Serie A: The League's 20 Best Defenders of the Past 25 Years

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2013

Serie A: The League's 20 Best Defenders of the Past 25 Years

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    When you think about Italian soccer, you think about defense.

    Strength and organization in the back is the hallmark of the Italian game.  From the catenaccio days of the 1960s and '70s to the rock-solid defense that carried the Azzurri to their fourth world championship in 2006, defense has been key to the Italian soul.

    That attitude has carried into the country's league.  The Serie A is renowned for its tactical complexity and stout defense, and the defenses of its 20 clubs are generally very hard to find goals against.

    In the past 25 years, there have been many defenders of special mention gracing the stadia of the Serie A.  In this article, we will look at the best of them.

    A note about selection and ordering: the 25-year time window—starting from the beginning of the 1988-89 season and stretching to today—is going to be taken extremely literally.  If a player's career overlapped the 25-year period but was not entirely inside it, the period before has been disregarded, and players have been judged solely on what they have done within the time frame.  This may cause you to see players you would normally consider to be at the top of a discussion like this to be ranked lower than if we were looking at the entire history of the league.

    Now, without further ado, the top 20 Serie A defenders of the last quarter century.

Gianluca Pessotto

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    After journeying around the lower divisions for much of his early years as a professional, Gianluca Pessotto arrived in the Serie A in 1994 with Torino and immediately impressed.  At the end of the season, crosstown rivals Juventus jumped at the chance to add the youngster to their squad.

    Pessotto normally played as a full-back, partnering with the likes of Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, Jonathan Zebina, and even Fabio Cannavaro before injuries began to sap his form and limited him to sub duty.

    Along with the 1995-96 Champions League, Pessotto won four scudetti, a Coppa Italia, and four Supercoppas.  He was on hand for Juve's glory years in the 1990s and early 2000s and made a major contribution, being capped 243 times in the league and numerous other times in European play.

    Internationally, he represented the team at the 1998 World Cup and at Euro 2000, where he scored in the semifinal shootout against the Netherlands that sent the Azzurri to the final, where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to France.

Leonardo Bonucci

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    Largely vilified by Juventus fans and Turin media as a scapegoat for Juve's horrific 2010-11 season, Leonardo Bonucci has blossomed under Antonio Conte into one of the 15 or 20 best center-backs in the world.

    Manning the center of Conte's three-man defensive line, Bonucci makes this list even at the tender age of 26 as one of the best ball-playing defenders the league has ever seen.

    In the limited sample size of Juve's three league games this season, Bonucci has completed an astonishing 92.7 percent of his passes—a better rate by two percent than midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo.  

    Even more impressive is his average of 12 accurate long passes per game—completing them at an astonishing 81.8 percent clip.  Only Pirlo has completed more long balls over the last two years.

    His long passes led to a pair of splendid assists in Juve's 4-1 thrashing of Lazio in the second game of the season.

    While not the greatest tackler in the world, Bonucci makes up for it with good positioning—he's averaging two interceptions per game this year—and a tenacity that often disrupts the opposing attack, even if Bonucci is sometimes booked for his troubles.

    Sound defensively, it's his skills on the ball that makes Bonucci one of the best, and with room to grow before he reaches his peak he could be ranked amongst the greats if he makes the right adjustments to his game.

Mauro Tassotti

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    The right back on the Milan defenses of the 1980s and '90s, Tassotti won 17 titles with the club, including five scudetti and three Champions League titles.

    He teamed up with Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, and Franco Baresi to form an impenetrable wall in front of the Milan goal that withstood some of the best strikers of the era, from Paolo Rossi and Michel Platini to Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio.

Giuseppe Bergomi

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    A one-club man and a true legend at Inter, much of Beppe Bergomi's illustrious career falls outside of our 25-year window, but from the 1988-89 season to his retirement after '98-99 he never failed to appear in fewer than 33 games in all competitions—and his form hardly ever wavered.

    He was so evergreen that after the 1997-98 season—the penultimate of his career—he was given a surprise call-up to the 1998 World Cup in France, where he played three games in the stead of an injured Alessandro Nesta.

    Bergomi may have only won the league twice, but he helped lead Inter to three UEFA Cups back when that title really meant something, including in that '97-98 season when he was all of 35.  He merits inclusion on this list even for his twilight years.

Andrea Barzagli

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    Andrea Barzagli is a successful reclamation project if there ever was one.

    Barzagli broke into the Serie A with Palermo.  He played four years with the rosanero being capped 142 times and eventually being awarded the captain's armband.  During that time, he was a part of the 2006 World Cup champions and the Euro 2008 squad that bowed out to champions Spain on penalties.

    His strong performances in Sicily garnered interest, and in the end negotiations to go to his native club of Fiorentina surprisingly broke down and he signed with Wolfsburg, who were offering a higher annual salary.

    He played every minute of his first season in Germany in 2008-09, helping Wolfsburg to a surprise Bundesliga title.  But after that his form dropped off, and in the winter transfer window of 2011 Barzagli was sold to Juventus for a paltry fee of €600,000—a loss of more than €12 million for the German club.

    Juventus was in the midst of a terrible season under Luigi Del Neri, but Barzagli immediately improved the team's flagging defense, helping end an ugly string of losses as Juve finished the season with only one loss in their last ten games.

    The coming of Antonio Conte was the tipping point in his career.  Barzagli teamed with Giorgio Chiellini to start the season, then with youngster Leonardo Bonucci when Chiellini was moved to left-back in an attempt to solve the team's problem on that flank.

    But when Conte gave up on a left-back all together and switched to a 3-5-2 formation, Barzagli shone.

    Playing on the right side of the team's three-man back line, Barzagli's tactical awareness came into full awareness.  His excellent play helped Juve become one of Europe's best defensive team, garnering him the 2012 Serie A Defender of the Year award and a recall to the Italian national side, playing for the Azzurri at Euro 2012 and at the Confederations Cup this past summer.

    Barzagli didn't realize his true potential until late in his career, but he was a key player in Juve's true rebirth following the calciopoli scandal and he has become one of the elite defenders in Europe.

Maicon

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    Back in Serie A after an unsuccessful season with Manchester City, Maicon made himself into one of the most feared offensive fullbacks in the game in his six seasons with Inter in the 2000s.

    It takes a lot to displace Javier Zanetti in Inter's lineup, but when Maicon arrived from Monaco in 2006, Zanetti shifted up to a right midfield spot in order to allow the Brazilian to play in his natural position.

    The move was rewarded.  In 177 league games with the club Maicon scored 16 times and notched an impressive 41 assists, including a career-high 11 in the treble-winning year of 2009-10, when he also tallied a goal and an assist in Champions League play.

    In all competitions, his total tally was 20 goals and 46 assists in 236 games.

    Attack wasn't his only forte.  Though not an excellent tackler, his speed hounded wingers into mistakes and bad crosses, and his attacking runs had the added bonus of penning opposing wingers and full-backs in their own half rather than getting forward themselves.

    His help was key in the defensive line that bottled up Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semifinal.

    He scored a goal in Inter's 3-1 first-leg victory and helped keep the Catalan side at bay on the other end, helping to hold Lionel Messi goalless through both legs and limiting the blaugrana to two goals in 180 minutes of play.

    Few Serie A fullbacks in the last decade were as adept at getting forward and depriving opposing attacks of their width by pinning their wide players back.  

    Now at Roma, he will look to replicate that old form, and though he has yet to notch an assist this year, he is averaging two competed crosses per game and has looked good coming off of Rudi Garcia's right flank.

Marco Materazzi

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    Best known for being on the receiving end of the most famous head butt in history, Marco Materazzi was famously ill disciplined.  His aggressive tackling and quick temper led to him seeing more than 60 yellow cards in his career and a grand total of 25 reds.

    While a good defender, especially in the air, the prime reason Materazzi makes this list is for his contribution in his opponents' box.

    Marco Materazzi is one of the greatest goalscoring defenders ever, and possibly the greatest of his generation.  Twice in his career he scored double-digit goals, including a Serie A record 12 in the 2000-01 season with Perugia.  Over his entire club career he scored a total of 55 league goals.

    Of course, his goalscoring touch didn't stay in Italy.  

    At the World Cup in Germany in 2006 he was one of only two Italians to score more than once in the tournament.  The second of those two goals was the all-important equalizer in the final against France.  As that match edged into extra time...well, you know the rest of that story.

    He wasn't all about his attack, though.  He was named Serie A Defender of the Year in 2007 and spent many years partnered with Ivan Cordoba at the heart of Inter's back line.

    He celebrated five league titles, four Coppa Italia wins, four Supercoppas and a Champions League crown during his 10 years with the club—ironically one of the only Italians playing for the dominant Italian club of the era.

Thiago Silva

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    It's hard to believe that Thiago Silva spent only three years in the Serie A, but there haven't been many center-backs who have been better in the league over the last 20 years.

    He was a key component in Milan's 2010-11 scudetto victory, incredibly garnering only a single yellow card in more than 30 league games.  His partnership with Alessandro Nesta also saw the rossoneri hold Barcelona to a goalless draw in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal in the 2011-12 season.

    Just how good is Silva?  Look no further than the huge drop-off in Milan's defense after he was sold to Paris Saint-Germain before the beginning of last season.

    Internationally, Silva captains the Brazilian national team and lifted his first piece of silverware this past summer when he helped blank Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup.

Franco Baresi

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    Like Bergomi, much of Franco Baresi's career fell outside of our 25-year window, but the Milan icon was still going strong even in the final days of his career.

    From the 1988-89 season to the year he retired in '96-97, Baresi played no fewer than 30 games in all competitions in any season.  During this period he added the final two scudetti of his career ('93-93 and '95-96) and all three European Cup/Champions League titles.

    When his career was finally done, the sweeper was afforded the rare honor of having his number retired by the club.  His former defense partner Paolo Maldini is the only other Milan player who has been extended such an honor.

    A large portion of Baresi's career falls outside the 25-year scope of this list, which is why he's this far down.  He may be one of the best defenders—if not the best—to ever set foot on a field, but within the specific criteria of this article he gets bumped down a few pegs.

Ivan Cordoba

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    Colombian Ivan Cordoba joined Inter from Argentinian club San Lorenzo in 1999, and in the next 13 years he failed to play in 20 or more league games only once, in his final season.

    A part of the treble-winning side of 2009-10, Cordoba was on hand for every one of Inter's incredible run of five straight titles in the late 2000s.  He also counts four Coppa Italias, four Supercoppas, a Club World Cup, and that 2010 Champions League amongst his winners' medals.

    An excellent man-marker with good pace, Cordoba was the rare center-back that succeeded in spite of being vertically challenged.  Despite being only 5'8" he was an excellent leaper and so could compete for headers with the big center-forwards he was marking.  He used that leaping ability to score goals too—18 of them in all competitions for Inter.

    Cordoba spent years successfully partnering with Marco Materazzi in Inter's central defense and rose to become vice-captain.  He even lifted the Coppa Italia himself in 2005 when Javier Zanetti had to be away from the club for the Confederations Cup.

    Internationally, Cordoba was a mainstay for Colombia, being capped 73 times.  

    In 2001 he captained the team to its first ever Copa America win, scoring the lone goal of the final against Mexico in the 65th minute.  He represented his country at the Copa American three more times, as well as at the 1998 World Cup and the 2003 Confederations Cup.

Alessandro Costacurta

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    Alessandro Costacurta combined with Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, and Mauro Tassoti to form one of the most feared defensive units of the 1990s.

    Durable and strong in all aspects of the game, the man Milan fans knew as "Billy" was well respected by all who played with him.  When he retired in 2007, the entire team emerged from the locker room post-game wearing replicas of his shirt in his honor.  Outside one year on loan early in his career he spent the entirety of his professional life with the rossoneri.

    Costacurta won five European Cup/Champions League titles with Milan, as well as seven scudetti.  On the international level he wasn't so lucky.  He narrowly missed out on a winners' medal at the '94 World Cup, witnessed a group stage crash-out at Euro '96 and missing out on the knockout stages of the 1998 World Cup after suffering an early injury in the final group match.

    The one weakness to Costacurta's game was discipline.  He missed several high-profile games due to suspension, including the finals of both the Champions League and World Cup in 1994.  In spite of this, he remains one of the best defensive players of the '90s and a legend at Milan.

Cafu

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    A Serie A mainstay for 10 seasons with Roma and Milan, Cafu was named by Pele as one of the 125 greatest players of all time when the FIFA 100 was released in 2004.  A year ago, he was also one of the inaugural members of Roma's Hall of Fame.

    Best known for his overlapping runs down the wing, Cafu played 282 league games between the giallorossi and rossoneri, but his crowning achievement came in the 2006-07 Champions League.  He played in eight games to help Milan move out of the shadow of the calciopoli scandal and to their seventh European crown.

    On the international level, Cafu played in three World Cup finals, winning in 1994 and 2002.  

    He is far and a way the most-capped player in the team's history with 142—18 ahead of second-placed Roberto Carlos and 45 ahead of the next active Brazilian international, Ronaldinho.

Giorgio Chiellini

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    A pillar of strength in the center of one of the best defenses in the world, it's hard to remember that Giorgio Chiellini started his career as a full-back.  He is now, however, undoubtedly one of the five or six best center-backs in the world.

    Chiellini truly exemplifies the hard-nosed defensive spirit that is at the core of the Italian game.  Never one to shy away from a tackle, he is equally adept at winning the ball on the ground as he is in the air, where he reigns supreme.

    This season's statistics are a small sample size, but thus far Chiellini has been producing some outstanding performances on Antonio Conte's back line.  According to WhoScored, in three games Chiellini is averaging 4.7 tackles, 1.7 interceptions, and 5.3 clearances a game  while averaging slightly over one foul and not receiving a booking.

    He also has a penchant for scoring, particularly on set pieces.  He's scored a total of 18 Serie A goals between his time at Fiorentina and Juventus, often rising from a corner to head the ball home.

    Despite some bad luck on the international scene—he's suffered a few injuries and was responsible for a few bad goals, including the Slovenian goal that ended the 2010 World Cup debacle—Chiellini has all the makings of one of the best defenders ever.

Gianluca Zambrotta

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    Gianluca Zambrotta burst onto the scene with Bari in the 1998-99 season under coach Eugenio Fascetti.  The young product from Como scored four times from the left-back position and was rewarded by Dino Zoff with his first international call up.  

    He was the first Bari player to play for the Azzurri in 50 years.

    Juventus bought the Zambrotta halfway through that breakout year, and he joined the bianconeri the next year.  He played on the right-hand side for several years until he was pipped on the right by Mauro Cameronesi after suffering an injury in the 2002 World Cup.  Coach Marcello Lippi began alternating him between the two flanks, and he performed extremely well at either end of the field.  He excelled both defensively and as an attacker down the flank.

    Zambrotta became a key player on one of the best teams in the world until calciopoli brought Juventus down in flames.  Zambrotta was one of several players to leave the team after it was forcibly relegated, following teammate Lilian Thuram to Barcelona.

    He spent two years in Catalonia before returning to Italy in 2008 with AC Milan, the team that had beaten him in the Champions League final five years prior.  Zambrotta led the team in appearances in '08-09 but as the years went by Zambrotta was slowly forced out of the team by younger players, including right-back Ignazio Abate.  He played a bit part in the 2010-11 scudetto season as a utility player before Milan called time on his stint with the club at the end of last season.

    Zambrotta was a regular in the national team setup from that first call-up in the late '90s until the 2010 World Cup.  He was named in the team of the tournament at both World Cup 2006 and Euro 2004 and finished his international career just two appearances shy of becoming a centurion.

Ciro Ferrara

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    Clocking in at a round 500 league games, Ciro Ferrara spent his entire career in Serie A.  He split his time nearly evenly between Napoli and Juventus, eventually retiring in 2005 after 11 seasons with the bianconeri.

    It was with Juve that he saw his best form.  

    In the two years preceding the 1998 World Cup in France he had two of the best seasons of his life and was the best defender in Italy.  Most expected the World Cup to be his coming out party to the world, but he was injured weeks before the tournament and he was replaced by Alessandro Nesta, who went on to team with Fabio Cannavaro and become a legend.

    Ferrara had his share of league success, however, earning a total of seven titles—two with Napoli and five with Juve.  He was also an integral part of the Juve team that won the Champions League in 1995-96, starting alongside Pietro Vierchowod in the final.

    Ferrara played amongst a bumper crop of excellent defenders in the 1980s, competing with the likes of Franco Baresi, Guiseppe Bergomi, and Paolo Maldini for international caps.  Because his international foray was limited—he played in only three major tournaments—he is better known inside of Italy.  

Javier Zanetti

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    The legend of legends at Inter, Javier Zanetti started his career as a full-back and didn't move to the midfield position he has manned until 2006, when he moved to accommodate new arrival Maicon.

    Zanetti was the first purchase Massimo Moratti made when he bought Inter in 1995, and he hasn't left the team sheet since.  His strength earned him the nickname El Tractor, and he could run for days.  He often joined the attack and swept past opposing defenders as he overlapped the midfield.

    Zanetti's physical ability in defense was matched by his incredible discipline.  In his entire 18-year career at Inter—mostly playing as a defender—Zanetti has only ever been sent off twice, once in 1999 and once in 2011.

    Now in the twilight of his career, Zanetti has won five scudetti, four Coppa Italia titles, four Supercoppas, a Champions League, a UEFA Cup and Club World Cup.  A torn Achilles tendon suffered late last year has thrown his career in doubt, but he's vowed to play again, and if he does it will be a fitting end to such a magnificent career.

Lilian Thuram

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    The most-capped player in French history spent 12 years in the Serie A and helped a pair of teams to extremely successful periods in their history.

    After a six-year run with Monaco at the beginning of his career, Thuram made a high-profile move to Parma.  There, he combined with Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon to form the spine of an exceptional defensive unit that helped the Crusaders to the UEFA Cup in 1998-99.

    Thuram's play caught the attention of Juventus, and in the summer of 2001 he was the subject of a second high-profile move.  The bianconeri bought him from Parma for 80 billion lire (slightly more than €41 million) in the same summer that they paid 100 billion lire (a bit more than €51 million) for Buffon.

    Thuram won four scudetti in five seasons with the club, although two would be revoked following the calciopoli scandal.  

    In the summer of 2004, the bianconeri bought Cannavaro, reuniting him with Thuram and Buffon.  In the two years Cannavaro was at the club he, Thuram, Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta and Jonathan Zebina formed one of the most expensive—and most feared—defensive units in the history of the game.

    Like many others, Thuram left the club after its demotion following the calciopoli scandal in 2006.  He spent the following two seasons with Barcelona.  Failing to crack the starting XI, he was on the verge of moving to Paris Saint-Germain when his contract ended following Euro 2008 when a heart defect was detected, ending his career.

    On the international front Thuram has an impressive haul of winners medals.  He won the 1998 World Cup,  Euro 2000 and the 2003 Confederations Cup.  He also was a key cog on the French squad that came in second in 2006, and was rewarded with a place on the tournament All-Star team.

Alessandro Nesta

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    Alessandro Nesta spent 20 years in the Serie A and is one of the most decorated defenders in the history of the league.

    Between Lazio and AC Milan, Nesta won three scudetti, three Coppa Italia titles, four Supercoppas, three UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners' Cup, two Champions Leagues and a Club World Cup.  He was also runner up in the league four times and the Supercoppa, UEFA Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup once each.

    Individually, Nesta was on the UEFA Team of the Year four times, a four-time Serie A defender of the year, made the Team of the Tournament at Euro 2000, and was selected by Pele to the FIFA 100 in 2004.

    Nesta's physical prowess, skill in the tackle and in positioning made him one of the best center backs to ever play the game.

    Despite his success in the Serie A, Nesta suffered from terrible fortune on the national team.  Injuries kept him out of the knockout rounds in both the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.  He played in one qualifier for Euro 2008 but then retired from the national team due to more injury problems.  Roberto Donadoni tried to call him up for Euro 2008 but Nesta turned him down, and did the same when Marcello Lippi asked him to participate in the 2010 World Cup.

    Nesta was a key defensive cog in Lazio's halcyon days of the late 1990s and of the Milan machine that succeeded so well in Europe during the middle of the 2000s.  

    His impressive trophy haul rates him as one of the best to ever set foot on a field, in Italy or anywhere else.

Fabio Cannavaro

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    A true legend of the Italian game, Fabio Cannavaro is the one of the best defenders to take to the field in Italy in the past two decades.

    Cannavaro started his career at his native club—Napoli—before spending seven years at Parma.  He was present for all of the Crusaders' glory years, combining with Gianluigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram to become the spine of the team's defense.

    He won the UEFA Cup and the Coppa Italia in his time with the team before a big-money move to Inter before the 2002-03 season.  He spent two years at Inter before he reunited with Thuram and Buffon at Juventus.  He won a pair of scudetti at Juve—since revoked after the calciopoli scandal.

    After the 2005-06 season—his final season with the bianconeri—he led the Italian national team into the World Cup in Germany and anchored one of the greatest defensive performances in World Cup history.

    The Azzurri conceded only two goals in the seven matches they played in the tournament—an own goal against the United States and a penalty kick by Zinedine Zidane in the final.

    Cannavaro was the center of it all.  His performance was all the more impressive in that he did it with a rotating cast of partners throughout the knockout stages due to injuries and suspensions.  In 690 minutes played—a total that included three periods of extra time—he never garnered a yellow card.  His performance was rewarded with a place on the tournament All-Star team and the tournament's Silver Ball—missing out on the Gold Ball in one of the closest selections ever.

    Cannavaro left Juve after calciopoli, to the great disappointment of the team's fans.  He spent three years at Real Madrid before he returned to Juve.  His return started showing his age, and his international career ended with the disgrace of the 2010 World Cup, in which he was directly responsible for the concession of crucial goals.

    Despite ending his international career on a low note, Cannavaro closed it as Italy's most-capped player—a record recently equalled by his teammate and friend Buffon.

    A true legend, Cannavaro gave everything he had to the game and is truly one of the best defenders ever to take to a field.

Paolo Maldini

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    A legend amongst legends, former Milan captain Paolo Maldini rose high above the rest.

    In an age where statistics and statistical analysis have started to take over the thinking in all sports, Maldini is still regarded as one of the best defenders ever despite hardly ever actually making a tackle.

    Indeed, stat heads have found that Maldini averaged a single tackle every two games.  His positioning was so incredible that he rarely ever had to commit to a challenge.

    Maldini played at a world-class level for an astonishing 24 years, ending his career after the 2008-09 season having even then notched 30 league appearances.

    Maldini retired having won seven league titles, five European Cup/Champions League titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppas, five UEFA Super Cups and three Intercontinental/Club World Cup victories on his resume.

    The only thing lacking in his career was international success.  Maldini came agonizingly close to a world title at USA 1994 when the Azzurri fell to Brazil on penalties and finished third after being eliminated by Argentina in the same manner when the tournament was played on home soil four years before.

    The European Championships did not treat him better.  He was a semifinalist at the 1988 tournament and was mere seconds away from lifting the trophy as captain in 2000 when Sylvain Wiltord scored a stunning stoppage-time equalizer for France and David Trezeguet won the match with a golden goal in extra time.

    Though glory eluded him with the Azzurri, there is no doubt that with his club, Maldini was king.  

    There may be debate as to whether he or former teammate Baresi was the better player over the course of their entire careers, but given that Baresi's career didn't overlap our 25-year window nearly as much, Maldini stands alone as the best defender of the era.

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