1990 to watch another of those “odd” afternoon Coppa Italia Serie C matches with a team very much on their way to loftier heights, Chievo Verona in town and they ran out easy 2-0 winners. Stadio Porta Elisa is a compact yet fantastic football venue, albeit with little cover should the heavens open! Despite the smaller stadium, Lucchese is perhaps the one of these four clubs discussed here with the greater potential and ambition, but they’ve been down the bankruptcy road too, and are steadying themselves in Serie C for now, but like Arezzo previously, they have fallen foul of the authorities and what started as an eleven point penalty was reduced to 8, then five, but has been ramped up to 16 in the wake of the Pro Piacenza debacle! With Pro now scratched from the league, their is no automatic relegation, but Lucchese will need to use the anger as motivation to get clear of the play out, which, having seen them play Pisa in November, I am confident they will survive. See article Lucca in the sky for more Lucchesi tales below!

There are many other Tuscan teams, Carrarese are another stalwart of the third tier, where I was headed in September last year to see them play Juventus U23, the rogue new participant in the third tier. Thankfully I checked the Carrarese website the night before and discovered the game had been moved to Pontedera, nowhere near Carrara! I merely altered my travel plans from Livorno, but it meant I was in Pontedera twice in three nights, and that is twice too often! Pontedera is not on any tourist route, halfway between Pisa and Empoli, and it is a working town, but the local football team continues to do them proud. Carrarese fans had come in huge numbers for the Monday night game against the city slicker youth of Juventus, and “the home” team put the kids to the sword, 4-0! Two days later Pontedera were hosting Albissola in the same division. On the Monday the floodlights had gone off fleetingly as the players warmed up, however two days later they went off minutes before kick off at 20,30, and eventually came back on allowing for a 21,10 start! It was a bummer as I had a train to catch, meaning I had to leave twenty minutes from the end. It wasn’t an undue wrench to pull myself away from such abject football. When I left little Albissola led 1-0, but by the time I had reached the train station, the quiet streets of the town echoed with cheers, confirmed by my app, the locals had roared back and won 2-1!

L’Aquila Montevarchi like to boast that they are the oldest team in Tuscany, but they have had bankruptcy re-starts so that judgement is open to question! Montevarchi is south of Firenze sandwiched between San Giovanni Valdarno and Arezzo, who are the real rival for Montevarchi. A midweek, early afternoon kick off ahead of the evening debacle in Pontedera allowed a two game day! Another Tuscan club were in town, the coastal beach side from Viareggio up in the North West of the region near Lucca. This was a fourth tier game, and the handful of visiting fans (any number was commendable for a 14,30 ko on a Wednesday afternoon) endeared themselves to the locals, not! by chanting ” Forza Arezzo” pretty much non-stop. The locals had the last laugh edging an entertaining game 2-1. It was a cracking day, the football was a good quality, and down in the fourth tier, no one needs your passport to buy a ticket or any of that protracted nonsense! Stadio Gastone Brilli Peri is a well preserved little stadium with a cracking view from the main stand and the terracing on that side of the stadium. It is also jolly handy for the railway station, about a 5-8 minute walk, but as a town, Montevarchi isn’t anything different to Pontedera.

Massese are from that NW corner near Carrara and play in the town of Massa, but they have fallen on hard times, and having been a staple of the Serie D roster for years, they look nailed on to head down to the Eccellenza of Tuscany, the regional fifth tier. They might well be playing one last name worthy of mention in the region, Grosseto. They are endeavouring to guide their way back from financial turmoil, and perhaps recapture the magic of the period from 2007 to 2012 when they reached and remained in Serie B for a good number of seasons. A 1-0 win on the last day of 2006/07 at Padova saw the club promoted for the first ever time to the second tier. At one point in the subsequent B years they nearly made the play off places for a crack at Serie A, but it all fell away for the SW Tuscan town and its team.

It is for sure a region where you can tick many a box, culture, cuisine as well as grab a game or two of calcio while you are at it, all amid beautiful surroundings! Massese and Grosseto are on my own roster of future action as I tick the boxes and continue to be in love with Tuscany. 

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