20 Best defenders of all time

FC Barcelona v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League
FC Barcelona v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League

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.

Honourable mentions: Javier Zanetti, Didier Deschamps, Gerard Pique, Berti Vogts, Fernando Hierro, Filippo Galli, Laurent Blanc, Frank de Boer, Claudio Gentile, Lilian Thuram

#20 Jaap Stam

Manchester United
Manchester United '99 Legends v FC Bayern Legends

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

Marcel Desailly and Andriy Shevchenko
Marcel Desailly and Andriy Shevchenko

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.

Marcel Desailly emerged as a highly promising talent in the famed Nantes youth academy alongside fellow defender Didier Deschamps.

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

Mauro Tassotti, Italy vs Spain
Mauro Tassotti, Italy vs Spain

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

FC Barcelona v Villanovense - Copa Del Rey
FC Barcelona v Villanovense - Copa Del Rey

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

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga
Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga

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.

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Edited by Zaid Khan
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