Libero: The evolution of a position

World Cup Beckenbauer libero

By Atrayo Bhattacharya

Football, like anything else, has evolved a lot with the passage of time. A lot of positions in football has become extinct; on the other hand, a lot of new positions have come up to replace them.

Sweeper or libero is one of the oldest positions and used to be one of the most pivotal positions in football.The position was first used in Italy, during the early 60’s when the Catenaccio system was on the rise for the first time. After that, it became one of the central positions of the game. In 1966, England National Football team won the FIFA World Cup for the first time, the only one in their history and their captain Sir Bobby Moore was one of the first effective ball playing centre backs or liberos in football. Not only did he lead his team in breaking opposition attacks, but also helped the team in building up the play and attacking in the opposition half.

That World Cup also saw the rise of a German youngster, who played as a box to box midfielder throughout the tournament and succeeded in winning the Bronze Boot, despite playing in the midfield. He was none but Franz Anton Beckenbauer, affectionately known as Der Kaiser in Bavaria, inarguably the greatest German Footballer there could ever be, who made himself a cult figure in Germany as well as in München by playing as a sweeper or a libero. Beckenbauer’s transition from a box to box midfielder to a sweeper occurred right after the 1970 FIFA World Cup when he convinced the then manager of Bayern to change his role. The role changing suddenly sparked a huge transformation in the life of Beckenbauer. He went on to win UEFA Euro, FIFA World Cup, a hat-trick of European Championships (the precursor to the Champions League), as well as the coveted Ballon d’Or twice during the time span between 1970-1980 and is undoubtedly considered as the greatest exponent of the position.

During the 80’s Gaetano Scirea played as a libero for both Juventus and Italy and won the World Cup in 1980 as well as the Champions League for Juventus. More importantly, he finished in the top 3 of Ballon d’Or; a feat that is quite difficult for a defender. Later, Ronald Koeman of Barcelona and the Netherlands, Alessandro Nesta for AC Milan and Italy played a crucial role in the rejuvenation of the position.The former was more of a libero; who roamed around the whole field quite like Beckenbauer or Scirea, and the latter being a Sweeper who was great in passing as well as in breaking up plays. Among others, Fernando Hierro for Real Madrid played this role in one of the most successful times for the club. Often he went as far as the opposition offence, with Claude Makelele guarding the defence from the pivot.

At present, there is no pure sweeper in football, but a lot of centre backs such as Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, and Mats Hummels have excelled not only in defensive displays but have also aided the team in building up attacks from the back. Youngsters like John Stones if nurtured well can play the old fashion libero. The tactical change in football is hugely responsible for the near extinction of the position, but that is the beauty of the game, evolving and ever glorious.

The extinction of the libero has happened for a reason and it is definitely a fair point when put to consideration, the great 3-5-2 formation was a major hit after the 1986 World Cup. It was a direct response to the lack of quality wide players at that time. But now the scenario is completely different and top names in world football like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Eden Hazard, Arjen Robben Marco Reus etc. are well decorated world class wide players.

So playing 3 at the back was sort of an extinct formation in the halfway of the previous decade and the managers were looking for more advanced formations like the 4-3-3/4-5-1. The regista was also one such formation which was forgotten big time by the footballing universe but Andrea Pirlo brought it back to Italian football and eventually in the world stage, and now deep-lying playmaker is one of the most important aspect of any football team. So just like the regista, the libero can also come back to life in modern football and if it doesn’t then its definitely a loss for this beautiful sport.