50 Greatest Defenders in World Football History
Welcome to Bleacher Report's official list of the world's greatest defenders in the history of football.
You will find the much-revered, the slightly unsung and the possibly unheard of in this list, but we assure you each and every entry has been worth their weight in gold to their respective teams and nations over the years.
From Helenio Herrera's catenaccio to Vanderlei Luxembourgo's magical quadrilateral, defending has changed significantly over the last century.
We've extracted the best from each era for you to enjoy.
What makes a player great?
Is it the amount of trophies they've accrued across the course of their careers? Is the minimum requirement to have made a significant international contribution?
Or are you truly great if you changed the way football is played?
Well, there is no set criteria. That's why there's such high levels of disagreement as to who's the best, or even who are the top 25.
That's the beauty of football: Its source of brilliance is its opinionated nature.
I could not have completed this list without two vital sources, and they deserve (or perhaps legally require?) a mention.
Firstly, FIFA's Classic Player Index was a great source of information. It has great quotes, accurate information and provides well-written documented history.
Second, Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics was an invaluable source for unique information and tactical insight, bringing you more than just a list of trophies for each player.
Paolo Maldini is a rare one-club man. He spent every single one of his 25 seasons in football playing for AC Milan and his nickname—Il Capitano—is symbolic of his authority and influence in the club.
He won an incredible five European Cup finals, accumulated 126 caps for his national side Italy and even won the Scudetto in an unbeaten season.
The Rossoneri legend anchored and led the infallible back line which destroyed Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 European Cup final.
Nílton Santos was a pioneer, a turning point and a revelation.
He was one of the first defenders to ever truly attack, and he became synonymous with marauding runs down the left-hand side from a deep position.
He was so influential among Brazilian footballing theorists that Vanderlei Luxembourgo modeled the formation he used at Real Madrid—the magical quadrilateral—with a Santos-esque player in mind.
His 4-2-2-2 was built with a strong core specifically to allow full-backs to bomb forward whenever they wanted, ensuring the compact nature of the defence was able to cover them properly.
Cafu is the most-capped Brazilian player of all time, recording 142 sensational appearances for the Seleção from 1990-2006.
He perfected the role of the modern right-wing-back and, in the 2002 FIFA World Cup final, ran Marco Bode and Christoph Metzelder into the ground.
He tasted World Cup glory twice, along with a significant number of domestic successes with both AS Roma and AC Milan, and remains one of the greatest right-backs ever to have graced the game.
How many defenders can claim they've won the Ballon d'Or? Just one, and that's Fabio Cannavaro.
The Italian centre-half enjoyed success with Parma, Juventus and Real Madrid at club level, whilst also captaining his nation Italy to a World Cup victory in 2006.
His immense performance in the final earned him the nickname Muro di Berlino, and he went on to break Paolo Maldini's record of 126 international caps, eventually beating it by 10 before retiring.
Carles Puyol is a monstrous defender—no matter how hard you hit him, he never goes down.
Just last week, the Catalonian fractured his cheekbone in a challenge against Osasuna, but played on for 20 minutes before going to hospital at the end of the game.
His commanding presence has blessed both Barcelona and Spain for over a decade, won multiple honours and scored the all-important goal in the 2010 World Cup semifinal against Germany to help Spain be crowned champions for the first time.
Creaky knees be damned, alcoholism be damned.
Paul McGrath was far from a physical specimen, but his reading of the game was so superb he barely ever had to break into a sprint.
He consistently shone for Aston Villa and Manchester United, while he is still considered one of the best players ever to have donned the green shirt for the Republic of Ireland.
It is arguable that his greatest-ever performances was his one-man shutout of Italy in the 1994 World Cup. Footage of this other-worldly display can been see here.
We'll let the respected figures in the game take this one.
"(Elias) Figueroa is the best Chilean player of all time, and probably the finest central defender in the history of football in the Americas." - Pele
“I’m the European Figueroa.” - Franz Beckenbauer
“If you asked me to compare 'Don Elias' to someone, I couldn’t give you an answer." - Rubens Minelli
“In the air he fought like a lion. If he jumped with two Russians, the ball would be his when he came down.” - Juvan Olivares
Daniel Passarella captained the 1978 Argentina squad to World Cup glory.
His leadership, bravery and footballing intelligence set him apart from the rest, earning him the nickname El Gran Capitan, after Luis Cesar Menotti handed him the armband.
He was famous for his surging runs forward, and his 22 goals from 70 international appearances is actually better than Fernando Torres' record for Spain.
Ronald Koeman is perhaps Barcelona's greatest-ever defender, trumping even Carles Puyol to that title.
He was part of the Dutch dominance Johan Cruyff brought in, and his surging runs represented a relatively new style of defending for the time.
His free kicks were, of course, one of the major reasons he has gone down in the history books.
It was his set piece that won the 1992 European Cup final, and scoring over 100 goals in his position is a remarkable feat.
He is the current record holder for goals scored by a centre-back, breaking Daniel Passarella's former record.
Ruud Krol was not only incredibly talented, he was also incredibly versatile.
He made his debut at left-back for Ajax, but ended up playing anywhere head coah Rinus Michels required him to, be that midfield or even sweeper.
He won the Dutch championship an astounding eight times and finished runner-up in the World Cup final twice, losing the second bout to Daniel Passarella's Argentina in 1978.
Roberto Carlos' all-round abilities have often been overlooked by this free kick, among others.
Astounding as it was, and at the time many believed physically impossible, his ability as a shuttler, a passer and a crosser were also elite.
Winning the World Cup in 2002 was the crowning achievement for him and no less than he deserved, having turned out for Real Madrid with consistent excellence.
Tony Adams is one of the best central defenders the English game has seen, and he was standout performer in the Premier League during his playing days.
A very influential figure at the back, Arsenal benefited from his presence and have thanked him appropriately—a statue of him stands outside the Emirates Stadium.
Adams featured in the Team of the Decade for the Premier League's first 10 seasons, cementing his place as one of the best defenders to feature on our screens.
Franz Beckenbauer is widely regarded as one of the best players ever to play the game, with his mastering of the modern libero role influencing German football for decades to come.
By 1974, Der Kaiser was the established attacking sweeper in Die Mannschaft's 1-3-3-3 formation, although he had actually played in that role since the late 1960s for Bayern Munich under coach Zlatko Cajkovski.
Germany won the World Cup that year.
Sir Alf Ramsey on Bobby Moore: “My captain, my leader, my right-hand man. He was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team. A cool, calculating footballer I could trust with my life. He was the supreme professional, the best I ever worked with. Without him England would never have won the World Cup."
It was Moore, in combination with the incredible Nobby Stiles, that kept England's defence watertight that year, and it was his long ball which delivered Geoff Hurst the fourth and killer goal in the final against West Germany.
Moore was inspirational not only in that tournament, but also as the captain of West Ham United for 10 years. His statue outside Wembley Stadium is a testament to the influence he had in the game.
Gaetano Scirea was a key player in Italy's 1982 World Cup win and follows a common trend across the mid-to-late 20th century of installing a libero.
Like Franz Beckenbauer and Velibor Vasevic, Scirea made this role a vital component for any footballing side. He fulfilled it expertly for the Italian national side and brought the ball out of defence with consummate ease.
Italy joining the Germans and the Dutch in employing a 1-3-3-3 as standard all but confirmed the ideology that this was the most effective way of battling the shortcomings of Helenio Herrera's catenaccio system.
While Helenio Herrera's catenaccio was deemed explicitly as a defensive formation to many, Herrera himself despised anyone who reproduced it in such a way.
Giacinto Facchetti was the anomaly in an otherwise rigid formation, and the Nerazzurri all-timer was the epitome of the revolutionary attacking full-back in Europe.
His marauding runs allowed him to reach double figures one season, initiating wild comparisons with strikers by his boss.
Internazionale have retired the No. 3 shirt, worn by Facchetti throughout his 18-year career in Milan.
It's difficult to believe Philipp Lahm is still only 28 years old—he's been a top-tier full-back for the last eight years or more.
He currently captains both Bayern Munich and the German national team and offers great attacking width on the left or the right.
He's scored his fair share of cracking goals, and perhaps the only thing missing from his resume is a major international trophy. With the current crop Germany have, he could well captain them to a victory before his playing career ends.
Lúcio is another rare breed in football—a player so talented in the air and on the deck does not come around very often.
His 2002 World Cup victory, partnering Roque Júnior and Edmílson in a three-man central defensive scheme, is the crowning moment in a career laden with achievements.
This video, at 0:45, tells you everything you need to know about the Brazilian.
Although not in focus, anyone who remembers the moment Lúcio blocked a shot against Barcelona in the 2010 UEFA Champions League semifinal and let out a great roar afterwards will know it's enough to chill the spine.
Claudio Gentile, like Gaetano Scirea, featured in Italy's 1982 World Cup-winning side and played as an old style full-back, single-handedly marking Diego Maradona out of the game during the second round.
He was also present for what many claim is one of the greatest games football has ever witnessed, in which the Azzurri beat a Socrates-inspired Brazil, 3-2, on the way to the trophy.
Domestically, Gentile was a huge success with Juventus, bagging six Serie A titles on his way to a place in the Old Lady's record books.
It's remarkably hard to find footage of Marius Trésor, which is a shame considering his immense size and talent.
Those who do remember him will recall forwards quaking in their boots considering a U-turn rather than taking him on, tremendous surges out of defence and aerial dominance of the likes seldom seen.
He captained France in the 1982 World Cup, losing the third-placed playoff match to a Polish team featuring the likes of Zibi Boniek and Stefan Majewski.
Jaap Stam has won trophies wherever he's gone in football.
He once held the record as the most expensive Dutch footballer—a feat even more incredible considering he's a centre-back—as his move from PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United cost just over £10 million.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Stam won the UEFA Champions League in 1999 and was voted Player of the Tournament to go with it.
Internationally speaking, the Dutch master has been unlucky. Three semifinals in major competitions but no silverware to show for it.
For the last five years, world football has struggled to shake off the memories of a Jose Mourinho-inspired Chelsea displaying defensive masterclasses that win titles.
Pep Guardiola, who is a revolutionary in every sense of the word, unleashed this Brazilian full-back to his full potential when taking him to Barcelona, and now Dani Alves is a consensus world-class right-sider.
His domestic record is spotless. He's been at La Blaugrana just four years but has picked up 14 trophies, including two UEFA Champions League titles and three consecutive La Ligas.
A World Cup win in his native Brazil in 2014 would surely see Alves to the level of consideration Cafu enjoys.
The Italian line of mentoring is astounding and helps you understand why Italy have been consistently brilliant at the back.
Franco Baresi, a one-club man and AC Milan legend, was mentored directly by the great Gaetano Scirea, who blocked his path to the Italian national team for four long years. Baresi then mentored Paolo Maldini, who in turn mentored Alessandro Nesta.
After the 1986 World Cup Baresi, he assumed his preferred libero role for the Italian national team, placing third at Italia '90. Famed Brazilian striker Romário credited the performance of Baresi in explaining why he had such a quiet game in the semifinal.
While his international career was patchy and controversial, Alan Hansen's domestic contributions to the success of Liverpool football club should never be forgotten.
He was a clever and formidable central defender who captained his beloved Merseyside club to an astounding eight league titles and three European Cups.
Knee injury problems cut his glittering career short, but fans will never forget how important a role he played in a golden age for the Reds.
The interestingly named Bixente Lizarazu, or Liza as the fans called him, is the most unsung player in the French back four who won the 1998 World Cup and subsequent 2000 European Championships.
The left-back, enamoured for his energy, commitment and elite ability, spent over 10 years in total with German heavyweights Bayern Munich and collected an admirable 16 trophies with them.
This goal was pretty good too.
José Leandro Andrade
José Leandro Andrade was an All-Star selection from the Uruguay team which won the first-ever World Cup in 1934.
Playing as an old-fashioned wing half, he never moved to a club outside of his home continent (as was the norm back then) and enjoyed domestic success with Penarol and Nacional.
Two Olympic gold medals sat nicely alongside his World Cup winners' one before he tragically succumbed to tuberculosis.
Lothar Matthaus is remembered, for the most part, as an elite midfielder, and while he was excellent in the centre of the park, he was excellent in defence too.
He was hugely successful in his international and domestic career, scooping up multiple team awards in addition to his own individual Ballon d'Or in 1990*.
That same year, he won the FIFA World Cup, lifting the trophy as captain for Germany.
*He won the Ballon d'Or listed as a midfielder, preserving Fabio Cannavaro's achievement.
Javier Zanetti has played for Inter since 1995, making over 700 appearances for the club and hauling in 17 trophy wins.
Despite winning Serie A five times, his crowning achievement will always be the 2010 UEFA Champions League victory under Jose Mourinho.
His 145 international caps for Argentina have unfortunately surmounted to nothing, but he has been the one reliable and solid Argentinian defender across a plagued decade of inconsistent performers.
Of Marcel Desailly, Paolo Maldini said, "He is without doubt the greatest foreign defender ever to have played in calcio."
He is widely acclaimed as the backbone of the French team who won both the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships, despite playing alongside Laurent Blanc, Bixente Lizarazu and Lillian Thuram.
Not only was he immensely strong, dominant in the air and uncompromising in the tackle, but he was versatile too.
Arrigo Sacchi deployed him in a pure holding midfield role for much of his early career in Milan, protecting an already-impregnable back four.
Paul Breitner was a man who knew no discipline.
The idea that he played in defence was confined to the pre-match team sheet, as his all-action style of play took him all over the pitch.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed great successes. League titles with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich saw him to domestic greatness, while winning the 1972 European Championships and 1974 World Cup saw him become a German legend.
He is also the infamous 17-hour Bundestrainer.
José Santamaría had an eventful career to say the least, playing for both Uruguay and Spain's national sides.
His exploits for Uruguay saw him recruited by Real Madrid, and five league titles and four European Cups represents one of the best trophy hauls in the history of the game.
Santamaría's Uruguay lost to Hungary in the semifinal of the 1954 World Cup, then subsequently fell to Austria in the third-placed playoff.
While it's easy to scoff at these results, keep in mind this was Austria's golden age coming off the back of Wily Meisl's influences in the mid-1930s, while Gusztav Sebes' Hungary were fielding the likes of legendary inside-left Zoltan Czibor and withdrawn centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti.
Wim Suurbier spent 13 glorious years at Ajax, lifting the UEFA Champions League three times in a row in a team led by Johan Cruyff.
That team, famous for typifying Dutch "total football" in the 1970s, also won seven Eredivisie titles and four league cups.
Suurbier himself was a right-back, and he was integral to one of Ajax's best seasons (1971-72) in which he shot forward with regularity, knowing Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan and Gerrie Muhren had the positional discipline to cover the holes he left.
Júlio César Da Silva
Despite playing just 13 matches for Brazil, he is revered by the public as one of the very greatest Brazilian central defenders in footballing history.
His exploits in the 1986 World Cup won him the Best Central Defender Award in the tournament, despite missing a crucial penalty against France in the quarterfinals.
He also enjoyed domestic success with Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Montpellier.
Danny McGrain was coming to the fore just as Jock Stein's famous Celtic side defeated the much-despised catenaccio of Helenio Herrera's Inter in 1967.
He was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame after securing 62 international caps. Celtic secured seven Premier League titles with McGrain and Co. on the roster.
Interestingly, McGrain is a self-professed Rangers fan.
El Negro Jefe captained Uruguay to a 1950 World Cup victory against one of the best sides Brazil has ever put out.
Obdulio Varela, who can just about be classed as a defender despite playing in the old-fashioned centre-half role for most of his career, was influential in the game and rightly lifted the cup.
Juan López, La Celeste's manager for the tournament, created something approaching a verrou of Karl Rappan in order to spoil Brazil's flair and attacking movement.
Varela was integral to this, and he started the move for the second and crucial goal—a sweeping cross from the right finished off by Alcides Ghiggia.
"Silence in the Maracana."
Similar to Obdulio Varela is Luisito Monti.
He played slightly deeper than his Uruguayan comrade, dropping deeper than a traditional centre-half had even done under Vitorio Pozzo for Juventus.
Having played for Argentina in 1930, he switched allegiances to Italy and represented them in 1934 World Cup, playing just ahead of Eraldo Monzeglio and Luigi Allemandi.
His role was coined the centro mediano, and he himself was nicknamed "doble ancho" for his ability to cover the amount of ground two regular players would.
Fernando Hierro had everything. He was a world-class ball-winner, hit long, accurate passes with ease and holds a better scoring record for the Spanish national team than Fernando Torres does.
International honours have been hard to come by for a long time if you're Spanish, but all that changed in 2008. Unfortunately, Hierro had retired by then, but his talent must not be called into question.
He spent 14 years at Real Madrid, netting over 100 goals from central defence. He accrued five league titles, three UEFA Champions League wins and a single Supercopa win.
Armando Picchi was seen as the conventional, uncomplicated sweeper.
His role as a libero was the simplest of all the possible variations and remained limited in its obligations unlike Gaetano Sciera or Pierluigi Cera's were.
Picchi was the cornerstone and captain of La Grande Inter, the catenaccio-inspired side led by revolutionary coach Helenio Herrera.
The word catenaccio, which translates to "door-bolt," is an apt description of the Nerrazzuri's style during the 1960s.
They were actually undone by a stunning Celtic side in the 1967 European Cup final, but had won the trophy back-to-back in the two previous years.
Domingos da Guia
Domingos da Guia must be admired for several reasons.
Not only was he, by all reports, a sterling central defender, but he also played amid tough times for blacks in football.
The Brazilian public had a tendency to blame their nation's footballing shortcomings on the black players, deterring many from even playing on the international landscape.
Domingos put up with racial abuse even with beloved domestic club Bangu.
José Antonio Camacho
There aren't many prestigious names in the history of Spanish defenders, and beyond Carles Puyol and Fernando Hierro, many run dry of suggestions.
José Antonio Camacho, however, managed to secure 19 major titles with Real Madrid in a 15-year period, including nine La Liga titles and five Supercopas.
Internationally, Camacho contributed to continued disappointments for La Furia Roja's major competition hopes, but still accrued over 80 appearances for his country.
Tarcisio Burgnich shared a defensive line with Armando Picchi and Giaccinto Facchetti both for club and country.
He played as an old-fashioned right-back, but his role was morphed under Helenio Herrera's catenaccio with La Grande Inter.
To overcome the catenaccio's weakness of being swamped in the middle of the park, Jair was used in a tornante* role, an alteration that naturally adjusted Burgnich's starting position.
He was every bit as part of the solidity Herrera's side enjoyed, and his trophy cabinet looks incredibly similar to Picchi's.
*The right-winger adopted a slightly more infield position and tracked the opposing left-backs' surges more doggedly than the left-winger would. Modern day comparison: Dirk Kuyt.
Despite a surprising lack of international caps for Brazil, Luís Pereira's performances at centre-back in the 1974 World Cup have safely secured his passage into footballing history.
Brazil themselves were recovering after the golden generation of 1970 had retired or dropped away from the international scene.
Netherlands had begun to utilise total football mixed with a physical nature, essentially expanding and evolving the Seleção tactics from four years previous.
It's safe to say the '74 Canarinhos weren't happy with humiliation, and Pereira in particular was red-carded for a horrendous tackle on Johan Neeskens.
He tasted league success with both Palmeiras and Atlético Madrid.
Matthias Sammer switched to a sweeper role late in his career and enjoyed considerable success in doing so.
He was awarded the UEFA Euro 1996 Best Player gong and partnered Thomas Helmer in defence. Germany went on to win that tournament, and Sammer was, of course, influential in proceedings.
Sammer won German Footballer of the Year for two consecutive seasons in an era where Jurgen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff and Mehmet Scholl were in their primes.
It's not often that a player like Ricardo Carvalho—who has just been sent to the Real Madrid reserves after a loan move to Queens Park Rangers fell through—is considered in the same breath as this company.
One look at his record, though, and it's tough to understand why. He's won the league seven times with three different clubs and flourished under Jose Mourinho in his UEFA Champions League-winning season with Porto in 2004.
His performances for Portugal were consistently excellent too, landing him a spot in the Team of the Tournament in Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006.
Berti Vogts fell agonisingly short of 100 caps for Germany, but still managed to lift the 1974 World Cup.
Der Terrier marked Johan Cruyff out of the game in the final, limiting the '70s Dutch total football team to second place in the tournament.
He won multiple league titles with Borussia Monchengladbach at domestic level, enamouring himself to the entire German public.
Laurent Blanc, voted the fourth-best French player of all time in France Football magazine, shares the same two defining achievements as others on this list—one World Cup (1998), one European Championship (2000).
He took in spells at prestigious clubs such as Marseille, Manchester United and Barcelona, while securing trophies in each country of the respective club's origin.
Djalma Santos was a flying full-back for Brazil, winning consecutive World Cups in 1958 and 1962.
He played primarily on the right side of defence, but was often integral to his team's attacks. He was named in the '58 World Cup All-Star team despite only playing the final, and won multiple domestic honours with Palmeiras in Brazil.
Djalma played until the age of 42, which is an astounding achievement considering the time he played in.
Lilian Thuram currently holds the record for the most-capped French player with 142 international appearances made in a variety of roles across the back four.
He turned out for Juventus and Barcelona before sadly retiring due to a heart condition, but enjoyed a prestigious career when healthy.
Two Serie A titles with the Old Lady and championship medals with France put paid to any doubts about Thuram's ability.
Former Milan and Lazio centre-back Alessandro Nesta has had an injury-plagued career, but still makes the list due to sheer talent shown when fit.
Throughout his 10-year spell at Milan, he formed some solid partnerships with a variety of top-class players such as Thiago Silva, Kakha Kaladze, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta.
An injury early in the 2006 World Cup saw him miss the knockout stages but still pickup a deserved winner's medal. Three Serie A titles and two UEFA Champions League victories, among other achievements, cement him as one of the best defenders Serie A ever laid eyes on.
Carlos Alberto Torres
Carlos Alberto Torres was made captain of Brazil after missing the cut for the 1966 World Cup.
He led his team to a world-renowned victory in 1970 and scored one of the best goals in footballing history from the right-back position.
This Seleção team is widely regarded as the very best the world has seen. Alberto led a group containing Jairzinho, Pelé, Rivellino, Gérson and Tostao, and he absolutely smashed Italy to pieces in the final at Azteca, Mexico City.
Said Italy side contained the aforementioned Giaccinto Facchetti, Tarcisio Burgnich and Pierluigi Cera, so exactly how good was this side? Very, very good.
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