Although there are four main positions in soccer, (known as the forwards, midfielders, defenders, and goalkeepers) as the game has become more and more complex, those four positions have been broken down.
Terms were created to denote what these more specialized players would do, and one of those specialized defensive players is known as a libero.
What is a libero in soccer? A libero in soccer is a defender whose main position is behind the rest of the defensive players, standing nearer to the goal. The term means “free” in Italian, and a libero shares many of the same responsibilities as what English-speaking soccer fans call the sweeper.
You May Not Have Heard This Term
If you’re not Italian or a fan of old-school Italian soccer, you might be unfamiliar with this term. In fairness, it has fallen out of fashion somewhat, due to natural changes in teams’ style of play.
A major factor that led to the fall of the libero has to do with a controversial and sometimes confusing rule: the offside rule. Given where the libero was positioned on the field, the offside rule made it much less advantageous to have a single defender hanging back around near to the goal.
A Quick and Simple Overview of The Offside Rule
According to Law 11 of the Laws of the Game, an attacking player has to be between the goalkeeper and the last “on-field” defender when the ball is kicked to them.
As teams began to take advantage of the offside rule by using an in-game strategy known as an offside trap, it stopped making sense to have a defender hanging out so close to the goal.
An offside trap is a coordinated defensive maneuver where all of the defenders rushing towards the attacking team’s side of the field. Therefore, a libero who hangs back would essentially always be positioned between the goalie and the attacking player.
This positioning would eliminate a defense’s opportunity to arrange themselves in such a way that they would essentially leave an attacking player stranded in an offside position.
Karl Rappan’s Last Man
Although the term libero was made most popular by Italian soccer players and managers, this tactical position actually originated in Switzerland.
Karl Rappan managed several Swiss teams, including the Swiss National Team, between 1931 and 1971. His teams had an incredibly defensive style of play, often allowing the attacking team to control the midfield.
This strategy had a combination of zone defense and one-on-one defense, which meant that some players were assigned an attacking player to cover and others were given a section of field to manage defensively. One of these players was known as the “security bolt” for the others, and he didn’t have a specific man to watch.
Rappan’s influence on Italian soccer is well-documented, and this distinction between players responsible for man-marking and those who played zonal defense gave rise to the name libero.
The Italian Libero
Gianni Brera, an Italian sports journalist, coined the term libero. It is a shortened term taken from the way that Brera described this last central defender: libero da impegni di marcatura.
Google Translate tells us that means “free from marking commitments” in English, and it was translated contextually as a player who was free (libero) from man-marking tasks.
So this deep-sitting defender who hung out at the center of the field close to the goalkeeper didn’t have the responsibility of defending against a particular player. Hence, the term libero was born.
Brera was well-loved in the Italian soccer community, inventing several other soccer terms and originating nicknames for famous Italian players. It’s no wonder that his term for this type of defensive player stuck around.
In 2003, a stadium in Milan was renamed in his honor, and in 2019, he was posthumously inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame. Since his role was journalistic rather than athletic, Brera received a Special Award.
The libero position is very similar to a sweeper. A sweeper is only responsible for “sweeping up after” his teammates if they made any mistakes, and they would also move across the field in a sweeping manner when needed.
A true sweeper may have taken the ball on the run and gone to the midfield in order to start a play, but the expectation was that they would quickly get rid of the ball and return to their position near the goalkeeper.
In time, this position has also evolved away from a player being a solely defensive sweeper and is more of a defensive midfielder.
A sweeper can play behind the defense, just like the Libero, but, they can also play as defensive midfielders. That’s why it’s important to know that these terms are similar, but it doesn’t always mean the same thing.
What Does The Libero or Sweeper Do?
Like any position in soccer, the roles and responsibilities of this position have changed with time. Back in Switzerland in the 1930s and Italy in the 1940s, the libero was pretty much only picking up after his teammates.
If the attacking team broke through the man-marking players, a libero was there to get the ball away from the goal. A libero would also intercept passes from the attacking team and regain control of the ball.
This player might do this by moving the ball out-of-bounds along the sideline or across the goal line. They might also make a long pass to get the ball back into the other half of the field.
That evolved from just quickly getting rid of the ball to holding the ball, waiting for the other teammates to arrange themselves in a strategic position, and then making an accurate pass to a player in a strong place to make a play on the ball.
In this way, the libero was a key part of organizing the defense. From their position near the goal, they had a full view of the field and could call out to defenders on the move.
From there, the libero would become a deep-seated playmaker. This means that when the libero got the ball, he would push forward into the midfield while retaining possession of the ball in order to be a key part of the play.
In today’s game, there isn’t as much emphasis on having a single player hanging back. As the game became more dominated by offense and teams looked to take advantage of the offside rule, the libero and sweeper positions changed.
As with everything else, the game of soccer has evolved over time. Players and style of play that were considered essential to winning were changed and replaced with others.
Liberos and sweepers are not as prominent in the game now. As the game continues to change with time, we will likely see the formations and skillset of players grow and change.
The game of tomorrow is different than the game of the past, but soccer players and fans should find excitement in the ways that the game is innovating.