50 Greatest Defenders in World Football History
Being a defender is at times a thankless task. The best indication of the men at the back doing their job is when they pass blissfully unnoticed through the 90 minutes.
If they start to make headlines, unless it is for scoring, that is when alarm bells start going off. For precisely that reason, the best teams in the world possess defences that provide a stable anchor and make life easier for those further up the pitch.
Defenders can become known in their own right, of course. Here are 50 of the greatest back-line players ever to grace a football pitch.
The archetypal English centre-half, Tony Adams made up for his limitations as a ball-player with strength, aerial ability and bravery.
The former England captain led Arsenal for the best part of two decades, overseeing the Gunners' change from a team famed for negativity to a slick Continental-style outfit inspired by Arsene Wenger, making the switch effortlessly.
Only the astonishing longevity of Javier Zanetti robbed El Raton of the chance to be Argentina's most-capped player. Ayala racked up 115 appearances for the Albiceleste and went to three World Cups, and his effortless approach to defending won him friends in both South America and Europe.
The Gentle Giant broke new ground in British football as one of the first players to venture overseas and make himself a success. Charles could play either at the back or in attack, an astonishing versatility which helped him become a legend with Juventus and lift three Serie A trophies with the Old Lady.
With his ungainly figure, wild hair and face which seems to show constant discomfort, Carles Puyol has never looked the most natural footballer.
Those first impressions are instantly dispelled watching him play, however. At 35 he is still a part of the Barcelona first team and provides the perfect mix of skill on the ball and unparalleled bavery that has propelled him into the Blaugrana Hall of Fame.
Only a handful of players can boast of having netted the winner in a World Cup final and even fewer defenders.
Andreas Brehme, however, with his penalty in 1990 to down Argentina, is one of those select few. The left-back was a formidable opponent in his own half, and further up is regarded as one of the finest free-kick takers in history; a claim backed up by 65 goals over his career.
Miguel Angel Nadal
As well as being the uncle of tennis phenomenon Rafa, Miguel Angel Nadal deserves to be mentioned among football's top defensive talents.
In a Johann Cruyff-inspired Barcelona team that shined in attack, the Mallorca-born centre-back was more than adept at keeping things tight at the other end of the pitch and lifted the European Cup in 1992.
El Cabezon was a vital part of Argentina's defence for well over a decade and is rightfully considered one of the nation's best ever defensive talents. In Europe Ruggeri never quite made his name, but his aerial ability and calm, collected approach on the ball meant that he was a natural leader on the field organising play from the back.
There was nothing flashy or spectacular about Juergen Kohler's defending, but very few got past the ex-Bayern Munich, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund stopper.
The centre-back encountered success at both national and international level, and while players such as Lothar Matthaeus linger most in the memory, Kohler's contribution to the formidable Germany of the 1990s should not be forgotten.
Wherever he played, ex-Portugal international Fernando Couto had a knack of finding success. The cultured centre-back won major titles with Porto, Barcelona, Lazio and Parma and also lifted the 1989 FIFA U-20 World Cup as part of Portugal's Golden Generation.
A ban after testing positive for Nandrolone blotted the defender's copybook somewhat, and the failure to lift a trophy with Portugal alongside players such as Joao Pinto, Luis Figo, Paulo Sousa and Rui Costa left more unfinished business. But in spite of those disappointments, Couto's record is beyond reproach.
Named by Pele as one of the 125 greatest living footballers, Tresor was born in Guadeloupe but made the jump to French football, where he made his name as a formidable centre-back.
The towering defender made 65 appearances for his adopted national team, also featuring in two consecutive World Cups in 1978 and 1982.
Jose Leandro Andrada
If we count, as many observers did, those Olympic Games prior to 1930 as legitimate predecessors of the World Cup, then there is a strong case to name the Uruguay side of that era as the best ever. The Celeste, led by such stars as "Black Marvel" Andrada, lifted two consecutive Olympics on European soil, a feat which earned them the right to host (and win) the inaugural World Cup.
Andrada was named to the 1930 all-star team, and as a defender or defensive midfielder formed a key part of a multiracial Uruguay side at a time when African immigrants were almost unheard of in Europe, much less integrated into sports sides. The ex-Penarol and Nacional star was one of South American football's first greats and is fondly remembered to this day.
The Juventus team of the 1980s oozed talent across the pitch. As well as stars such as Marco Tardelli, Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi and Zbigniew Boniek providing the creative spark, accomplished internationals such as Antonio Cabrini kept things watertight at the back.
The left-back was a crucial part of that formidable Old Lady team, and his skills also helped Italy break a 48-year World Cup drought with victory in Spain 1982.
Many Manchester United fans were unfamiliar with the giant Dutchman when he signed in 1998, and some unconvincing early performances led some to wonder if he was up to the task.
Stam answered them emphatically with three seasons of sterling service, continuing his excellent form in Italy and with the Dutch national team.
Another member of that illustrious Juventus side of the 1980s and, for many, up there alongside Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini as the best Italian defender of all time.
Scirea won an incredible 14 top-class trophies during his time with Juve and Italy, and in contrast to many centre-backs of the era plied his trade with impeccable sportsmanship, never earning a red card in a 16-year career.
The former Real Madrid star blasted his way into football history with one of the most stunning free-kicks of all time, a swerving effort against France that left Fabian Barthez dumbfounded.
His defensive work sometimes suffered due to constant forays upfield, but for sheer explosiveness going forward few can match the dynamic Brazilian.
It is undeniable that France's two great triumphs in 1998 and 2000 were masterminded from the back, and Desailly played a massive part in securing back to back World Cup and European Championship titles.
The physical yet cultured centre-back managed great success with Milan and continued the same imperious form in the Premier League after moving to Chelsea.
The versatile defender had the blessing and misfortune to share a Milan team with both Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. If not for those two phenomenae, Costacurta would be considered in his own right one of the greatest Italian defenders ever to play the game; as he still should be after more than 600 games for the Rossoneri and 59 Italy appearances.
Alongside Billy McNeill, the Glasgow-born defender was a vital part of the defensive effort that helped Celtic rise to the fore of Scottish and European football in the 1960s.
McGrain was a teenager when Jock Stein's team lifted the European Cup in 1967, but on making his debut he ensured that the Bhoys stayed on top and racked up over 700 appearances during 20 years at Parkhead.
Peppe Bergomi was an indefatigable force in the centre of Italy's defence and could well have appeared in an incredible five World Cups from 1982 to 1998 had Arrigo Sacchi not declined to pick him for the United States.
An immensely tough character in the centre, nobody has managed more than Bergomi's 757 appearances for Inter.
An all-time legend of Uruguayan football, Varela helped steer the Celeste to one of the biggest upsets of all time in 1950 when they took down Brazil in the World Cup final.
The Jefe Negro could play across defence and midfield, combining a battling spirit with excellent talent on the ball that established him as one of South America's first great players.
The softly spoken central defender was the elegant side in France's back line to the more physical presence of Desailly, Lilian Thuram and Frank Leboeuf. Blanc played in both the 1998 World Cup and the Euro 2000 victory, forming an unforgettable partnership with goalkeeper Fabian Barthez.
Sent off just once in his career, the football world watched in horror the injustice of the veteran missing out on a World Cup final due to that sole expulsion; Croatia's Slaven Bilic faked a headbutt in the last four to earn Blanc his marching orders.
The Dutch defender played in one of the Netherlands' most talented sides, alongside the likes of Franck Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, but even those stars could not quite shake off the Oranje's reputation as international underachievers.
As well as a strong, often brutal defender Koeman had a special talent for scoring. An immensely powerful shot helped him to a record of over 200 professional goals, the majority spectacular strikes.
The right-wing-back was blessed with blistering pace and acceleration and helped lift Brazilian football from the doldrums in the 1990s, returning the World Cup to South America after 24 years without victory for the Selecao.
Cafu made 142 appearances for Brazil and, aside from two World Cup triumphs, is one of a select few to have lifted both the Copa Libertadores (with Sao Paulo) and the European Cup/Champions League (Milan).
A one-club man and a World Cup winner both as player and assistant, Berti Vogts may not quite measure up to the likes of Beckenbauer, but he still deserves credit as an immensely talented defender.
Under his stewardship, Borussia Moenchengladbach superceded Bayern as Germany's dominant force in the 1970s, winning five Bundesligas as well as two UEFA Cups.
Jose Antonio Camacho
The left-sided defender had a short spell coaching Real Madrid in 2004 but is best remembered by the Merengue faithful as a stalwart defender of the 1970s and '80s.
Camacho played over 600 games with Madrid in a career that spanned 15 years at the club, helping them to no fewer than 19 major titles.
Younger football fans may have become accustomed to seeing Spain at the top of the world, but it was not always this way. Fernando Hierro knows that more than most.
The lion-hearted centre-back and defensive midfielder went to four fruitless World Cups with the Furia Roja, although he also inspired Real Madrid to their most successful spell since the era of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas around the turn of the 21st century.
At the heart of the France team which ended their long wait for a World Cup in 1998, and who for good measure added Euro 2000 just two years later. Thuram was a strong, physical defender who also knew his way around the ball, and his retirement left a gaping hole at the back for the European nation.
Big Billy was the heart of Celtic's most successful ever team, and the captain of the first British side to lift the European Cup.
Rather limited on the floor like most British defenders of the era, McNeill made up for it with a formidable physical presence and an almost unbeatable leap which made him a giant in the air.
The highest-placing defender on the list who is still active in football. At 40 years old the Argentine's longevity is simply astonishing.
International success sadly eluded El Pupi, but a golden career at full-back with Inter puts him among the defensive pantheon.
Carlos Alberto Torres
The wing-back was a solid defender in his own right but excelled when bombing forward to meet the rest of Brazil's stars further upfield. Captained the Selecao in 1970's World Cup victory, finishing one of the greatest team goals ever seen in that same tournament.
A hard-as-nails defender from the former East Germany who went on to become one of the nation's first post-unification football heroes.
Sammer was a fixture for both Germany and Borussia Dortmund in the 1990s, and his uncompromising defensive skills were key for the country as they came out on top at Euro 96.
Italy's prominence throughout this list is evidence of an unmatched defensive pedigree, and Nesta is no exception. The centre-back became an idol for both Lazio and Milan over a 20-year career, and he also lifted the World Cup with Italy in 2006.
Without a doubt, the greatest talent Uruguay have ever produced in defence.
The Montevideo native won five championships with Nacional, but he really came to prominence as one of the original Galacticos; playing alongside the likes of Ference Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano on his way to four European Cups and five Ligas in just nine years with Real Madrid.
One of Brazil's unsung heroes from the team which took the world by storm at the end of the 1950s.
The right-back made a total of 90 international appearances and lifted the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, forming a perfect foil out wide for the likes of Pele and Garrincha to work with.
England's most prolific captain, leading the side out onto the pitch an incredible 90 times out of 105 international appearances. Wright spent his entire career with Wolves and is considered one of the best English centre-halves of all time.
Marshalled Italy's defence from the libero position during their successful tilt at the title in 1982, Scirea deserves to be considered alongside the nation's countless greats at the back.
He played with style and elegance and also lifted seven Serie A titles with Juventus during the Turin side's domestic dominance of the era.
With five World Cups, no outfield player has made more appearances at football's premier competition than this Germany, Bayern Munich and Inter idol. Matthaeus made the sweeper position formerly owned by Franz Beckenbauer his own, and alongside Fabio Cannavaro was the only defender to be crowned World Player of the Year.
Cannavaro was one of only two defenders ever to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award, which he lifted in 2006 thanks to a sterling World Cup with Italy. Whether playing for the Azzurri or at club level, Cannavaro posed a formidable obstacle to any attacker.
On a continent where attacking flair has always had a tendency to take precedent, Figueroa is nonetheless regarded as one of Chile's finest football products.
The star was named South American footballer of the year in three consecutive years and matched defensive nous with no shortage of talent and technique.
Now best known as a pundit on BBC, Hansen has a right to be considered one of the greatest, most elegant defenders ever to emerge from the British Isles.
As a member of Liverpool during the 1980s, the Scot won eight first division titles and was crowned champion of Europe an incredible three times.
Partnered Beckenbauer in the middle of West Germany's defence for many years and was the cornerstone of the team throughout the 1960s, playing in a total of four World Cups.
Both physically and mentally he was one of the greatest defenders of his generation.
Bridged the gap in Brazil between World Cup heartbreak in 1950 and the subsequent resurgence in 1958 and 1962 inspired by the brilliance of Pele and Garrincha.
Nilton played over 700 games for hometown club Botafogo as a left-wing-back, and many consider him the best ever in his position.
This Inter legend started life as a forward before Helenio Herrera pushed him to wing-back in the Nerazzurri. The change proved to be inspired, as he went on to win two European Cups during the 1960s with the Italian giants, earning his place in history.
Before the elegance of Maldini and Baresi, Italian fans looked up to one of the hardest players ever to kick a ball. Gentile was uncompromising, marking Diego Maradona out of the 1982 World Cup with a ferocious display, but he also understood the defensive arts like few others.
The Netherlands' greatest ever defender, who personified the flexibility and all-round talent demanded by the nation's Total Football of the 1970s.
Krol could play across the back line and was also supremely confident taking the ball out of defence, putting the Oranje back on the offensive.
The Kaiser was not just a great defender and inspirational captain, the man who led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1978.
The ex-River Plate, Fiorentina and Inter was also a prolific goalscorer in his own right. 134 strikes in 451 games, more than one every four matches, is a ratio most attacking midfielders would be proud of.
The archetypal deep-lying Italian sweeper, nothing and nobody got past the AC Milan legend in his heyday.
Baresi infamously missed a penalty in the 1994 World Cup final shootout, but it was a rare blip in 20 years and over 700 games of impeccable defensive duty.
Immortalised in England thanks to his heroics in securing the Three Lions their first and only World Cup back in 1966. The former West Ham star has a statue dedicated to him outside Wembley Stadium and is deservedly considered one of the nation's best ever players.
Maldini was a stalwart of over 20 years in AC Milan, driving the Rossoneri to their most successful era in history. Either out wide or in the centre, he was an elegant defender of rare quality and consistency.
A World Cup winner with Germany in 1974 and the fulcrum of the Bayern Munich side that beat all-comers in the same era, Beckenbauer helped invent the modern sweeper position as we understand it today.