By taking a step back, Franz Beckenbauer put himself a step ahead.
The “libero” — taken from the Italian word for “free” and describing a player who had a covering role behind a defensive line — was not an entirely new concept to soccer by the late 1960s and early 1970s.
It was just that nobody who’d played in that rare position had ever done so with the vision, grace and ability on the ball demonstrated by Beckenbauer, the soccer revolutionary who died Monday at the age of 78.
The epitome of elegance in that iconic white Germany jersey with No. 5 on the back, Beckenbauer was regarded as a pioneer because he brought an attacking element to the deepest outfield position on the pitch.
Whether it was surging out from the back with the ball at his feet or picking out a teammate with a long, precise pass forward, he was the guy who started his team’s attacks — whether it was for Bayern Munich, which he helped become a force in the German game in the mid-1960s, or his national team, with whom he won the World Cup in 1974.
“As a kid he was the first foreign footballer I’d ever heard of,” former England and Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “That’s because if any player tried to play out from the back whether at pro or amateur level, I would hear, ‘He thinks he’s Beckenbauer.’
“That just shows the impact he had on the world game and how he helped change it.”
Beckenbauer actually started out as a central midfielder, the position he played in the 1966 World Cup final when West Germany lost to England, and would still play there at times later in his career. But it was as a libero — or a “sweeper,” as some call it — that he really became a phenomenon through the way he read the game and surveyed the scene ahead of him.
“He was essentially a midfielder playing at the back, and he made it look so easy,” Paul Lambert, a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, told the BBC. “He could have kept his suit on most of the time.”
Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann said Beckenbauer’s interpretation of the libero role changed the game, epitomizing perhaps the cultural liberalism and spirit of freedom pervading throughout Europe in the 1960s.
“His friendship with the ball made him free,” Nagelsmann said. “Franz Beckenbauer could float across the grass.”
Whereas the modern-day sweeper is typically the middle central defender in a back three, Beckenbauer was one of two nominal center backs used as a libero behind a three-man line for Bayern and would pick his moment to step out and bolster the midfield.
That particular role has disappeared from the game, though lives on in ball-playing center backs in a back four, such as David Alaba at Real Madrid or, a few years back, Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United.
Such was his excellence that “Der Kaiser” — as Beckenbauer was known — was a two-time Ballon d’Or winner (1972 and 1976) and finished second in the voting in 1974 and 1975, amid an era he bestrode while winning three straight German league titles (1972-74) and three straight European Cups (1974-76).
His most famous goal might be a free kick he scored in that period with the outside of his right boot for Bayern at Duisburg in March 1974, an example of the class and impudence of a player who could do things defenders weren’t supposed to even attempt.
Of all the tributes to Beckenbauer that poured in Monday, few were as fitting as that of UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin.
“His unparalleled versatility, graceful transitions between defense and midfield, impeccable ball control, and visionary style reshaped the way football was played in his era,” Čeferin said.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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