The Last Dance has, to put it simply, taken the world by storm. The Netflix docuseries which provides an enthralling account of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in their golden era has captured the attention of sports fans all over the world. The story of the Bulls is phenomenal, a team which was truly untouchable and invincible during their prime. MJ was undoubtedly the star. His natural talent, unbreakable desire to succeed and his insatiable willingness to improve was the driving force behind his “repeat three-peat”, but what people didn’t see was the support he had around him. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were also part of those Championship winning sides but were overlooked, and had to bask in the glory of Jordan’s shadow. But would Jordan achieve what he achieved without them? Probably not.
Similarly, every great football team has their trademark stars. Football is a game where two teams try and outscore each other, so, naturally, the goal scorers are the ones who steal the headlines. But what people don’t see, or rather appreciate, are the unsung heroes – the players who form the backbone of the team and are the reasons why the stars are where they are. But amongst all the unsung heroes, there is a category that gets probably the least appreciation for their monumental contributions to their teams.
In 1982, Italy won their first World Cup. Paolo Rossi and Co fended off intense competition from powerhouses like Brazil, West Germany and Poland on their way to the final and their tactical superiority paved their way to winning the coveted Jules Rimet trophy. They played in an unorthodox 5-2-3 formation, but on the pitch, they played in a bizarre way. On closer observation, they played in a 1-4-2-2-1 formation, an unheard-of tactic that proved to work wonders.
But the great Italian team, which prided itself on its tough and resolute backline based on a sweeper system, was criminally underrated. Dino Zoff, Paolo Rossi and Bruno Conti were showered with innumerable plaudits and praise, but the real heroes weren’t acknowledged like they should have been. Rapidly receding in number, the more traditional fans and pundits did appreciate players like Gaetano Scrirea putting in an absolute shift at the back and Claudio Gentile holding his ground with ease, oozing with confidence whenever he passed the ball. Still, they failed to give enough praise to the brilliant full-backs of that side – Antonio Cabrini and Giuseppe Bergomi. The two full-backs were absolutely lethal during that World Cup, running up and down the flanks and covering for any attacks down the wings as well. Cabrini and Bergomi were every coach’s dream – and every opponent’s nightmare as well.
Three years later, Cabrini finds himself playing for Juventus in the 1985 European Cup final against Liverpool – a match in which they completely shut down Kenny Daglish and Ian Rush to run out narrow 1-0 victors courtesy of a second-half Michel Platini penalty. Cabrini has had one of the most decorated careers in Italian Football, winning the World Cup, 6 Serie A titles, 2 Coppa Italia titles, a European Cup, a UEFA Cup and an Intercontinental Cup – all as a regular starter for Juventus and Italy. But this underestimated footballer’s greatest achievement was revolutionizing the role of full-back in a truly massive way.
Before Cabrini, full-backs were meant to be the defensive cover for the centre-backs, but played further up the pitch compared to their centre-back and sweeper counterparts, venturing up till the halfway line to feed the balls to the wingers who would then take it from there. They were usually tasked with handling pacy wingers. Hence they were required to be quick and think on their feet, a trait which is prevalent in full-backs even today, but using them in an attacking manner was an abnormality rather than a formality and was almost unheard off.
Cabrini was the first of a transitional generation of full-backs in the late 20th Century. His blistering pace and brilliant crossing ability made him a menace down the right side, and he played more like a winger than a defender, always floating dangerous looking balls into the penalty box. But Cabrini barely let his guard down at the other end of the pitch as well and tracked back quickly whenever his team was at risk of conceding. He was also a dead ball specialist, and his ability to take penalties and free kicks added another unique dimension to his game. His all-round brilliance was something which went under the radar, but which paved the way for attacking full-backs in the years to come.
Around 15 years later, another brilliant player emerged. Javier Zanetti is arguably one of the most respected men in world football. Though he started his career as a winger, Zanetti slowly discovered that he was best at plying his trade in defense, particularly in the role of a full-back. Zanetti, like Cabrini, played the majority of his career at one club – Inter. It was there that he truly made the role of full-back his own, and was able to play at right-back as well as left-back, being able to use both feet proficiently. Zanetti was the epitome of excellence. He was not only a brilliant player in a technical sense but also was very strong physically, which helped him a lot in his 612 game long Inter career. Zanetti’s ball control, speed, agility and passing made him an ideal candidate for any position, and he ran up and down the flanks tirelessly causing havoc against all of his opponents. Zanetti was also a leader. He was the defensive rock when protecting a slim lead, as well as the industrious hustler when his team needed a goal. His ability to fit into any position made him truly complete as a footballer, and his brilliant temperament and attitude were truly commendable. Javier Zanetti was a role model, on as well as off the pitch; having the same inspirational impact on the current generation of full-backs like Cabrini probably had on him.
The full-back revolution, however, really picked up pace in the 2010s, when there was an influx of many great full-backs during the same time period. Young and energetic full-backs started to emerge from all over the footballing world, but the cream of the crop was definitely from Europe. The continent produced some of the greatest talents of the past decade, including stalwarts like Phillip Lahm and Branislav Ivanovic as well as fresh blood in Jordi Alba, Cezar Azpilicueta, David Alaba and Aleksander Kolarov, to name a few. Lahm, in particular, was undoubtedly one of the best in his position ever, for both club and country. A one-club man and a world cup winning captain, if people had to summarize Lahm in a word, it would probably be “hardworking”. The tiny German was rightfully nicknamed “the Magic Dwarf” was a tactical genius and technically near perfect. Championships are won by teams and not individuals, and Lahm was the perfect team player. He also played extremely high up the pitch, providing 45 assists and scoring 12 goals in his 399 appearances for Bayern. Lahm was also a leader and holds the mesmerizing record for not receiving a single red card in his playing career, something almost unheard of. Lahm was a generational superstar and an international role model as a captain and a player.
Brazil has also produced a few world-class full-backs in the last few years. Some standout names include Marcelo and Dani Alves, two extremely attacking full-backs who locked horns on more than one occasion in El Classicos over the years. They almost assumed the role of wingers, and played out of place all the time, on opposite sides of the field. Both, however, have been drowned in the din surrounding Messi and Ronaldo, who, at the time, were at their peaks for Barcelona and Madrid respectively. Alves and Jordi Alba formed a formidable partnership that rattled defenses all over Spain and Europe, winning 6 La Liga titles and 3 Champions League titles with Barcelona during his stint with them. Marcelo was, and still is, a part of an iconic Real Madrid side, who made the dream of La Decima a reality, and even went on to win three more titles after that.
Off late, however, England has emerged as a full-back producing powerhouse and have incredible depth at both right-back and left-back spots. Their vast shortlist includes players like Kyle Walker, Ben Chilwell, Reece James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but off late one player has stolen the limelight. That player is none other than Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. The young scouser broke into the first team at the age of 19 and has picked up pace in the last two years. He has recorded 12 assists in each of his last two Premier League campaigns and has also broken the record for most assists by a defender in a single season. His brilliant crossing ability and dead-ball skills have been monumental in his record-breaking campaigns and adds another dimension to this talented Red. At this rate, he will soar to reach unexpected heights under the tutelage of Jürgen Klopp in the coming years.
The future of the full-back position is bright as young talents have been emerging from all over the world. The position, which was once meant for failed wingers, and third choice centre backs, is now an integral part of every team and kids aspire to be the next Marcelo or Lahm and represent their dream team as a full-back at the highest level. The shift in mindset is complete, and people have started to realize the importance of full-backs in association football over the years. But they need to be truly respected for what they are – The most versatile players across the pitch.
Written by Hrishikesh Chaudhuri | Feature image by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images
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