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10 greatest defenders of the 21st century

Some of the greatest players of the 21st century have been defenders
Some of the greatest players of the 21st century have been defenders

In football, it is often the attackers that are glorified and celebrated. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo fight for the title of the greatest player of all-time, with the likes of Diego Maradona and Pele thrown into the discussion.

Defending is an art. From crunching tackles to timely interceptions, it is not an easy task. While it is harder to judge a defender, as unlike forwards, there are no straight metrics like goals and assists to ascertain the player's performance, there is no denying that defending is an equally important task in football.

While there have been some defenders in the past who have challenged the monopoly of attackers (Franz Beckenbauer, Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Sergio Ramos), no defender has genuinely managed to usurp an attacker to become the best player in the world.

Having said that, some defenders have managed to make a name for themselves with their quality and longevity in the modern game.

On that note, here are the ten greatest defenders of the 21st century.


#10 Ashley Cole

Ashley Cole in Chelsea colours
Ashley Cole in Chelsea colours

Regarded by many as one of the best left-backs to have played the game, Ashley Cole enjoyed a good career with both club and country.

A product of the Arsenal academy, Cole went on to make more than 200 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners, also playing an important role in their Invincibles season. However, a controversial move to Chelsea followed, and it was with the Blues that Cole cemented his legacy as one of the greats of the game.

The England international won everything with Chelsea, adding to the seven trophies he won with Arsenal. A solid defender who was excellent in attack, the 39-year old had stints with Roma, LA Galaxy, and Derby County before retiring in 2019.


#9 Giorgio Chiellini

Giorgio Chiellini is the Italy captain
Giorgio Chiellini is the Italy captain

Captain of both Juventus and the Italy national team, Giorgio Chiellini has quietly made his name as one of the best centre-backs of his generation.

In an era where defenders are asked to be elegant and skillful with the ball, Chiellini is a throwback to an older generation. A no-nonsense centre-back well-renowned for his aggression and physicality, the Italy international combines intelligence with courage.

A competent passer from the back, the 36-year old has often been utilised as a ball-winner, with his maturity and leadership resulting in him being given the armband for both club and country.


#8 Dani Alves

Dani Alves is regarded as a Barcelona legend
Dani Alves is regarded as a Barcelona legend

When Barcelona splurged โ‚ฌ35 million for Dani Alves in 2008, it raised plenty of eyebrows.

The right-back had been an integral part of a good Sevilla side, but he reached another level under the guidance of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. An extremely creative, attacking full-back, the Brazil international formed an exciting partnership on the right with Lionel Messi, causing havoc to opposition defences.

A dynamic right-back with good energy and match intelligence, Alves made nearly 400 appearances in all competitions for Barcelona, winning every trophy possible. The 37-year old went on to make appearances for Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain and now plays for Sao Paulo in Brazil.


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#7 Rio Ferdinand

Rio Ferdinand enjoyed a good career with Manchester United
Rio Ferdinand enjoyed a good career with Manchester United

When Manchester United paid Leeds United โ‚ฌ46 million for Rio Ferdinand in 2002, it made him the most expensive defender in the world at that point.

Ferdinand's performances for Manchester United ensured that the price was justified. Regarded as a ball-playing centre-back, the England international's distribution and composure earned praise, while his physicality and athleticism meant that he was a good defender as well.

Ferdinand made more than 450 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United, forming an excellent partnership with Nemanja Vidic. He left the club in 2014, moving to Queens Park Rangers. He retired in 2015 and is currently a television pundit.


#6 John Terry

John Terry is a part of Aston Villa's management team
John Terry is a part of Aston Villa's management team

John Terry is seen by many critics as the greatest English defender of all-time, and it is not hard to see why.

A product of the Chelsea academy, Terry would go on to make more than 700 appearances in all competitions for his beloved club, captaining them in the process. A strong, aggressive player, the England international was fast and aerially dominant, with his leadership ability highly praised by many.

Terry was named the UEFA Club Defender of the Year three times and was included in the FIFPRO World XI for five consecutive seasons. He spent a season with Aston Villa after leaving Chelsea, before retiring in 2018. The 39-year old is currently a part of the management team at Aston Villa.


#5 Paolo Maldini

Paolo Maldini is seen by many as the greatest defender of all-time
Paolo Maldini is seen by many as the greatest defender of all-time

Arguably the greatest defender to have played the game of football, Paolo Maldini ranks fifth in this list because he only spent the twilight years of his career in the 21st century.

A one-club man, Maldini spent his entire playing career with AC Milan, making more than 900 appearances in all competitions since his debut in 1984. Apart from his astounding longevity at the top level, Maldini was an astute defender. As a wing-back, his athleticism and stamina stood out, while as a centre-back, his tenacity and maturity played a vital role.

The Italy international won 25 titles with his beloved club, including five Champions League titles and seven Serie A titles. He is currently the technical director at AC Milan.


#4 Philipp Lahm

Philipp Lahm was the captain of both Bayern Munich and Germany
Philipp Lahm was the captain of both Bayern Munich and Germany

Philipp Lahm might not necessarily have the star quality that many other names in this list might have, but there is no denying his impact and effectiveness as a player.

Lahm spent his entire playing career with Bayern Munich, barring a loan spell with Stuttgart. A right-back who was renowned for his intelligence, technical skill and leadership ability, Lahm captained both Bayern Munich and the German national team, leading them to World Cup success in 2014.

Guardiola's arrival at Bayern Munich saw the 36-year old being utilised as a midfielder, where he excelled due to his match intelligence and discipline. He won every major accolade with Bayern Munich, retiring in 2017 after making more than 500 appearances in all competitions for the club.


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#3 Carles Puyol

Carles Puyol in action for Barcelona
Carles Puyol in action for Barcelona

Carles Puyol's distinctive shaggy hairstyle might have become his trademark, but on the field, he was one of the best defenders of his generation.

A product of the famed La Masia academy, Puyol made his debut for Barcelona in 1999, going on to make nearly 600 appearances in all competitions for the club. A dominant centre-back who was tenacious and aggressive, the Spain international quickly became a leader in the dressing room and was appointed as the club captain in 2004.

The arrival of Gerard Pique indicated that Barcelona had found a successor to Puyol's throne, with the veteran defender mentoring the new signing. The 42-year old retired in 2014, having won every major trophy with both Barcelona and Spain.


#2 Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos in Spain colours
Sergio Ramos in Spain colours

Sergio Ramos might not be everybody's favourite footballer, but there is no denying that the Real Madrid captain is one of the best defenders of all-time.

Originally a right-back during his Sevilla days, Ramos became a centre-back after moving to Real Madrid. A highly physical, technically sound defender with an eye for goal, Ramos's pace and ball-playing ability have been praised often. An efficient leader, the Spain international is the current captain for club and country.

The 34-year is still going strong and has made 650 appearances so far in all competitions for Los Blancos, scoring an astounding 97 goals.


#1 Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro is currently a football manager
Fabio Cannavaro is currently a football manager

The only defender to have won the Ballon d'Or this century, Fabio Cannavaro is considered as one of the greatest centre-backs of all-time.

Having begun his career with Napoli, Cannavaro made his name at club level with Parma, making nearly 300 appearances in all competitions for the club. However, his performances with the Italian national team arguably sealed his legacy, as he captained the nation to victory in the 2006 World Cup and won the Silver Ball in the process.

A Ballon d'Or followed and Cannavaro was also named the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year. At club level, he played for the likes of Juventus, Real Madrid and Al-Ahli, before retiring in 2011. He is currently the manager of Guangzhou Evergrande, having also coached the likes of Al-Nassr and Tianjin Quanjian.


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Edited by Vishal Subramanian
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