10 greatest football captains of all time

Bobby Charlton with team-mate Nobby Stiles

A great captain doesn’t need to be the very best player on the pitch in any given team, neither do they have to be a footballer of spectacular talent. This individual does, however, needs something special that drives his teammates on towards glory.

A captain's role is often an underappreciated one, but the man who slips on the coveted armband could in the very end prove to be the difference between a win and a loss, between a good team and a bad team and become remembered as one of the greats of the game. The importance of captaincy in football has been argued for decades, but it’s still often matters of great interest as to which player is picked by a manager to captain his side.

In no particular order, the following is the list of the 10 players who best manage to symbolise these attributes, thus placing them in the pantheon of football.

#10 Bobby Charlton

Throughout this list there are plenty of defenders and midfield destroyers, so it’s only fair we add a brilliant attacking player and former captain. Manchester United living legend, Bobby Charlton, was that rarest of beasts and an inspirational captain who also doubled as a truly sensational player in his own way.

The sheer magnitude of Charlton’s contribution to both Manchester United and England is simply extraordinary and very difficult to put into words.

After making his debut as a teenager in 1956, Charlton when on to score as many as 250 goals in nearly 258 appearances for the Red Devils, only Ryan Giggs has made more appearances for the club since then.

However, it was more than his tremendous achievements that sparked his international recognition, although the man won everything that was on offer. Charlton was a gentleman and as a captain, he was brilliant, leading the team after the Munich air crash.

A survivor of the Munich air crash in 1958 that claimed the lives of so many brilliant young players, Charlton was the player who led the team 10 years later as Manchester United became England's first European champions. A magnificent Benfica team were downed 4-1 after extra time, with the man himself hitting two goals to crown a Manchester United career that had spanned nearly 17 years, more than 750 games, three league titles, and an FA cup trophy.

#9 Francisco Gento

The selfless captain

There are some players who make obvious captains, the tough-tackling central defenders, the souls who put their life and bodies on the line for their teams and the midfield generals who dictate the game, bending how they see fit and forcing opponents to submit.

Then are the other type of captains, the quieter ones who still hold their authority. It is into this category that Gento – a winger once mocked for his inability to keep up with his body – falls.

The Spaniard’s work ethic and his desire for self-improvement would be influential to both the team and Real Madrid, and by the time the Los Blancos started to dominate Europe, Gento was a core part of their plan. That side would go on to win five European Cups, with Gento combining brilliantly with Alfredo Di Stefano.

However, by 1966, the team that made it to the final, did not have the same aura, but what they had was sheer grit and determination perfectly epitomised by their captain Gento, who had worked incredibly hard to get there.

That was the man’s secret, while others growled and shouted at their players to get in line and even lead by example, Gento led the team with his performances on the pitch and his presence was all that was needed.

#8 Patrick Vieira

LONDON - NOVEMBER 13:  A Spurs fan throws a carton of drinks at Patrick Vieira of Arsenal as he celebrates his goal during the Barclays Premiership match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at White Hart Lane on November 13, 2004 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Patrick Vieira was born to lead

Patrick Vieira took the Arsenal armband over from Mr. Arsenal himself, Tony Adams – who lead the Arsenal team for nearly fourteen years. The Frenchman became the first foreign player to skipper the club and his leadership qualities were quite evident even as a youngster. As a 19-year-old, the Frenchman had already captained Cannes and would have most likely slipped on the armband earlier if not for Adams.

Dominant, physically imposing, consistent and exceptionally tactically adept, there was no surprise what so ever when the midfielder le the Gunners to two FA Cup titles and a Premier League title along with two FA Community shields with him as captain.

His controversial fiery attitude led to great battles, but it was something Arsenal needed and still need desperately today.

His clashes with Roy Keane was very well known, both on and off the pitch, but his crowning moment was the 2003/2004 Premier League season, where he lead Arsenal to an unbeaten season (W26 D12 L0), before closing the curtain on his Arsenal career twelve months later.

Arsene Wenger spoke fondly about his former midfield general, saying “We have exceptional players in midfield with their own character. But at Arsenal, we will be forever grateful for Patrick’s contribution.”

#7 Franz Beckenbauer

Redefined the art of defending

As a captain, Franz Beckenbauer won every trophy at both club and international level. The elegance and sheer ability he had as a player was immediately obvious but it was his determination and ferocious will to win that made him stand out.

It was made apparent when Der Kaiser went on to play against Italy with a dislocated shoulder and his arm in a sling, in what was touted to be “The Game of The Season”. Then aged 24, he had already been made the captain of the Bayern Munich side a year earlier and had already begun his metamorphosis into a sweeper.

Although he played as a central midfielder for Bayern Munich, Beckenbauer would go on to create the modern sweeper role or libero, and in the process changed the way defenders would play.

Osvaldo Ardiles described the German perfectly: “He could also play in midfield and in defense, but for me his best position is as the ‘libero’ at the back, bringing the ball out and linking defense with the midfield. He was a brilliant leader too, a positive influence in the dressing room”

In total, Beckenbauer won five Bundesliga trophies, four DFB-Pokals, three European Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, and one Intercontinental Cup. The Bavarians, with the German at the back, and Gerd Muller scoring goals for fun at the other end, won three Bundesliga titles and three European Cups with Beckenbauer as captain, in successive seasons between 1974-76, their first golden era.

#6 Tony Adams

Adams was a one-club man and spent his entire playing career with Arsenal

Another one club man, Tony Adams spent his 22-year career with the Gunners and was the definition of a typical English defender, know for playing hard both on and off the pitch. However, once Arsene Wenger showed up at Highbury, the Romford boy underwent a massive change and was transformed into a consummate professional whose efforts were rewarded with trophies, something that was beyond his wildest dreams.

Arsenal’s former striker Ian Wright described his teammate the best: “Captain, a great defender, and a great leader. He was so inspirational and was able to get the best out of those around him.” In his first season with the armband, Adams led the side to the First Division title, which Arsenal won on the very last day at Anfield.

But what the central defender did best was bring an air of consistency every time he stepped on the pitch as distractions, pressure, mishaps, all evaporated the minute he walked on.

The only pre- and post-Wenger link, Adams made over 650 appearances for the club and captained the Gunners for a remarkable fourteen years, winning four Premier League (First Division) titles and one Cup Winners Cup, among others.

#5 Franco Baresi

Baresi was one of the best defenders of his time

Only the appearance of Paolo Maldini as AC Milan’s ageless hero prevents Franco Baresi from ever being considered as the Italian club’s greatest captain. However, even so, the diminutive central defender deserves his place in the Rossoneri’s hall of fame, something they gave him after retiring his number 6.

However things didn’t start that well for the Italian, and overcoming odds has always been Baresi’s signature move. Rejected by Inter Milan after failing their trial, he refused to give up and moved across town to AC Milan who accepted him with their arms wide open. Donning the red and black, Baresi made his debut at 17 and was a part of the team that won a historic tenth scudetto, became captain at 22, leading them from Serie B to the top of the world.

As captain of the Rossoneri, Baresi lifted five of the six titles, three European cups, two Intercontinental trophies, three European Super Cups and four Italian ones. Milan finally retired his shirt after his retirement and it still hangs in the Curva Sud at San Siro, as to them and everyone connected with Milan, Baresi will remain long after his final game.

His former teammate, Ruud Gullit spoke about what made Baresi great, “A leader at the back, very strong and quick, with an excellent understanding of the game. As a defender, he could do everything.”

#4 Javier Zanetti

A calming presence in the Inter Milan side

Javier Zanetti cemented his place in Italian football for nearly twenty years, and during his tenure as captain, Inter Milan joined footballing folklore with five consecutive titles, certifying their status as an Italian powerhouse. The Argentine made over 800 appearances and holds the record for the highest all-time appearances by a non-Italian player for an Italian club and his 860 appearances puts him at the top of Inter’s all-time appearances list.

The stalwart was the rock in the ever changing Inter Milan team and played under over nineteen managers with an average of one manager a season, and through an influx of new formations and new tactics, the Argentine remained in the squad. What’s more surprising is despite all the managerial changes, Zanetti was never displaced as team captain and remained as Inter Milan’s El Capitan since he took over from Giuseppe Bergomi in 1999 until his retirement in 2014.

As a captain, the 43-year-old lifted 15 out of the 16 trophies that Inter Milan won during his 19-year tenure with the club, and after years under Juventus and AC Milan’s shadow, Inter finally had their moment in the sun. His motive was to help his teammates and lay a path for them to follow – a quintessential feature of any influential captain in the game – something he did to perfection.

#3 Roy Keane

The fearless captain

It was always going to be a match made in heaven, when the gruff temperamental Irishman met the gruff temperamental Scottish manager. With 11 career red cards, Roy Keane was the last man people expected Sir Alex to walk over to and hand the captain’s armband to, but that’s exactly what the manager did and Keane led the team brilliantly.

The Irishman was already an important figure in the team, but at the same time, he was no stranger to red cards and had critics questioning Ferguson's decision.

But the combative midfielder proved critics wrong and with him pulling strings from the middle of the park, Manchester United won nearly everything going into the turn of the 21st century. Keane, however, was never blessed with talent, unlike his teammates, but his consistency and unbending strength of character would always outdo his teammates time after time.

Keane soon became the core around which teams were built around and the former Ireland international wore the armband for eight years. During this period, Manchester United won four Premier League titles, including that incredible treble winning season in 1998/99 where the Old Trafford team won the Champions League for the first time in over 30 years.

#2 Paolo Maldini

Maldini played over two decades for the Milan giants

The definition of a one-club man, Paolo Maldini will go down in history as the greatest defender to have ever graced the football pitch. In a career spanning over 25 years, the former Italy captain won a staggering 26 trophies, including five Champions League titles – more than any other player the modern era. Maldini won seven Serie A titles with AC Milan and holds multiple longevity based records.

However, his tenure as captain was preceded by Franco Baresi, who just happened to be partnered with Maldini at the back, and soaked up everything he could from the Rossoneri legend.

When Baresi retired, he passed on the baton to Maldini and had this to say about his former defensive partner: “I passed the baton to Paolo Maldini, who, after I retired, played for another 12 years at an incredibly high level, conducting himself in an exemplary manner on the field, as a true captain, but also off it. We can, therefore, say that the transition was completely painless, and I left the captain’s armband in very good hands”

Maldini won seven Scudettos, including three consecutive titles between 1992-94 and he was bequeathed the title ‘Il Capitano’.

#1 Carles Puyol

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 23:  Carles Puyol of Barcelona holds up the La Liga trophy after the La Liga match between Barcelona and Osasuna at the Nou Camp stadium on May 23, 2009 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
The inspiring captain

The wild-haired Carles Puyol always looked out of place standing next to his well-groomed and impeccable teammates at Barcelona, but he was anything but that during his entire tenure with the club. For the Blaugrana faithful, the central defender has played just as big a part in Barcelona’s success as any of the Catalan club’s superstars.

A one-club man, Puyol started his career with the Catalans at a young age and continued his battle for a place in the Barcelona first team nearly fifteen years later. During his time with Barcelona, the Spaniard won six La Liga titles, two Copa Del Rey, three Champions League trophies, six Spanish Supercopas and two European Supercups for a total of 21 trophies, all the while making 593 appearances for Barcelona.

However, some may argue that given the caliber of players that Puyol had playing in front of him, which included the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, his job as a captain was much easier. But given the number of accolades the Spaniard won, his influence cannot be disputed in that Barcelona team.

Edited by Staff Editor


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