Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek

Words | Coen Lammers

Liberato Cacace has just completed a memorable season after his club Empoli avoided relegation from the Serie A with the last kick of the season before going on to lift the OFC Men’s Nations Cup as the captain of New Zealand only three weeks later.

“It’s been a rollercoaster of a season,” reflects Cacace, who awarded the Golden Ball at the OFC Men’s Nations Cup in Vanuatu and played a key role in Empoli’s astonishing escape act against AS Roma on the final day of the Serie A season.

“Empoli didn’t start the season well, but in the end we got the job done,” said the roaming left wingback who had to contend with three different coaches in one season at the club, desperate to avoid the drop to Serie B.

New Zealand’s Liberato Cacace. OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024, Final, New Zealand v Vanuatu, VFF Freshwater Stadium, Port Vila, Sunday 30 June 2024. Photo: Shane Wenzlick /

“It has been a bit of an up and down season for myself as well. The season started off pretty well and I got a few starts, but it was tough cementing your spot with so many coaching changes.  Still, I enjoyed the experience of seeing how each coach was and learning a lot from them,” said Cacace, who had not expected to start in the must-win final match against Roma.

“It was a surprise for me to play, but I just treated it like any other game, really. We went one up, it was just a relief, but when they equalised soon after, to be honest, for a good chunk of that second half, I thought we were going to go down.

“But then to do it in the last kick of the game, to keep the club up, there we so many emotions running through my head. I was coming back into the changing room with a lot of people crying. Full on crying, with relief. It was just so good to see so many emotions in the changing room after the match.”

Inspired by his sudden call-up after many weeks on the bench, Cacace played the last Serie A game as a man possessed, dominating his flank with marauding runs like his best days in the Australia A-League and was unlucky not to be rewarded with a goal.

“I did feel like I was back playing for the Phoenix again. I just had a lot of confidence as I was going through the game, and that helped me as the game progressed. I came close to scoring, which I would have loved to have done on the last day, but I’m yet to score for Empoli.”

New Zealand’s Liberato Cacace. OFC Nations Cup 2024 New Zealand training session, Montmarte School, Port Vila, Vanuatu, Tuesday 25 June 2024. Photo: Shane Wenzlick /

The former Wellington Phoenix defender says the three seasons at the Tuscan club has been the perfect progression after two seasons with St Truiden in Belgium.

“Every journey is different for each player. I’ve kind of taken a longer route. I went to Belgium for two years after leaving the Phoenix which helped me to find my feet in Europe. Belgium was a tough league. It was very open football, a lot of running.

“That kind of helped me take my football to the next level after leaving the Phoenix. Luckily, I got that move to Empoli and I’ve had three great seasons here at Empoli,” says Cacace who adds that the small-town club does not have the same hype as the top teams in the Serie A.

“There’s a lot more pressure with the bigger teams in Italy, a lot of expectation to win games, to win trophies. Whereas in Empoli, we really just focus on one game at a time, and just made sure we create history by being the first Empoli team to successfully stay up for four seasons,” says the defender who is the centre of much transfer speculation, both in Italy and in Germany.

“It’s flattering, getting interest from another league. It shows that you are doing something well, that you are playing pretty well in Italy. I’ve got an agent to handle that part of my career. I’ve just been focusing on my national team football and see what evolves after that.”

Cacace says the Bundesliga would suit his style of play, but he would be happy to stay at Empoli.

New Zealand celebrate winning the OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024, Final, New Zealand v Vanuatu, VFF Freshwater Stadium, Port Vila, Sunday 30 June 2024. Photo: Shane Wenzlick /

“There’s more history to create. There’s a new coach, new director. So I’ll be heading in there with a fresh start basically. So if I stay there, then I’m happy there as well.”

Cacace carried his good form into the OFC Men’s Nations Cup and was deservedly rewarded with the Golden Ball after three impressive performances.

The stand-in skipper for Chris Wood was proud to lead his young team-mates from the front and did not consider skipping the trip to Vanuatu to recover from his club season, like other New Zealand internationals.

“My decision was easy because I enjoy playing for New Zealand and it’s always a proud moment putting on the shirt. Once Baz (Coach Darren Bazeley) asked me to come, there was always only one answer.

“Even though it’s an off-season for me, I still wanted to play for the country and help the boys out. Maybe after a season of playing relegation football, I thought it might be nice to play for a trophy.”

Cacace says living in Europe has made him appreciate the New Zealand team environment a lot more.

“I sometimes miss that environment of the Phoenix, so it is nice catching up with friends in the New Zealand team, and connecting back to home, the roots.”

“Being single does make you lonely sometimes, but luckily I’ve got a good network around me. I have family on my mum and dad’s side just down south in Napoli. So whenever I get lonely, I only have to pick up the phone and talk to them or even travel down when I have the days off,” says Cacace who has also become good friends with Romanian star Marin and has been in regular contact with his Empoli team-mate during their Euros campaign.

“I’ve been talking to him mostly every day, even though he’s been busy with Romania and the Euros. He’s a great person and a great player.”

Cacace thinks the successful OFC Men’s Nations Cup campaign has been a wonderful boost ahead of New Zealand’s World Cup qualifying campaign starting later this year, with so many younger players eager to show their wares with many European-based established players missing in Vanuatu.

“If we have competition for places, that can only be great for the national team and the country.”