20 Best defenders of all time
When lists of the best players in history are drawn up, defenders seldom feature at the top of the list. Only three defenders have won the Ballon d'Or in the game's history, as opposed to a massive, burgeoning list of strikers and midfielders.
The sentence "Attack wins you games but defence wins you trophies" may just be a cliched adage parroted by pundits in post-match discussions. But there is an undeniable element of truth to the claim.
Every truly successful side in the history of the game has boasted an excellent defence. The art of defending has evolved with the game in an incredible fashion. It has adapted and moulded itself to ensure that the balance of the beautiful game is never disturbed.
For every legendary goal machine that has existed in football's storied history, there has been at least one defender who has been able to find an answer.
Lists such as these are highly subjective and based entirely on preference, and rightly so. While strikers and midfielders feed off statistics and impact, a defender's career is defined by the influence he has over his team.
The best defenders in history have been excellent leaders both on and off the pitch and tend to lead by example. Apologies are certainly in order to the brilliant players who have not made this list.
However, these 20 players have, through some truly exceptional and career-defining moments, carved themselves a place among the best in the history of the game.
#20 Jaap Stam
Jaap Stam, in his prime, was a phenomenon. Arguably one of the most dependable defenders to have ever donned the red of Manchester United, the Dutchman was an integral part of one of Sir Alex Ferguson's many successful squads.
Stam was not the most illustrious player in Manchester United's golden age. But he was a vital cog in an efficient machine designed and directed by the legendary Scottish manager.
Stam's authoritative presence in the back four coupled with his surprising pace and agility made him a behemoth in Manchester United's defence. The Dutch defender won three Premier League titles in three years at Manchester United, in addition to an FA Cup and the coveted UEFA Champions League.
The centre-back went on to play for the likes of Lazio, AC Milan, and Ajax before hanging up his boots. Stam was also a mainstay in the Dutch national team, helping his country to semi-final finishes in the 1998 FIFA World Cup and the Euro 2000.
#19 Marcel Desailly
In the 1990s, the French national team boasted an exceptional array of defensive talent. This was a result of the revamped youth programs of several clubs in the country a decade or so earlier.
The duo won the UEFA Champions League with Marseille in 1992, kicking off a successful start to Desailly's illustrious career.
Desailly's successful exploits did not stop there. The French defender secured a move to AC Milan in 1993 and went on to play alongside some of the best defenders in football history.
Desailly had to make do with a role in central defensive midfield but did the job with aplomb, putting in excellent shifts to shield AC Milan's legendary back four.
The defender was also an integral part of the French national team that won the 1998 FIFA World Cup and the Euro 2000.
#18 Mauro Tassotti
17 years and 17 major titles: Mauro Tassotti's repertoire of trophies from his time at AC Milan is impeccable. Tassotti started his career with Lazio in 1978 and switched to AC Milan after two years at the Roman club.
The right-back made his AC Milan debut in Serie B and emerged as one of the best players in the 1980-81 season, winning AC Milan promotion to the Serie A. The early 1980s were a dark time for AC Milan. However, Tassotti's successful litmus test of loyalty ensured that he was enshrined in Rossoneri hearts for years to come.
Tassotti was primarily used as a full-back on the right flank, but could also be deployed as a left-back or a sweeper. Tassotti's game represented Italian football's Calcio personality and was primarily based on astute defence.
But the full-back was also effective in opposition territory. The defender went on to win three consecutive Champions League titles from 1993 to 1995 and captained the team in the 1994 campaign.
#17 Dani Alves
Dani Alves is one of those few players that embodies Brazil to perfection. Brazilian flair is a quality you would expect from the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Neymar, and the innumerable other talented forwards that Brazil has produced. Alves, however, is far from the ordinary right-back.
Alves has played for several high-profile clubs but will be remembered for his time at FC Barcelona. The right-back formed a telepathic connection with Lionel Messi and the results were exhilarating. Alves is famous for his ability to use his pace to complement both defence and attack with amazing efficiency. He can man-mark and make a forward pass equally well.
Widely regarded as the most decorated player in football history, Alves has tasted success on the international stage as well. The Brazilian led his country to a successful Copa America campaign in 2019 and continues to captain the team. With only a handful of years left up his sleeve, Alves may still grasp at a few more opportunities to add to his impressive silverware tally.
#16 Sergio Ramos
Very few individuals have the ability to completely polarize the football world to the extent that Sergio Ramos does. Even fewer are able to do it with his charisma and sarcastic smile.
That being said, the Spanish defender's temperament and aggression on the pitch can take nothing away from the fact that he is one of the greatest defenders to have ever donned the white of Los Blancos. Ramos combines speed, tenacity, and a sound understanding of the game to overwhelm the opposition. Additionally, he leads his side with unmatchable confidence.
Ramos is one of the most successful defenders in the 21st century. The former Sevilla man lifted the World Cup with Spain in 2010. He also scored a crucial goal against Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final to help Real Madrid to the coveted 'La Decima'.
While the Spaniard may feed his critics fodder on a fairly regular basis, it is impossible to argue with a trophy cabinet boasting four Champions League trophies.
#15 Fabio Cannavaro
To gather praise from avid fans is impressive, but to be vouched for by the legendary Diego Maradona is entirely another matter. Fabio Cannavaro started his youth career at Napoli and worked his way through the ranks for an opportunity to play alongside his childhood idols.
The first recipient of Cannavaro's trademark challenge was Maradona himself. The club's medical staff did not take kindly to a youngster throwing himself at a bonafide legend. However, Maradona was impressed.
Cannavaro went on to play for Parma, Inter Milan, Juventus, and Real Madrid. He served as the heart and soul of every team he played for. His leadership qualities were abundantly evident throughout his career and stood firmly in the spotlight when he led Italy to a 2006 FIFA World Cup triumph.
Cannavaro became the first defender since the turn of the century to win the prestigious Ballon d'Or and is one of the greatest captains Italy has ever produced.
#14 Philipp Lahm
Philipp Lahm is the physical manifestation of German efficiency. The German right-back was one of the most important figures at Bayern Munich after the turn of the century. Lahm pulled his club through a few rough patches to propel them to the pinnacle of German football. He also led Bayern Munich to a historic treble in 2013 and has enjoyed a great deal of success in the Bundesliga.
While the German national team has always enjoyed success at the international level, they became a ruthless force to reckon with under Lahm's leadership. His crowning moment arrived in 2014 when the inspirational German lifted the World Cup for his country.
Described by Pep Guardiola as one of the best footballers in history and one of the smartest that he has worked with, Lahm's awareness, work ethic, and positional sense were immaculate.
The right-back understood the game better than anybody on the pitch and could also be used in a defensive midfield role. The fact that Lahm never received a single red card in his lengthy and high-profile career goes to show the ability and character of the pearl of modern German football.
#13 Giuseppe Bergomi
Giuseppe Bergomi is one of the many one-club men in this list and a bonafide Inter Milan legend. The Italian defender ensured that Inter Milan was able to hold its own against arguably the best AC Milan side in history. Bergomi was a lynchpin in Inter Milan's defence for over 20 years and embodied the side's Calcio spirit.
Bergomi was primarily a right-back, but could also be used as a central defender or a sweeper if the need arose. He excelled in the man-marking defensive system used by Inter Milan in the 1980s. Bergomi was also famous for his ability to hold off the best dribblers in the league with consummate ease.
The Serie A of the late 20th century was a world of exceptional attacking talent only surpassed by even better defensive setups. However, the Nerazzurri's legendary veteran often stole the show against world-class opposition.
#12 Alessandro Costacurta
It is fairly evident from this list that AC Milan had a knack of fielding exceptional defenders. Alessandro Costacurta is not the first of those players on the list, and he certainly will not be the last.
The Italian centre-back was a crucial part of a defensive line that is widely regarded as the best in the history of football. The tactically versatile defender could be played anywhere across the back-line. Additionally, his passing and technical ability made him a complete player.
Costacurta was adept at setting up man-marking and zonal-marking systems as well as offside traps and high defensive lines. There was a lot of competition of places in Milan's starting eleven at the time. But Costacurta ensured that his place in a star-studded AC Milan line-up was never in question.
Described by Fabio Cannavaro as the best defender that he had ever played with, Costacurta's greatest achievements came under the mentorship of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello.
The defender was a part of seven successful Serie A campaigns and continued to play for AC Milan till the age of 41.
#11 Carles Puyol
To think that Carles Puyol nearly left FC Barcelona to join Malaga in 1998 makes every Barcelona fan shudder. Puyol embodied Barcelona's 'Mes Que Un Club' principle in more ways than one and led the club to periods of unprecedented success.
Puyol spent 15 years in Barcelona's first team and captained the team for over 10 years. He formed a magnificent partnership with a young Gerard Pique at the heart of Barcelona's defence. Puyol complemented all of Pique's technique and poise with equal measures of heart and steel.
Puyol's most important asset was his ability to inspire his teammates and lead by example. Unsurprisingly, most of Barcelona's silverware owes a part of its existence to the legendary Blaugrana captain.
Puyol was also a part of Spain's successful 2010 World Cup triumph, where he partnered and mentored the likes of Pique and Sergio Ramos. Puyol played the tournament like he played every game in his career - with his heart on his sleeve.
He scored the only goal in the semi-final against Germany and played almost every single minute of the tournament.
#10 Matthias Sammer
For a player who would go on to revolutionise the role of the 'libero' in modern football, it is rather surprising that Matthias Sammer started his professional career as a striker and winger. The German was an effective forward with Dynamo Dresden, transitioning into a defensive midfield role the following year owing to his superior understanding of the game.
Sammer was a revelation for the Ruhr valley side, winning two consecutive Bundesliga titles and Borussia Dortmund's first-ever European Cup in 1997. Sammer also had a very successful career with the German national team, particularly after Germany presented a unified front post the country's reunification in 1990.
Sammer was chosen as the Player of the Tournament in Germany's successful Euro 1996 campaign and became only the second defender in the history of football to win the Ballon d'Or.
#9 Ronald Koeman
Johan Cruyff's Barcelona of the 1990s, or the "Dream Team" as they are popularly known, was known primarily for its attacking talent. It is only fitting, therefore, that the side's best defensive talent was as explosive as they come.
After brief stints with Groningen and Ajax, Koeman realised his true potential at PSV Eindhoven. He won a treble and domestic double in consecutive years with the Rood-Witten and also played a role in PSV's only European Cup triumph.
The central defender scored an astonishing 51 goals in 98 games for PSV Eindhoven, outscoring most of the strikers in his team. The Dutch defender secured a transfer to Johan Cruyff's Barcelona in 1989 and took Spain by storm.
Koeman was an astute defender and ball-playing centre-back but seemed to enjoy plundering the opposition's goal when the opportunity arose. Koeman played as a centre-back or sweeper in a team boasting the likes of Romario, Michael Laudrup, and Hristo Stoichkov.
Given his proclivity for finding the back of the net in set-piece situations, Koeman was the Catalan team's go-to man for free-kicks and dead-ball situations.
The Dutchman had an impeccable free-kick technique and scored the all-important goal against Sampdoria to win Barcelona its first-ever European Cup.
#8 Alessandro Nesta
If defensive football had to nominate its own Leonardo da Vinci, Alessandro Nesta is one of football history's rare gems that would fit the bill.
Defending is rarely lauded as a beautiful component of the game, but Nesta's ability to elegantly and ethereally caress the ball off a striker's feet was a sight to behold.
Taking the ball off Lionel Messi in his prime is no mean feat, but to do it with a breathtaking tackle at the age of 36 is divine intervention at its very best.
Nesta began his career at Lazio in 1993 and won the captaincy in 1999 at the age of 23, leading the team to a domestic double. The centre-back won three consecutive Serie A Defender of the Year awards from 2000 to 2002.
Nesta signed with AC Milan in the 2002-03 season and made an immediate impact, winning the Champions League in his debut season with the club. The defender would play an integral role in the success of his club and country for the rest of the decade. He lifted the World Cup with Italy in 2006 and won the Champions League yet again the following year.
AC Milan and AS Roma legend Cafu is regarded as one of the best full-backs of all time, and for good reason. The Brazilian began his career with Sao Paulo in stellar fashion, winning the Copa Libertadores in 1992.
He secured a move to AS Roma in 1997 and won his first Serie A title with the Giallorossi in 2001. Cafu was a part of one of the best defensive lines of the 21st century while at AC Milan and won the Champions League with the club in 2007.
The Brazilian's explosive runs down the right flank earned him the nickname "Pendolino", after Italy's express trains. In contrast with many attacking full-backs of his generation, Cafu was an astute defender who could operate effectively anywhere across the pitch.
Cafu's most glorious achievements are with his national team. The right-back played three World Cup finals and lifted the trophy in 1994 and 2002, winning the latter as captain.
#6 Roberto Carlos
With a free-kick technique that would make his Brazilian teammates Ronaldinho and Juninho proud, Roberto Carlos was nothing short of a phenomenon. Carlos was considered one of the most dangerous players of his generation by teammates and opponents alike. The left-back was famous for ripping apart the flanks with his pace and inventive dribbling.
With speed, aggression, and an exceptional set-piece and crossing technique, the Brazilian elevated Real Madrid to extraordinary levels of greatness.
Carlos is considered one of the best left-backs in Real Madrid's storied history. The Brazilian will be remembered for decades to come for his incredible swerving free-kick that stunned the French national team.
Carlos was incredibly successful with Real Madrid, winning four La Liga titles and three UEFA Champions Leagues. With Brazil, Carlos formed a potent partnership with Cafu, terrorising both flanks in Selecao's successful 2002 campaign.
With an impressive trophy cabinet and a string of iconic moments to his name, Roberto Carlos is one of the best defenders of all time.
#5 Gaetano Scirea
Gaetano Scirea is one of only five players to date to have won every single trophy recognised by UEFA and FIFA. Scirea, at his peak, was a behemoth of a defender and easily the best in the world for a time.
Luckily for his country, his extraordinary peak coincided with the 1982 World Cup, and with the legendary Dino Zoff behind him in goal, Italy's star defender could do no wrong.
In contrast to his defensive partners, Scirea was known for his finesse and technical ability and is often seen as a precursor to the defensive styles of Baresi and Maldini.
Scirea went on to win seven Serie A titles with Juventus and stayed with Italy's most successful club till the end of his career. The southern stand of the Juventus Stadium is named the Curva Scirea in honour of the legendary defender.
#4 Bobby Moore
Comparisons between players across generations generally tend to be unfair, given the number of variables involved in every football player's unique career. Bobby Moore, however, was no mere mortal.
Songs are still sung in tribute to the legendary icon 27 years after his death, and more will likely be composed to commemorate England's best-ever defender.
Lauded by Pele as the greatest defender he has ever played against, Moore was the perfect leader on the pitch. The centre-back played more than 600 games for West Ham, winning the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup.
Moore took up the England national team's captaincy at the age of 23 and did wonders with the role. He inspired the team to their first World Cup triumph in 1966, keeping clean sheets in every group game and holding off the legendary Eusebio in the semi-finals.
In the 1970 World Cup, Moore wrote himself into the echelons of football history with a brilliant tackle to take the ball off the mesmerising Jairzinho, inspiring generations of English defenders.
#3 Franco Baresi
It is, in hindsight, quite peculiar that Franco Baresi began his career in the shadow of his talented older brother, Giuseppe Baresi. Franco Baresi was AC Milan's knight in shining armour for over 20 years.
The talented defender was largely responsible for the club's astronomical highs and stood firm in the club's defence during its worst periods. To AC Milan, Baresi was the definition of a leader and messiah, injecting life into teammates and fans alike every time he won the ball back in his trademark fashion.
Baresi was Arrigo Sacchi's go-to man during his time at the club, interpreting tactical instructions and holding together a world-class defensive line. Baresi was a Sacchi-certified expert at organising offside traps.
He would often leave strikers and wingers dumbfounded with his indomitable presence of mind. The defender led AC Milan to three UEFA Champions League and six Serie A titles, commencing an era of unprecedented success for the Rossoneri.
"Piscinin", or "the little one", as he was referred to in his early days, had emerged from his brother's shadow. Not only that, but he had also shaped the art of Italian defending and etched himself a permanent place in the soul of the San Siro.
#2 Franz Beckenbauer
Measuring the success of a football player is an insurmountable task. Silverware is one way of establishing the greatness of a player. However, assessing the influence of the player on the game as a whole is an equally dependable metric. Franz Beckenbauer ticks both boxes.
'Der Kaiser', as he was referred to by his teammates and fans, was a born leader. Beckenbauer carried himself on and off the pitch with all the class of a captain and was one of the most versatile defenders in the history of the game.
He is widely credited for inventing the role of the sweeper or 'libero' and made the position his own. Beckenbauer often dropped deep into his box to pick up the ball and silked through the opposition's first press and into the midfield.
From his deep position, the Kaiser not only provided his goalkeeper with the ultimate shield but also dictated play with his technical ability and understanding of the game.
Up against one of the greatest Dutch attacks in history, Beckenbauer and his legion of defenders played out of their skins to nullify Cruyff's 'Total Football' and emerged victorious. They lifted the coveted trophy and etched their names into the annals of football lore.
#1 Paolo Maldini
Defending is seldom regarded as the most beautiful skill in football. More often than not, defenders make use of ugly tackles, pulls of the shirt, and horrendous elbows to the face either to intentionally obstruct play or simply to send a message.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a popular notion exists which paints the art of defending in an exceedingly unflattering light. Paolo Maldini is the very antithesis of this notion.
In the blink of an eye, Maldini could take the ball off a striker's feet like a hot knife slicing through butter. Filling the massive boots of Franco Baresi is nearly impossible, but Maldini carved his own image at the San Siro, playing for his beloved AC Milan for an astonishing 25 years.
As far as one-club men go, there are only a handful of players in football history that can compare to Maldini's dedication and loyalty.
Maldini remained a constant in some of the greatest defensive lineups in the history of the sport. In his early twenties, he formed a legendary partnership with the likes of Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti, and Alessandro Costacurta.
His rapport with Baresi, in particular, was spectacular. The duo played together in central defence and are statistically one of the best pairings in history, conceding only 23 goals in 196 games.
Maldini was appointed captain of the team after the retirement of many of his senior teammates in the late 1990s and forged an excellent partnership with Alessandro Nesta and Cafu to elevate the Rossoneri to greater heights.
Maldini's presence on the pitch earned him the moniker 'Il Capitano'. The defender won seven Serie A titles and five UEFA Champions League titles. This placed him second on the list of most successful players in the tournament's history behind Real Madrid's Paco Gento.
Be it his influence on the pitch, his precise defensive play, or his ability to lead his teammates, Maldini's sheer talent and charisma make him the best defender of all time.