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They say defending is an art. Well, at least that’s what they used to say. But perhaps the days of traditional, old-school, no-nonsense defending are well and truly behind us.
There are undoubtedly defenders currently out there who live and die by this attitude, but they are few and far between in a culture of free-flowing, attacking, entertaining football. The likes of Virgil van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Giorgio Chiellini and David Alaba are currently flying the flag for the current crop of the world’s best defenders, but even they fall short when compared to the players that have come before them.
The heroes of old will live long in the memory for their rock-solid displays, while the modern-day stars at the back will perhaps be remembered more for their ability with the ball at their feet. Whichever you prefer, both have played a key role in the way football has been played over the years, with issues like leadership and awareness remaining constant throughout.
It’s fair to say that the very best defenders pride themselves on keeping clean sheets, winning their individual battles, and do just about anything to stop opposition strikers from having a better 90 minutes than them. That is, of course, much easier said than done. The very best, however, make it look so very easy.
We take a look at the top 10 best defenders of all time.
10. Carles Puyol
Barcelona legend Carles Puyol will be remembered fondly for many reasons, with his off the ball duties as captain associated with sportsmanship and equality. On the ball meanwhile, the Spaniard was known for his strict defensive duties, from ensuring his team-mates were constantly in the right place, to his commanding presence in the air.
A true leader, the centre-back was also one of the very few one-club players of his generation, spending his entire career in the red and blue stripes of Barcelona. For that, he is largely associated with Catalonia, with the Barca eternally faithful grateful for their long-serving icon. Puyol retired in 2014 with six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, one World Cup and one European Championship to his name.
9. Gaetano Scirea
Another remarkable defender, whose career and life was taken far too early at the age of 36. Atalanta saw the beginnings of a promising trajectory for Gaetano Scirea, with Italian giants Juventus then taking their chance on the youngster after just two years of Serie A football. Despite his shortened professional career, he is widely regarded as one of the best defenders of all time.
But it was a move that paid off immediately, with the Italian going on to become a club legend for the Old Lady. During his time at the club, the defender won every piece of silverware there was to offer, including two Italian Cups, one European Cup, one UEFA Cup, and the small matter of seven Serie A titles. The south stand of Juventus Stadium – occupied by the ultras – is now known as the Curva Scirea, as a tribute to their beloved former defender.
8. Giacinto Facchetti
Another truly special Italian international in a long line of imposing Italian defenders, Giacinto Facchetti was another whose life was taken from him far too soon. He has, however, left a lasting legacy at former club Inter Milan – with whom he spent his entire career – and indeed the wider footballing community.
The left-back will forever be known as one of the greatest to ever play in the position, such was his tendency to not only get forward, but to cause mayhem for opposition defenders when he did indeed get forward. His intelligence and stamina were key in Inter’s catenaccio system under boss Helenio Herrera, whose Grande Inter side won four Serie A titles and two European Cups, with the full-back captaining his national team to Euro 1968 glory on home soil.
7. Roberto Carlos
Another left-back that took the world by storm, Brazilian icon Roberto Carlos enjoyed an illustrious career that spanned well over two decades, with Real Madrid and his beloved nation privy to such success over the years. His wicked left foot is one of the greatest weapons that world football has ever seen, the like of which may not be seen ever again.
Both Palmeiras and Inter Milan welcomed the diminutive full-back among their ranks for brief periods, but it was at Madrid where Carlos truly found a home. He won four La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues with the Spanish outfit, while he sits second in Brazil’s all-time appearances list with 125, helping his country clinch a memorable World Cup trophy in 2002.
For every great left-back in a successful team, there is an equally impressive right-back, and Brazil were fortunate enough to have Cafu in that role for an incredible 16 years. Unsurprisingly then, it is the former AC Milan man who sits top of that aforementioned Brazilian appearance list with 142. His four goals in that time perhaps epitomise just how seriously he undertook his defensive duties, despite still getting forward more often than not.
Both Sao Paulo and Milan both got several years out of the bombarding full-back, but Roma perhaps enjoyed his best spell between 1997 and 2003. Both Italian sides have Cafu’s name in their prestigious Hall of Fame, given how he helped them both secure a Serie A title. A Champions League followed with I Rossoneri, while he lifted two World Cups near the beginning and end of his illustrious Brazilian national team venture.
5. Alessandro Nesta
Calmness and reliability are two words that come to mind when speaking of former Italy international Alessandro Nesta. Elegance and distribution are another two, while the centre-back’s pace also helped him build an astonishing career that lasted over two decades.
Half of that was spent at Lazio, with AC Milan benefitting massively from the other half, with the defender winning one Serie A title with the former and two with the latter. Nesta also helped I Rossoneri to two Champions League titles, playing a central role in a star-studded lineup filled with fully-fledged European and world-beaters.
4. Bobby Moore
Like other star defenders, Moore also lost his life at such a young age, but fortunately he is remembered fondly by both West Ham and England supporters, with both groups of fans honouring him in their own special way. His iconic statue stands tall at Wembley Stadium, while the Hammers retired his number six jersey 15 years after his death in 2008.
Everyone, however, remembers Moore for his special ability to read the game, with such a key trait helping him to lift the 1966 World Cup as England captain. He was, of course, also an outstanding skipper at his beloved east London club, with whom he played over 600 matches across a 16-year period. He will forever be cherished as one of the best defenders of all time.
3. Franco Baresi
Yet another Italian leader at the back, Franco Baresi is another epitome of what it means to be a one-club man, having spent his 20-year-long career with AC Milan. Captaining the club for 15 seasons, he achieved countless team and individual honours during, including six Serie A titles and three European Cups, forming a formidable backline alongside Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini.
Despite hanging up his boots a long time ago, his name still reverberates around the streets of Milan to this day, particularly with the club having struggled so much in recent years. They now look to be something like the Milan of old, but they will perhaps never see a player quite like Baresi. The Serie A outfit paid their former leader the biggest compliment possible by retiring his old number six jersey upon his retirement in 1997.
2. Franz Beckenbauer
Nicknamed ‘Der Kaiser’, Franz Beckenbauer is largely credited for inventing the role of the modern sweeper, such were his iconic displays at the back. Over 400 appearances for German giants Bayern Munich saw him clinch four Bundesliga titles, as well as three successive European Cups, becoming the first player to win three European Cups as captain of a club.
If that wasn’t enough, Beckenbauer also made 103 appearances for West Germany at international level. Further glory arrived for his nation, with the heroic defender winning the Euros and World Cup in 1972 and 1974 respectively.
1. Paolo Maldini
When one thinks of all the class, style and composure in the world at the back, there is only one man that comes to man. AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini is that man. And he is another to have his iconic shirt number retired upon giving up the game, with his special number three only available to either of his two sons, should they ever get the opportunity to do so.
But their father’s achievements on the pitch may never be repeated ever again, with the one-club man winning countless trophies throughout over 600 appearances in red and black. Such honours include seven Serie A titles and five European Cups. Aggression and physicality made way for intelligence and grace during his displays, with Maldini regarded in many footballing circles as one of the best defenders – if not the very best -of all time.