The Art of Libero. From Ballon d’Or winners to the extinction in the 90s
A story about once famous, but now an extinct role in football.
Back in the day, football saw many exciting individual rivalries, despite being a collective game. For many decades, players were limited to their positions on the pitch, and they had strict do’s and don’ts. The life of a defender was both — a privilege and a nightmare, depending on the opponent. Every game featured 10 one on one duels. If a defender had to go against a player, like Alfredo Di Stefano or Eusebio, it was an exhausting experience for whole 90 minutes.
Austrian manager Karl Rappan understood the amount of pressure that every player had to cope with the game after game. If the defender could not match the level of performance with the opposition’s striker, it could lead to a disaster. While serving as player-manager at the Swiss club Servette in the early 1930s, Rappan decided to implement an experimental 1–3–3–3 formation and use it instead of the usual 2–3–5 formation. The player who took the sweeper role was now looking to support the defenders in front of him. His functionality was still limited compared to the more advanced versions of the future libero’s, but Rappan’s concept was a source of inspiration for the next generations of managers.
The first who tried to embody the ideas of Rapan was the Italian manager Nereo Rocco — the father of Catenaccio. Towards the end of his playing days in the mid-1940s, Rocco tried out this role himself and later enjoyed great success with AC Milan in the early 1960s, using his strongly pragmatic approach. In 1963, I Rossoneri became the first Italian club to win the European Cup beating the Benfica in the final. Catenaccio got its moment of glory, and there was a unique rivalry going on in Milan during this period. Two great adepts of this new philosophy, Rocco with AC Milan and Helenio Herrera with Inter Milan were going head-to-head in the Italian league. They shared many similar traits in terms of their vision of football, but personality-wise — they were complete opposites.
The ideal candidate for the libero role at Herrera’s Grande Inter turned out to be the Italian Armando Picchi. He had a relatively small but strong stature — his quickness and intelligence did great favors in the Inter’s successful run in the 1960s. Picchi was not just a pure sweeper who tried to go only for tackles. His approach was more pragmatic, and his collected nature helped keep the ball in possession to launch the Inter’s attacks with his sharp passing ability. “Picchi was the director of the defense. His passing was never unreasoned, and his vision of the pitch was excellent,” the Herrera’s favorite son was praised by the famous Italian journalist Gianni Brera. And there is no exaggeration, captained by Picchi Internazionale won 3 Serie A titles and two European Cups.
“I had Picchi as sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward,” — Helenio Herrera.
While Italians were the new trendsetters in the early 1960s, the ultimate libero was slowly making his name known in Germany at the end of this decade. It was Franz Beckenbauer who upgraded the role of libero with new qualities, becoming the cornerstone of Bayern Munich. He got a great feel and timing that helped him to cover the mistakes of his defenders. However, the main attribute that made him special was the ability to not only launch the attacks but also finish them. Inspired by Inter’s great Giacinto Facchetti, Beckenbauer became keener to make long runs into the attack and help his team to gain the advantage in the attack. It was a risky approach, but Beckenbauer’s intelligence helped to feel the right moment when the opponents won’t be able to catch Bayern with a counter-attack.
“Back in the day, players did not move away from their position. If you were a left-back, you played left-back. If you played as a central midfielder, you had your responsibilities. Facchetti was an amazing player who still had stuck to his role, although he did allow himself to play outside his main position occasionally. I had an opportunity to move more freely without those limitations. It truly was kind of a revolution,” said Beckenbauer.
The 1967 European Cup final showed the Catenaccio’s vulnerability when the Scottish side Celtic beat the Herrera’s Grande Inter 2–1. The rise of Rinus Michels and his brilliant philosophy of Totaalvoetbal was another sign of the possible decline that could await the Catenaccio in the future. The Dutch manager had a more attractive and collective-minded approach. In some way, everyone had to be a libero under the Total Football philosophy. The collective movement and high intensity required everyone to give their contributions in pressing, defending, and attacking. Despite the Dutch philosophy was very different from the Italian one, Michels still had a true libero on his teams. The finest example is Barry Hulshoff, who was a part of Ajax’s legendary run in the European Cup. A tall, strong, and versatile defender with great vision, he was a player ahead of his time. Unluckily, injuries prevented him to shine in the international arena.
With the arrival of Total Football, managers now had different philosophies to choose from. The role of libero remained alive and some legendary names carried this role with great success. Gaetano Scirea was a key piece in the dominance of Juventus in the Italian league, Franco Baresi had a similar story in his devoted run with Milan. Less-known examples were the Tbilisi Dinamo and Soviet Union Aleksandre Chivadze — once a gifted midfielder that was converted into a sweeper with success. His efforts helped Dinamo to win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981 that was one of the greatest achievements of Soviet football. Anderlecht and Denmark legend Morten Olsen was a prime example and anchor that kept his teams on the solid ground towards the end of his career in the 1980s.
Ironically, the fade of Catenaccio and the role of libero began in Italy during the run of Arrigo Sacchi with Milan. He was a proponent of zonal marking. In Sacchi’s vision, the future belonged to teams that focus on defending a specific space rather than forcing a player to focus on a single player whole game. Find the weak spot, forced the opponent to make a mistake with a constant movement and attack! Zonal marking of Milan was a form of art. The same way as Total Football and Italy’s own Catenaccio that was sent into the history books with Sacchi’s rise. However, once a libero, Baresi played a key role in Milan’s successful deployment of the offside trap — an effective tool to disrupt the opponent’s attack. I Rossoneri enjoyed some of the best days in their history in the late 1980s, and this success was once again a source of inspiration for the managers in the next decade.
The last breed of true liberos was found in Germany up until the start of the 21st-century. Lothar Matthäus was moved to sweepers position late in his career, while Matthias Sammer enjoyed his best days in libero position, winning two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund, as well as the 1997 Champions League. His efforts were rewarded with Ballon d’Or in 1996, making Sammer the first defender since Beckenbauer to claim this award. His performances with BVB and stellar play at the Euro 1996 overshadowed the great seasons of Ronaldo and Alan Shearer. While two goals of Oliver Bierhoff in the final against the Czech Republic could have been a more appealing story for the headlines — it was Sammer who became the heart of Germany in this tournament. He was providing a pure quality for Die Mannschaft at both ends of the pitch.
Since the 21st century began, football has become more and more professional. In all terms. The preparation, recruitment, and way more detailed approach to analytics and tactical aspects of the game. Footballers now may be more versatile, but we don’t see those free-roaming football artists anymore. The role of libero was truly a form of art. Original sweepers, like Picchi, showed their creative side with vision and precise ball-winning instincts. Beckenbauer showed that libero can control the game with an elegance of a playmaker and instantly turn himself into a goalscoring threat. The Dutch master Hulshoff was purely a brutal force in the Totaalvoetbal’s collective brilliance. Modern football is incredibly well covered by media and analysts — this is why the mythical figures and football folklore have died.
Indeed, there have been examples of sweeper-keepers, like Manuel Neuer or collective Catenaccio-inspired stories, like Greece at Euro 2004 with their defensive Colossus Traianos Dellas at the back. Gerard Pique occasionally reminded libero during his days alongside the legendary Barcelona captain Carles Puyol, and Euro 2012 saw the Italian Daniele De Rossi try himself in a role that carried many features of libero. There have been rare Deja-Vu’s of this once an effective role in the past 20 years, but the true libero now belongs to the history books. However, history is known for its cyclic nature, and trends of the past are often reborn when some visionary mind sees the way how to make them effective.