50 Best Defensive Midfielders in World Football History

Michael Cummings@MikeCummings37World Football Lead WriterNovember 21, 2011

50 Best Defensive Midfielders in World Football History

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    Like the words people use to describe them, defensive midfielders are a varied, colorful lot.

    In English, they power the engine room or act as destroyers.

    In South America, one might be called a volante de marca—a steering wheel.

    In Portugal, one is a trinco—a lock.

    In Mexico, it's volante de contenciónyou figure it out.

    Defensive midfielders link the defense to the attack. They break up the opposition's play. They provide cover when defenders venture upfield.

    They distribute. They hold.

    They attack. They defend.

    They prevent goals. They create goals.

    And they're all as different from each other as the jobs they perform—anonymously, for the most part—for their teams.

    This is a list of 50 of the very best defensive midfielders in world football history. It spans much of the history of the game, but gives extra consideration to players whose careers have already finished.

    If your favorite active player—someone like Sergio Busquets—isn't on the list, that's not necessarily because he isn't great. Rather, it's probably because he hasn't been playing long enough for us to get a proper perspective.

    On to the list.

50. Phillip Cocu

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    Country: Netherlands (101 caps, 10 goals)

    Clubs: AZ Alkmaar, Vitesse, PSV, Barcelona, Al-Jazira Club

    As a creative and combative central midfielder, Cocu won four Dutch league titles with PSV and helped Barca take the La Liga crown in 1999.

    He was a part of the Netherlands teams that reached the semifinals at the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000 and Euro 2004. While he played best in the middle of the park, his tackling and versatility also led to him being used as a defender.

    Since retirement, Cocu has entered management. He now serves as assistant manager for PSV and the Netherlands.

49. Stefan Effenberg

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    Country: West Germany (U21), Germany (35 caps, five goals)

    Clubs: Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayern Munich, Fiorentina, VfL Wolfsburg, Al-Arabi

    Equal parts controversial character and brilliant footballer, Effenberg was one of Europe's most feared midfielders at the height of his career.

    In a distinguished club career in Germany, he won three league titles, two cups and the European Cup with Bayern in 2001. He was named the UEFA Club Footballer of the Year in 2001.

    His international career was cut short by feuds with his superiors, but he still managed to claim a runner-up medal at Euro 1992.

48. Miguel Andreolo

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    Country: Italy (26 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Nacional (Uruguay), Bologna, Lazio, Napoli, Catania, Forli

    Andreolo, an Italian born in Uruguay, played midfield for Italy's 1938 World Cup-winning team. His role was to provide the link between the defense and the attackers.

    At the club level, he won four league titles with Bologna.

47. Daniele De Rossi

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    Country: Italy (70 caps, 10 goals)

    Club: Roma

    Widely called Capitan Futuro (future captain) for the likelihood that he'll succeed Francesco Totti as Italy's captain, De Rossi has been a rock in midfield for AS Roma and Italy for the past decade.

    Known equally for his toughness and skill, De Rossi could yet become one of Italy's most famous players.

46. Franky Van Der Elst

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    Country: Belgium (86 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Molenbeek, Club Brugge

    In a career covering three decades (1978-99), Franky Van Der Elst played in four World Cups, won five Belgian league titles and three Belgian cups.

    Pele named him one of the best 125 living footballers in 2004.

45. Uli Stielike

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    Country: West Germany (42 caps, three goals)

    Clubs: Borussia Monchengladbach, Real Madrid, Neuchatel Xamax

    Stielike, a defensive midfielder and sweeper, wasn't selected for West Germany's 1978 World Cup roster because the German association's policy at that time not to select players from outside the Bundesliga. He helped his country to the Euro 1980 title, however, and also played a part in the West Germans' run to the 1982 World Cup final.

    Stielike won three league titles apiece with Real Madrid and Borussia Monchengladbach. He was also a member of European Cup runner-up squads with each team—Real in 1981 and Monchengladbach in 1977.

44. Johnny Giles

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    Country: Republic of Ireland (59 caps, five goals)

    Clubs: Manchester United, Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion, Philadelphia Fury, Shamrock Rovers

    The diminutive Giles, who stood 5'7" in his playing days, earned his status as one of Ireland's all-time greats through hard-nosed midfield work for Leeds United in the 1960s and 70s.

    Alongside the equally tenacious Billy Bremner in the Leeds midfield, Giles helped the Whites win league titles in 1969 and 1974, the FA Cup in 1972 and the Fairs Cup in 1968 and 1971.

    He also won an FA Cup under Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United in 1963 and earned selections to the PFA Team of the Year for the 1973-74 and 1975-76 seasons.

43. Romeo Benetti

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    Country: Italy (55 caps, two goals)

    Clubs: Bolzano, Taranto, Siena, Palermo, Juventus, Sampdoria, AC Milan, Roma

    Oh Romeo, Romero, wherefore were thou such a hard tackler?

    Benetti won two Italian league titles, five Italian cups and helped Italy finish fourth at the 1978 World Cup and Euro 1980.

    And apparently, he was a maniac.

42. Mauro Silva

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    Country: Brazil (59 caps, zero goals)

    Clubs: Guarani, Bragantino, Deportivo La Coruña

    Mauro Silva played almost every minute of Brazil's 1994 World Cup title-winning campaign. He showed off that renowned stamina for Deportivo La Coruña from 1992 to 2005, helping the club reach the Champions League semifinals in 2004.

    During a 17-year professional career, Mauro Silva won one La Liga title, two Spanish Cups, the World Cup and the 1997 Copa America.

41. Wim Jansen

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    Country: Netherlands (65 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Feyenoord, Washington Diplomats, Ajax

    Wim Jansen lived the dream with his boyhood club, Feyenoord. Between 1965 and 1980, Jansen and Feyenoord won four league titles, one Dutch cup, one UEFA Cup and the 1970 European Cup.

    Jansen also helped anchor the 1974 and 1978 Netherlands teams, both of which advanced to the World Cup final.

40. Svatopluk Pluskal

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    Country: Czechoslovakia (56 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: SK Letna Zlin, Dukla Prague, LIAZ Jablonec

    Svatopluk Pluskal, who shares a name with a medieval Moravian king, formed part of Czechoslovakia's two-man midfield (it was a 4-2-4 formation) with Josef Masopust. The two were influential in the team's run all the way to the 1962 World Cup final.

    Pluskal was later honored with a selection to play for the "Rest of the World" team against England at Wembley in 1963.

39. Andrea Pirlo

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    Country: Italy (80 caps, nine goals)

    Clubs: Brescia, Inter, Reggina, Milan, Juventus

    Pirlo, who fills the deep-lying playmaker role, isn't a pure defensive midfielder. But he does fill defensive responsibilities while being inventive.

    His career is still going, but Pirlo has already accomplished much. He has won two Champions League titles, two league titles and one Italian cup, all with Milan. And with Italy, he was instrumental in the 2006 World Cup title run.

38. Karl Koller

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    Country: Austria (86 caps, five goals)

    Club: First Vienna

    With Ernst Ocwirk, Karl Koller is widely considered to be among Austria's best-ever midfielder. We'll return to Ocwirk later, but we also wanted to give Koller, who was slightly more defensive-minded, his due in this list.

37. Dave Mackay

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    Country: Scotland (22 caps, four goals)

    Clubs: Hearts, Tottenham Hotspur, Derby County, Swindon Town

    During a distinguished career with Hearts, Spurs, Derby County and Swindon Town, Dave Mackay earned a reputation for being one of Britain's best, hardest footballers.

    Mackay was named Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers' Association in 1969 and was later named to the Football League's list of 100 legends. He won one league title with both Hearts and Spurs, and led Tottenham to three FA Cups and one UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in the 1960s.

    But he might be best remembered for that picture you're looking at. That came in a game against Leeds United when he got in an altercation with Billy Bremner.

36. Billy Bremner

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    Country: Scotland (54 caps, three goals)

    Clubs: Leeds United, Hull City, Doncaster Rovers

    Bremner, a short, combative midfielder, was a major contributor for Leeds United through perhaps the best period in club history. During his 17-year run (1959-76), Leeds won two league titles and one FA Cup and advanced to the 1975 European Cup final.

    For his efforts, Bremner was named the club's greatest player of all time in 2000, earned a spot on the Football League's list of 100 legends and has been inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.

35. Valery Voronin

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    Country: USSR (63 caps, five goals)

    Club: FC Torpedo Moscow

    Valery Voronin won two league titles with FC Torpedo Moscow and was named Soviet Footballer of the Year twice in a row (1964-65).

    A versatile midfielder, Voronin also played defender occasionally.

34. Clodoaldo

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    Country: Brazil (38 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Santos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Nacional-AM

    Clodoaldo was one of the best defensive midfielders in Brazilian national team history. But his most famous moments might come from his offensive contributions.

    He scored an equalizing goal against Uruguay in the 1970 World Cup semifinals and assisted a goal by Carlos Alberto Torres in the final against Italy by dribbling past several defenders (Brazil won the match).

33. Néstor Rossi

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    Country: Argentina (26 caps, zero goals)

    Clubs: River Plate, Millonarios, CA Huracán

    Nicknamed "Pipo," Néstor Rossi played both midfield and defense for three South American clubs and the Argentina national team. During his career, he won six league titles and represented his country at the World Cup and Copa America.

32. Zito

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    Country: Brazil (52 caps, three goals)

    Club: Santos

    Zito won just about everything possible in his career. With Santos, he won nine league titles, four straight Brazilian cups and two Copa Libertadores.

    With Brazil, the midfielder won the 1958 and '62 World Cups. He even scored in the 1962 final.

31. Rainer Bonhof

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    Country: West Germany (53 caps, nine goals)

    Clubs: Borussia Monchengladbach, Valencia, FC Koln, Hertha Berlin

    Bonhof played defensive midfield and wingback for Borussia Monchengladbach's successful teams of the 1970s. From 1970-78, he and Monchengladbach won four Bundesliga titles and one UEFA Cup.

    He was the youngest member of West Germany's 1974 World Cup-winning side, and he also played for the Euro 1976 runner-up squad.

30. Willem Van Hanegem

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    Country: Netherlands (52 caps, six goals)

    Clubs: Velox SC, Xerxes, Feyenoord, AZ '67, Chicago Sting, FC Utrecht

    Willem Van Hanegem hated Germans. It wasn't a matter of mere dislike due to issues on the field. It was a matter of war.

    When he wasn't hating the Germans, Hanegem was playing brilliant football. He helped Feyenoord to three Eredivisie titles and the 1970 European Cup.

29. Pep Guardiola

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    Countries: Spain (47 caps, five goals), Catalonia (seven caps, zero goals)

    Clubs: Barcelona, Brescia, Roma, Al-Ahli, Dorados

    These days, Pep Guardiola is Barcelona's suave manager. As a player, he was a pretty darn good defensive midfielder.

    After rising from Barcelona B to the varsity squad, Guardiola played his part in the Blaugrana's title-winning sides of 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1997-98 and 1998-99.

28. Claude Makélélé

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    Country: France (71 caps, zero goals)

    Clubs: Nantes, Marseille, Celta Vigo, Real Madrid, Chelsea, PSG

    Besides having a ton of accent marks in his name, Makélélé was so good at his job that pundits named it after him.

27. Germano

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    Country: Portugal (24 caps, zero goals)

    Clubs: Atletico (Portugal), Benfica, Salgueiros

    A defender and defensive midfielder, Germano helped Benfica win four league championships, two Portuguese cups and the 1961 and 1962 European Cups.

    He also captained Portugal at the 1966 World Cup.

26. Antonio Rattín

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    Country: Argentina (34 caps, one goal)

    Club: Boca Juniors

    Besides his playing skills, Antonio Rattín is famous for the incident during the 1966 World Cup in which he sat on the Queen's red carpet.

    After getting sent off for bad language by the West German referee, Rattín refused to leave, incensed about what he thought was preferential treatment for the hosts.

25. Diego Simeone

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    Country: Argentina (106 caps, 11 goals)

    Clubs: Velez Sarsfield, Pisa, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Inter, Lazio, Racing

    Yes, Diego Simeone is the guy that got David Beckham sent off in the 1998 World Cup.

    Besides that, he was a great player. When he retired from international football, he was Argentina's all-time caps leader.

24. Edgar Davids

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    Country: Netherlands (74 caps, six goals)

    Clubs: Ajax, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Inter, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace

    Edgar Davids was one of the most recognizable players of his generation. That had as much to do with his trademark dreadlocks and goggles as it did with his amazing combination of physicality and creativity.

    During his career, he won six league titles and one European Cup, and was named to the Euro 2000 All-tournament team and the 1998 World Cup All-star team.

23. Patrick Vieira

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    Country: France (107 caps, six goals)

    Clubs: Cannes, Milan, Arsenal, Juventus, Inter, Manchester City

    With fellow Frenchman Emmanuel Petit, Vieira formed the backbone of Arsene Wenger's first title-winning side at Arsenal. Vieira went on to set up a goal in the 1998 World Cup final (which France won) and was a first-choice midfielder for France's Euro 2000-winning side.

22. Bryan Robson

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    Country: England (92 caps, 26 goals)

    Clubs: West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Middlesbrough

    A box-to-box midfielder, Robson excelled offensively and defensively for Manchester United and England. He served the longest tenure of any Manchester United captain, leading the club to two league titles, three FA Cups and one UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.

    He earned a spot on the Football League's list of 100 legends and was an inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

21. Nobby Stiles

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    Country: England (28 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Manchester United, Middlesbrough, Preston North End

    The "Toothless Tiger," Stiles was integral in the then-new role of all-out ball-winner during England's 1966 World Cup triumph and Manchester United's run to the 1968 European Cup title.

    He wasn't popular with the press at the time, as he later told the Guardian:

    "I got slaughtered in the papers, absolutely slaughtered [but] you can't play if you haven't got the ball. My job was to win it, give it to Bobby [Charlton] and let him get on with it."

    These days, that's not only a valuable role, it's ubiquitous.

20. Gennaro Gattuso

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    Country: Italy (73 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Perugia, Rangers, Salernitana, Milan

    Known as Ringhio ("The Snarler"), Gattuso does just that when he's out-muscling unsuspecting opponents in his midfield destroyer role. He wasn't used during Italy's 2002 World Cup campaign, but he was a fixture four years later when the Azzurri lifted the trophy.

    After the World Cup final, Gattuso famously celebrated in his tighty whities.

19. Osvaldo Ardiles

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    Country: Argentina (63 caps, eight goals)

    Clubs: Instituto de Cordoba, Belgrano, Huracan, Tottenham Hotspur, PSG, St. George Saints, Blackburn Rovers, QPR, Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, Swindon Town

    Ardiles was a member of Argentina's 1978 World Cup-winning side. With Tottenham Hotspur, he won the FA Cup in 1981 and '82, and the UEFA Cup in 1984. After he retired, he was named to the Football League's 100 Legends list

18. Horst Szymaniak

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    Country: West Germany (43 caps, two goals)

    Clubs: SpVgg Erkenschwick, Wuppertaler SV, Karlsruher SC, Catania, Inter, Varese, Tasmania 1900 Berlin, FC Biel, Chicago Spurs

    Szymaniak was a fixture in the West German midfield in the 1960s, playing for the 1962 and 1966 World Cup teams. Kicker Magazine ranked him "world class" five times in a row from 1957-61.

17. Didier Deschamps

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    Country: France (103 caps, four goals)

    Clubs: Nantes, Marseille, Bordeaux, Juventus, Chelsea, Valencia

    Eric Cantona once called Deschamps a "water carrier." But this water carrier captained France to the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 titles.

    He was also good enough to keep Claude Makélélé out of France's lineup until 2002.

16. Marco Tardelli

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    Country: Italy (81 caps, seven goals)

    Clubs: Pisa, Como, Juventus, Inter, St. Gallen

    Known for his toughness, tackling and endurance, Tardelli was a rock for Italy's 1982 World Cup championship team. You've probably seen his celebration after scoring a goal in the final.

15. Americo Gallego

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    Country: Argentina (73 caps, three goals)

    Clubs: Newell's Old Boys, River Plate

    A member of Argentina's 1978 World Cup title team, Gallego played nearly every minute and provided valuable cover to the back line. The team's goalie called him an octopus for his ability to stop opponents' attacks.

    He played 440 league matches in Argentina, winning a league title and one Copa Libertadores title.

14. Graeme Souness

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    Country: Scotland (54 caps, four goals)

    Clubs: Tottenham Hotspur, Montreal Olympique, Middlesbrough, West Adelaide, Liverpool, Sampdoria, Rangers

    Souness dominated every midfield in which he played. His combative, physical style helped Liverpool win five league titles in six years and three European Cups.

    He's a member of the English Football Hall of Fame, Rangers Hall of Fame and the Scottish national team Hall of Fame.

13. Arie Haan

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    Country: Netherlands (35 caps, six goals)

    Clubs: Ajax, Anderlecht, Standard Liege, PSV, Seiko

    Haan played the defensive midfield role for the Ajax teams that won three straight European Cups from 1971-73. He was also part of the Netherlands' Total Football sides that advanced to the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals.

12. Dunga

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    Country: Brazil (91 caps, six goals)

    Clubs: Internacional, Corinthians, Santos, Vasco da Gama, Pisa, Fiorentina, Pescara, VfB Stuttgart, Jubilo Iwata

    His name comes from the Portuguese translation of Dopey, the Snow White character. His uncle gave him the name when Dunga was a kid.

    Dunga, however, was not dopey on the pitch. He played the anchor role for Brazil's 1994 World Cup championship team and captained them to the 1998 final.

11. Gerhard Hanappi

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    Country: Austria (93 caps, 12 goals)

    Clubs: SC Wacker Wien, Rapid Vienna

    Hanappi did it all for Austria's midfield, as the team finished third in the 1954 World Cup. He also played in the 1958 Cup and captained the team from 1955-62.

    At the club level, Hanappi led his teams to seven league titles and one Austrian cup.

10. Ernst Ocwirk

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    Country: Austria (62 caps, six goals)

    Clubs: Floridsdorfer AC, Austria Wien, Sampdoria

    The English nicknamed him Clockwork for his consistency. Ocwirk was the best player on that 1954 Austria team that finished third in the World Cup. He also won five league titles and three Austrian cups.

9. Obdulio Varela

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    Country: Uruguay (45 caps, nine goals)

    Clubs: Deportivo Juventud, Montevideo Wanderers, Peñarol

    Obdulio Varela captained Uruguay to the 1950 World Cup title. To lift the trophy, the Uruguayans upset Brazil at home.

    Varela, who was a tough midfield enforcer, motivated his teammates by saying "win here or die trying."

    He showed he wasn't all talk with his strong tackling, including a stout challenge on Brazil's Bigode.

    Uruguay won 2-1.

8. Fernando Redondo

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    Country: Argentina (29 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Argentinos Juniors, Tenerife, Real Madrid, Milan

    Redondo's greatness showed at the club level more than with Argentina. With Real Madrid from 1994-2000, Redondo made a name for himself as one of the world's best midfielders with his superior defensive and offensive skills.

    After a Real Madrid win over Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson quipped about Redondo, "What does the player have in his boots? A magnet?"

7. Paulo Roberto Falcão

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    Country: Brazil (34 caps, seven goals)

    Clubs: Internacional, Roma, São Paulo

    At his peak, Falcão was among the world's best players. A central midfielder, he earned a spot on Pele's list of the 125 greatest living players in 2004.

6. Johan Neeskens

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    Country: Netherlands (49 caps, 17 goals)

    Clubs: RCH, Ajax, Barcelona, New York Cosmos, Groningen

    Neeskens played the support role for Johan Cruyff in the Netherlands' glorious teams of 1974 and 1978. Enough said.

    At the club level, he won two Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, two Dutch cups and one Copa Del Rey.

5. Jose Leandro Andrade

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    Country: Uruguay (34 caps, one goal)

    Clubs: Bella Vista, Nacional, Peñarol, Club Atletico Atlanta, Lanus-Talleres, Wanderers, Argentinos Juniors

    Andrade was a former carnie who helped lead Uruguay to the first World Cup title in 1930, as well as gold medals at the 1924 and '28 Olympics.

    At the club level, he won three league titles.

4. Roy Keane

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    Country: Republic of Ireland (67 caps, nine goals)

    Clubs: Cobh Ramblers, Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Celtic

    As a player, Roy Keane was as tough, mean and crazy as you can get. As a person, he's much the same.

    On the field, he broke Alf-Inge Haaland's leg. Later, he bragged about it in his book.

    He could influence a game like few midfielders ever have. He was as strong in the tackle as just about anyone has ever been.

3. Jozsef Bozsik

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    Country: Hungary (101 caps, 11 goals)

    Club: Klipesti AC/Honved

    Bozsik was an influential member of Hungary's Magical Magyars team of the 1950s that dazzled world football.

    If we're being picky, he actually played right half. Nobody plays that position anymore, though, and the closest equivalent in today's game is the defensive midfielder.

    Bozsik was strong in the tackle and was famous for his field awareness and game knowledge.

    And if you ask us, he looked a bit like Cris Collinsworth.

2. Frank Rijkaard

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    Country: Netherlands (73 caps, 10 goals)

    Clubs: Ajax, Sporting CP, Zaragoza, Milan

    Called a "stylish player of faultless pedigree" by the Daily Telegraph, Rijkaard helped lead the Dutch past all the disappointing finishes in their past to the Euro 88 title—the country's first and only major title.

    He won the Dutch Golden Shoe in 1985 and 1987 and was named to Pele's FIFA 100 list.

    A midfielder by trade, he played center back in the Euro 1988 final alongside Ronald Koeman.

    At the club level, Rijkaard won five league titles with Ajax, two more with Milan and three European Cups between the two clubs.

1. Lothar Matthäus

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    Country: West Germany/Germany (150 caps, 23 goals)

    Clubs: Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayern Munich, Inter, MetroStars (now called the New York Red Bulls)

    All you really need to know is this: After man-marking Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup final, Maradona called Matthäus his best rival.

    There's more, though. Much, much more.

    Matthäus, who started his career as a midfielder and finished it as a sweeper, played in a record five World Cups and was capped a German-record 150 times.

    He helped his country win Euro 1980 and World Cup 1990 and led Bayern Munich to two European Cup triumphs (1987, 1999). He also won seven Bundesliga titles.

    Matthäus won the Ballon d'Or for European footballer of the year in 1990, FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991 and German Footballer of the Year in 1990 and 1999 (the second time at age 38). He's also on Pele's list of 100 greatest footballers.

    There's no doubt about it. Matthäus is the best defensive midfielder of all time.


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