20 Most Legendary Club Captains
The role of captain is often underappreciated in the world of football. But the man wearing the coveted armband can often prove the difference between a good team and one which has the ability to take on all comers and become remembered as one of the greats.
A great captain does not need to be the best player on any given team; nor, indeed, a footballer of spectacular talent. But this individual needs something special to drive his companions on to glory. It could be an unbreakable spirit, unyielding commitment or the ability to lead by example, which inspires the best out of those who surround them on the pitch.
The following is a list of the 20 players who best symbolise these winning attributes at club level, placing them in the pantheon of football's greatest captains.
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Known more for his outrageous talent on the pitch than his leadership, Pele nevertheless was the centre of the Santos team that conquered the world during the 1960s. O Rei broke all records during that golden era, setting a benchmark for South American football that has never been equalled.
Although he was a more symbolic captain than anything, reflecting his status as the greatest player on the planet, Pele led Santos to two Copas Libertadores and two Intercontinental Cups in as many years during 1962 and 1963, defeating Benfica and Milan in successive seasons.
Six Serie A triumphs in eight years led many to believe that Santos were the greatest side in South America, with Pele the jewel in their crown.
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Tasked with replacing the giant figure of Fernando Hierro as Real Madrid captain when he stepped into the breach, Raul showed he was up to the challenge, as for the last six years of his career in the Bernabeu he continued to drive his side forward.
Despite constant turmoil and change both on and off the pitch, the striker was one player who could always be counted on.
In 16 years as a member of the Madrid first-team squad, Raul played under no less than 15 coaches who entered the Bernabeu revolving door—several of those also having second spells while the forward was still at the club.
In the face of this upheaval, the player was always unbowed and went on to score a mammoth 323 goals in 741 games to make his bid for the Merengue hall of fame.
18. Francesco Totti
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Being a great captain is not all about going up the stairs first to lift trophies. In some cases, proving unquestionable loyalty season after mediocre season says much more about the man wearing the armband than any amount of success.
On that basis, the great Francesco Totti just has to be on this list.
A one-club man, Totti made his debut for Roma more than 20 years ago, back in March 1993. Since then the playmaker has racked up almost 700 appearances for the capital club, and for the last 14 seasons he has proudly represented his boyhood idols as captain.
Just one Serie A title has come to the Stadio Olimpico at that time, but despite the heartache of finishing runners-up no less than six times, Totti has never been tempted to leave the club he loves.
17. Fernando Hierro
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In Spanish, the surname of this Real Madrid defender means Iron; a better description for Fernando Hierro is probably impossible. Hierro represented the Merengue with pride and loyalty for almost 15 years, providing a constant on the pitch amongst a team constantly changing through transfers and instability.
The Malaga native was a key figure during Madrid's most successful spell since that mythical side of the 1950s and '60s, winning three Champions League titles and lifting La Liga five times over his Blanco career.
Forced out in 2003 after a dispute with president Florentino Perez, Hierro is nevertheless firmly placed as a historic figure in a club not usually accustomed to applauding the exploits of defensive stars.
16. Danny Blanchflower
One surefire way for a captain to go down in history is to achieve something that many people believed impossible. Using this measurement, former Tottenham midfielder and Northern Ireland international Danny Blanchflower is a more-than-worthy inclusion on this list.
In 1961, the cultured right-half shocked English football by leading Spurs to a First Division and FA Cup double, something that previously was thought to be too great a challenge for any team. In 1963 Tottenham's status as trailblazers was confirmed when Blanchflower captained them to European Cup Winners' Cup success—the first British victory in continental competition—sealing the star's place as one of the best captains in Spurs history.
15. Josep Samitier
Despite 333 strikes for the Catalan institution, Josep Samitier was not just one of the most prolific goalscorers to ever pull on the Barcelona shirt. As captain, the legendary Blaugrana figure helped to establish Barcelona as one of Spain's most important clubs by force of his goals and his infectious personality.
Samitier led Barca to the first-ever Liga title in 1929 and also helped the side lift 12 Catalan Championships in 13 years as well as five Copas del Rey in those formative days of Spanish football. Later fallouts with Barcelona staff and even a polemic defection to Real Madrid could not tarnish his name in Camp Nou, as he remained a legend for the club.
14. Giuseppe Furino
This former Juventus midfielder may not be as immediately recognisable as some of the stars who have pulled on the armband for the Old Lady. The likes of Antonio Conte, Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Baggio, however, cannot match the great Furino for the glory he brought to the Turin giants.
Furino starred in Juve for 15 consecutive seasons, 10 of which were as captain, and his eight Serie A titles tie him with former Old Lady and Inter legend Giovanni Ferrari as the most successful player in Italian domestic football.
Even playing alongside inspirational stars such as Dino Zoff and Marco Tardelli, there was only one captain who took charge at the Stadio Comunale.
13. Oliver Kahn
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A stalwart of the Bayern Munich first team for no less than 14 years, this brilliant, intimidating goalkeeper wore the Roten captain's armband with pride and led both club and country to glory over what was a sparkling career.
Kahn was Bayern captain for six years from 2002 to 2008, and over the course of his time in Bavaria he lifted the Bundesliga eight times, four of those while leading his side. His shock of blonde hair made him recognisable every time he took to the stadium, and a giant frame meant few goals slipped past the man capped 86 times by Germany.
12. Bobby Charlton
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Throughout this list we have plenty of defenders, goalkeepers and midfield destroyers. Manchester United living legend Bobby Charlton, however, was that rarest of beasts. He was an inspirational captain who also doubled as a truly wonderful player in his own right.
A survivor of the Munich air crash in 1958 that claimed the lives of so many brilliant young talents, Charlton had his revenge 10 years later when he led Matt Busby's men to become England's first European champions. The great Benfica were downed 4-1 after extra time, with the attacking midfielder himself hitting two of the goals to crown a Manchester United career that spanned 17 years and 758 games.
11. Miguel Munoz
The combative midfielder was already reaching the twilight of his career when Real Madrid entered the most successful spell of their history. The captain and later coach, however, arguably did more to inspire the Spanish giants in the 1950s and '60s than Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento combined.
Munoz captained the Merengue to European Cup glory in 1957 and 1958, and after retiring, greater success awaited him as coach in the Bernabeu. In total the Madrid legend lifted five European trophies as player and coach, as well as a not-insignificant 13 Liga titles as the club established themselves as the best on the planet.
10. Carles Puyol
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The awkward-moving, wild-haired Carles Puyol often looks out of place next to his well-groomed and aesthetically impeccable colleagues in Barcelona. For the Blaugrana faithful, however, the shaggy central defender has played just as big a role in the club's success as Xavi, Lionel Messi or any other of the Catalan club's superstars.
The one-club man continues to battle for a place in the Barca first team, despite 17 years of hard knocks, which have taken their toll physically. Some would argue that having the calibre of players in front of him that Puyol does makes his job as captain a simple one; but after six Liga titles and three Champions Leagues, his influence cannot be disputed.
9. Johan Cruyff
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Wherever Johan Cruyff went on a football pitch, victory and glory usually followed closely behind. The Dutch wizard was captain of Ajax in the early 1970s and is credited with dragging the Amsterdam club to the pinnacle of European football with his intelligence and forceful personality.
In Ajax was born the total football that would make Cruyff and the Netherlands famous and feared. Using the philosophy that every player could perform in every position, and utilising a fluidity and style unseen before in football, the club bludgeoned their way to three consecutive European Cups between 1971 and 1973. Cruyff's leadership changed Ajax, and football itself, forever.
8. Didier Deschamps
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Famously dismissed as the "Water Carrier" by temperamental countryman Eric Cantona, this quietly industrious midfielder was nevertheless a key asset for any team he played for. Currently making his name as a coach, those qualities for organisation and inspiration were already more than present on the pitch as he became a wonderful captain.
Although more famous as France's leader in 1998 and 2000, Deschamps also made history while captaining Marseilles. The side lifted the European Cup in 1993 to make the midfielder the youngest ever captain to win the title, and he went on to prove himself far much more than a water-carrier as one of Europe's most effective destroyers in the middle of the pitch.
7. Tony Adams
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Tony Adams was the typical English central defender, known for playing hard both on and off the pitch. But on teaming up with Arsene Wenger at Highbury, the Arsenal legend was transformed into a consummate professional who was rewarded with glory beyond his wildest dreams.
Adams represented the link between pre- and post-Wenger Arsenal, playing for his first and only club for a total of 19 years and 672 games. The defender wore the armband for 14 years of that period and lifted the First Division/Premier League a total of four times to establish his place in Gunners history.
6. Franco Baresi
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Only the subsequent appearance of Paolo Maldini as Milan's ageless representative at the back prevents Franco Baresi from being considered the Italian club's greatest captain. Even so, the diminutive central defender deserves his place in the Rossoneri hall of fame thanks to 20 years of exemplary service.
Baresi had the honour of captaining a Milan team which contained stars such as Maldini, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni and Marco van Basten, amongst others, and this all-star side was rewarded with no less than six Serie A trophies and three European Cups with the defender at the helm.
Baresi played his entire career with Milan and is regarded as one the best, most loyal defenders ever to appear for them.
5. Emlyn Hughes
A fan pays his respects to the late captain, who passed away in 2004
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A solid but unspectacular central midfielder and tenacious in the tackle like so many great captains, Emlyn Hughes was the man behind Liverpool's all-conquering team of the 1970s. The softly spoken star did not appear it at first glance, but he was a true inspiration to the Merseyside club in their first great era.
Hughes took the Liverpool captaincy in 1973 and immediately led the team to their first First Division title. Two European Cups followed in 1977 and 1978, as well as three more First Divisions for good measure; after 12 years representing the Reds, their captain left at the height of the team's powers.
4. Franz Beckenbauer
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The Kaiser is regarded as one of the greatest defenders ever to step onto a pitch and almost single-handedly created the sweeper position (which today we would call an anchoring midfielder) as he sat in front of the back line, nullifying opposition attacks and bringing the ball forward with skill and confidence.
But Beckenbauer was also captain of Bayern Munich in their first golden era. The Bavarians, with the Kaiser directing at the back and Gerd Muller scoring goals for fun at the other end, lifted three Bundesliga titles and were European champions in three successive years from 1974 to '76, all under the captaincy of the incomparable Beckenbauer.
3. Billy McNeill
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Known as an uncompromising yet fair defender in the 1960s, Billy McNeill was, alongside master coach Jock Stein, responsible for one of the greatest upsets in the history of world football. The pair's Glasgow Celtic team, made up entirely of players born in Scotland, shocked the world in 1967 when they defeated favourites Inter in the European Cup final, becoming the first British team to win the title.
That success came in the middle of a run of nine successive Scottish championship titles, still a record. Another one-club man, McNeill is justly remembered as one of the most influential players ever to pull on the green and white hoops.
2. Paolo Maldini
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This one-club man learnt from the very best: Italy and Milan legend Franco Baresi, who partnered Maldini in the Rossoneri defence for the first years of his career. When Baresi hung up his boots in 1997, there was only one choice to succeed him as captain of the illustrious Italian outfit.
Maldini was already 29 when Baresi retired, but he would go on to play for an incredible 12 more years for Milan, making a total of 902 appearances. Silverware flowed throughout his career, and he was more than deserving of the tag bequeathed by Milan teammates: Il Capitano.
1. Roy Keane
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The gruff, temperamental Irishman playing under the command of the gruff, temperamental Scot: Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a match made in heaven at Old Trafford. With the combative midfielder pulling the strings from the middle, Manchester United won everything going around the turn of the 21st century.
Always willing to put his body on the line and never afraid to put the boot in, Keane was the rock-hard core around which United's winning teams were built. The former Ireland international captained the Red Devils for a total of four Premier League titles and was also the captain for the incredible treble season for 1998/99, where United lifted the Champions League for the first time in 31 years.