The 'libero' - a role almost extinct in the modern game, yet a role so crucial in the evolution of professional football.
Greats such as Franz Beckenbauer and Gaetano Scirea have performed this duty to devastating effect, with both players iconic in the annuls of football. The role currently serves no purpose in the modern game as we know it, yet it was game changing in the world of football prior to World War II.
The architect is understood to be legendary Switzerland coach Karl Rappan. The Austrian spent almost his entire career managing within the Swiss domestic league system, taking charge of their national side on four separate occasions.
He led the Swiss into the 1938 World Cup having worked on a tactical philosophy fully intent on adapting to the situation of any given game, inventing a role that would revolutionise the game over the forthcoming years.
Rappan believed that if a side did not have eleven naturally gifted players, they must adopt strict discipline and tactical nouse in order to be successful. This ideology has become increasing influential over time, with weaker teams often setting out to frustrate better quality opposition.
As part of his tactical setup, Rappan distanced himself from the popular 2-5-3 'WM' system implemented by many coaches during that time, instead introducing a system consisting of four defenders. Within that troop of four, would be a player tasked with sitting behind the defensive line, now commonly referred to as the 'libero'.
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The 'libero's responsibilities have evolved as the years have gone by, though Rappan's version focused stringently on defensive duties. The first player renowned for playing in the role under his guidance was Adolf Stelzer. Given little license to move up field, Stelzer instead dropped as deep as possible in order to clear up loose balls, quickly sending long kicks up-field in order to launch counter attacks.
The system was met with much scepticism at the time, with many coaches failing to understand the principles of Rappan's idea. Some observers praised it's unique traits, while others were won over despite Switzerland's limited success with it at the 1938 World Cup.
The Rossocrociati defeated Germany 4-2 in the first knockout round, before being eliminated 2-0 by Hungary in the quarter-finals. Initially drawing their first round encounter 1-1, Rappan's team impressed in the replay against the Germans, as the potential benefits of fielding a deep lying 'libero' began to emerge.
Stelzer occupied the role against the Hungarians, with historians identifying him as the first player to understand and command the role fully. He may have been the innovator, but the role soon took on more significance during the 1960's and 1970's through legendary figures Beckenbauer and Scirea.
Indeed, the mention of the 'libero' role associates many avid football fans with German and Italian football, not it's Swiss/Austrian origins. It also resonates with a player possessing a more rounded skill set, comfortable on the ball and eager to burst forward in possession, in order to instigate fast paced, counter-attacking football.
Beckenbauer was the epitome of such traits. Operating as an attacking 'libero', he could be a used as a potent weapon in attack given his vast skill and tactical brain. His knowledge of the game was fundamental, with 'the Kaiser' well versed in knowing when to surge forward and when to stay back.
“He was a great player, very positive, very fast and always dangerous. So it was my job to stop him in 1966 and 1970. He was the most dangerous player they had. He could do extraordinary things with his pace, control and ability, but if someone ran with him all the time it seemed to limit his danger.” — Sir Bobby Charlton
Such an unusual and forthright style of play often caught opposition defences out, as Beckenbauer would emerge in attack unmarked, with the transition from defence into attack so much slicker with his all around ability. The German great perfected his craft, dominating opponents on the European and international stage.
He was not the only player of his era though to embrace this footballing ideology, as Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea would prove. The Italian enjoyed a stellar career at the top of the game, earning a reputation as one of the most talented footballers of his generation.
What was most impressive about Scirea's success was his adaptability. He started his career as an out and out midfielder, but learned the craft of playing the 'libero' role during his early days at the Bianconeri. He would go on to contribute heavily to the identity of the ever modernising 'libero' role, combining his vision, passing ability and general composure.
Like Beckebauer, he was a devastating attacking threat in his own right; utilising pace, movement and awareness to carve open many Serie A defences. As his physical attributes diminished towards the end of his career, Scirea seamlessly transitioned into a more conventional centre-back, demonstrating again the versatility that had made him one of the greatest footballers of his generation.
"Scirea’s languid passing and fluid ball skills fitted right in. He was an elegant 'libero' who flitted around the pitch, helping to create angles and opportunities for his team-mates"
— Blair Newman, Guardian Sport
The days of using the 'libero' had reached their peak though. Rio Ferdinand, Leonardo Bonucci and David Luiz, a trio many would describe as the closest examples in the modern day. Defensive minded by nature, yet instinctively keen to step out of defence with the ball, their composure and natural ability symbolic of their talents. In possession, positive and forward thinking. In defence, less willing to drop deep, in part due to an era infatuated with using a flat-back four.
On the surface, it would seem the role is a thing of the past. Yet as the game continues to evolve in many other ways, it seems almost inevitable that the use of the 'libero' role will be revisited at some point in the future.