All Whites fullback Libby Cacace could enter another football stratosphere with his switch to Italian club Empoli.
The Serie A team confirmed on Tuesday that Cacace was joining them from Belgian outfit Sint Truidense VV, with the deal completed at the end of the European transfer window.
While it is initially a loan move, it is expected to became a permanent arrangement in June, with a reported fee of up to €3 million (NZ$5.19m) for the 21-year-old.
It's a huge challenge but also a massive opportunity for Cacace.
While there was a considerable adjustment when he moved from the Wellington Phoenix to the Belgian top tier in August 2020, this will be a whole other level, in terms of pressure, focus, intensity and quality of play.
Serie A is ranked as the third best league in Europe (behind the English Premier League and La Liga), with six clubs inside Uefa's top 30 and on most metrics Empoli is three or four times bigger than Sint Truidense.
The Belgian club currently have one player with an estimated market value of more than NZ$5m, while Empoli have at least 11 that fall into that category.
They include 22-year-old Italian striker Andrea Pinamonti, who has attracted total transfer fees of more than €40m across his career and fellow forward Patrick Cutrone, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, who switched from AC Milan to Wolves for €18m in June 2019.
There is risk for Cacace in the move, in joining a much deeper squad, as game time is crucial at this stage of his career, but it could be a great fit.
Empoli are one of the most successful development clubs in Serie A, along with the likes of Bologna, Cagliari and Verona. It is a key plank of their strategy, as they are unable to compete financially with the mega teams from Rome, Turin, Milan and Naples.
It's understood Empoli have been tracking Cacace since 2019 and they will provide an environment conducive to his development.
The move was expected at the end of this season but has been brought forward, perhaps due to two other left backs being currently out injured and concerns about depth in that position.
Empoli represents a small town (population 48,000) southwest of Florence and have had five promotions to Serie A and four relegations to Serie B this century. Notable former players include Italian internationals Antonio Di Natale, Vincenzo Montella and Luca Toni.
Getting a chance in Serie A has long been Cacace's dream, with his Italian father Antonio and his Kiwi mother Luisa of Italian descent. He has visited the European nation several times on family trips and can comprehend and speak the language.
"You have goals for the future but you take things one day at a time," Cacace told the Herald earlier this year, when asked about his Italian ambitions. "The market is very unpredictable at the moment and Covid has really shaken things up. My focus is to perform at the Olympics and for my club and anything can happen."
If Cacace's move becomes permanent, there will also be a considerable windfall for the Phoenix, due to the sell-on clause in the deal that took Cacace to Belgium.
It's understood the Wellington club will be entitled to around 10 per cent of his final transfer fee.
"It's in that vicinity but obviously it's commercially sensitive," said Phoenix general manager David Dome. "But we are thrilled for Libby and his family. Libby was a class player with us but to see him go from Belgium to Serie A is really exciting.
"He always wanted to work hard, he was so dedicated and never caused an ounce of trouble in terms of being a true professional. What a great opportunity for a young kid out of Wellington."
No New Zealander has played in Serie A. Fellow All White Matt Garbett is on the books at Torino, but he is currently with the under-19 team. At Empoli, Cacace will train with the first team squad from the outset.
Empoli, who are 12th of 20 teams in Serie A, face Bologna on Monday before hosting Cagliari the following week.