Liberato Cacace is one of few young New Zealanders flying the flag in Europe. The Sint-Truiden left-back speaks exclusively to FTF about overcoming rejection, playing next to Winston Reid and fulfilling his Italian dream.
It’s 9 July 2006. A five-year-old Liberato Cacace is glued to the television set. Italy face France in a tense World Cup final.
As Fabio Grosso smashes home the winner in a gripping penalty shootout, not long after Zidane’s infamous headbutt, he knows football is to become his lifelong passion.
‘My roots go back to Italy. Both my parents are from Naples. They both met in Italy but my mum was born in New Zealand. My great grandparents on my mum’s side took a boat to New Zealand,’ Cacace told First Time Finish.
‘My mum asked my dad to come and live in New Zealand and the rest is history!’
‘In 2006, I remember watching the World Cup as a family. Italy winning the World Cup is my first real memory of football. The whole team caught my eye but mainly Cannavaro, the captain, really showed great spirit and that’s where my love for football started.’
Liberato Cacace’s career started with Island Bay United but he developed into what he is today during his time with Wellington Phoenix.
‘Back in the academy, I thought maybe I’ve got a shot here. I remember when I had my debut for the Phoenix and from there it happened very quickly. I got more opportunities and once I had a full season, I thought I could forge a career out of this,’ Cacace said.
However, Liberato Cacace’s youth career wasn’t always smooth. Prior to joining the Phoenix, the full-back faced a harsh rejection which made him hate the sport he’d fallen so deeply for.
‘I trialled at the Wellington Phoenix academy and initially I actually didn’t make it. My dad told me and I was very upset and I was thinking ‘I hate football, it’s not made for me’. I thought my dream was crushed,’ he admitted.
‘I played for the regional team in Wellington and we’d come up against the (Phoenix) academy and I used to try and prove them wrong and, a year later, they told me to come back.’
Liberato Cacace’s later success at New Zealand’s biggest club is a testament to his resolve.
‘They told me I’d be a part of the academy. I’d keep making my way up, made my debut and had a great season with the Phoenix. It was a great memory even though it started pretty bad. If something goes wrong, you can overcome it.’
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Cacace made his debut for the Wellington Phoenix first-team as a 17-year-old in 2017/18. He went on to make 58 senior appearances, scoring four and staking his claim as one of the best full-backs in the A-League.
But having seen fellow countryman and ex-club-mate Sarpreet Singh swap the Phoenix for Bayern Munich, he started to believe his European dream was a reality.
‘Europe was a big step away and when I went to the Under-20 World Cup, I started to believe in my ability. I started to believe I could make it into Europe and here I am now. I have shown other New Zealanders that we can compete with the rest of the world.’
Liberato Cacace signed for Belgian Pro League club Sint-Truiden on 28 August 2020. At the Limburg club, he has had the chance to mingle with players of many different cultures.
Sint-Truiden’s takeover by DMM.com in November 2017 has aided a flurry of Japanese talent in making the move to Europe. The squad also features a Guinean, a Brazilian, a Portuguese and players from a number of other countries.
‘Coming here, you’ve got so many cultures mixing together. The French, the Japanese, the South American. It’s a fun group to work with and it’s helped me open up and experience new cultures I’ve never experienced before. It’s great to see us mixing together and becoming one and the camaraderie is great.’
The big stage
Sint-Truiden’s Australian coaching staff at the time played a substantial part in Cacace’s move to Belgium.
‘The reason I joined was because of the relationship I had with the coaches at the time. I didn’t know Kevin (Muscat) but Luciano Trani became a good family friend of ours when he was at Phoenix as an assistant coach,’ Cacace told FTF.
Trani worked at Phoenix when Liberato Cacace was a child. Sint-Truiden’s head coach was Kevin Muscat, formerly known for terrifying English and Scottish defences in the 90s and 00s.
But, like with many managers at the club, Muscat’s tenure didn’t last long. The Australian was dismissed after 14 games and a win percentage of 0.79%.
His replacement was ex-Genk boss Peter Maes whose plan for Cacace was different – but a challenge he’d face before.
It’s widely acknowledged that a large proportion of European coaches want their full-backs to push further up than in times gone by. Some employ a back four but require a defensive midfielder to move back into defence to allow the wide defenders freedom to attack.
But, this season, Maes has adopted a 5-3-2 with Liberato Cacace taking up a wing-back role.
The New Zealander has his preferences but explains versatility is key.
‘Back in Wellington, I played as a left-back in a back four. This season, I’m left-wing-back in a back five. It’s been challenging. The tempo is much higher than in Australia and it took me a while to adjust. I’m still adjusting.’
‘I’m glad I can play both as I think it’s important now that you can change your game up and play in different positions. I think I’m a real threat making those runs late and overlapping, making the runs unmarked. I feel more comfortable in a back four but I’m happy to play wherever the coach wants me.’
Liberato Cacace’s skill, attacking impetus and positional flexibility saw him linked with Juventus in January. This is remarkable considering his short European career. But the youngster, who holds an Italian passport, has always dreamed of Serie A football.
Fiaba del calcio
That’s ‘football fairy tale’ to me and you. Liberato Cacace has had his heart set on playing in Serie A since he was a child.
With Juventus knocking, this could become a reality sooner than he had hoped. Playing in Italy’s top flight for any club is a goal but Cacace roots mean Napoli tops his list.
‘I’ve always made it clear I want to play in Italy for Napoli. I’m still 20 and I’ve got a long career ahead of me. I want to take small steps and not rush into things. It’s important to play your best and the rest will sort out itself. Playing here every week is always a positive.’
‘You’re always going to improve. We will see what happens in the summer but there’s no real team I’d like to play for. I think Serie A would be a great challenge.’
It appears Liberato Cacace is well on his way to attaining his aspirations in Europe. But how has life been on the international front?
All Whites’ teammates
‘It’s always refreshing talking about the national team. I’m buzzing to be out there again. We’ve got a great bunch of young footballers coming through with a great mix of experienced players. I think we can create something very special at the Olympics,’ Cacace told FTF exclusively.
‘Playing alongside Chris Wood and Winston Reid, they are great people to look up to and outstanding footballers as well. Along with Reid, it’s great to have him supporting and encouraging you.’
Capped three times at full international level, Cacace seems set for international triumph as well. At just 20 years old with the world at his feet, it will be a treat to see how far he can go.
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