Ranking the 5 greatest defenders of all time

Paolo Maldini of AC Milan heads the ball
Paolo Maldini of AC Milan heads the ball

Football has come a long way over the last century. It has lost its overtly attacking tendencies, with defenders becoming more prominent. It does not field lop-sided teams anymore. Managers know just how important defenders are and how crucial they are to any title challenge or defense.

This shift in mentality did not occur overnight. Many brilliant managers spent countless sleepless nights trying to figure out how to bring balance in football. They did so without modern-day analytics; they simply used the best defenders at their disposal and allowed them to lead by example.

Today, we will be taking a look at five of those men who paved the road for generations to come. Today, we will take a look at five defenders who did not just play the game but defined the art of defending. Now, without further ado, let us take a look at

Top 5 defenders the game has ever seen

#5 Bobby Moore

Bobby Moore of England challenging for the ball
Bobby Moore of England challenging for the ball

No discussion of the greatest defenders is complete without mentioning the great Bobby Moore. Born on April 12th 1941, the England international was the definition of leadership and footballing intelligence. In an era where defenders were still looked down upon, Moore made sure he corrected the course of history.

The rockstar enjoyed a 16-year career at West Ham United, captaining the side for more than a decade. He was also the skipper of the England football team that conquered the World in 1966 and won the World Cup. Moore was the architect behind England’s spotless run in the group stage and the successful charge against Eusebio. Pele, who is widely hailed as the best player in history, called Moore the greatest defender he played against. We certainly have no issues taking the Brazilian’s word for it.

#4 Cafu

Group F Brazil v Croatia - World Cup 2006
Group F Brazil v Croatia - World Cup 2006

Brazil has produced some of the finest attacking talents over the years — players who dominated the beautiful game for years. But that does not mean the team has not had an abundance of defensive masterminds. The nation has indeed produced some terrific defenders.

Cafu, who made his national team debut in 1990, took his time to establish himself in the national team. But the right-back’s efforts paid dividends soon enough, as he finished his career with two World Cups and three World Cup final appearances. He made 142 appearances for the yellow and blue — a record that has not been matched by anyone.

The double World Cup winner also excelled at club football, enjoying rewarding spells with AS Roma and AC Milan. He won the league with both teams and lifted the UEFA Champions League with Milan in 2007.

#3 Franco Baresi

Roberto Baggio of Juventus and Franco Baresi of AC Milan
Roberto Baggio of Juventus and Franco Baresi of AC Milan

Franco Baresi is easily one of the best defenders the world has ever seen. While Brazil is known for its flamboyance and attacking intellect, Italy is known for its structure and tenacity. Franco Baresi is the epitome of both.

Baresi rose through the ranks of the AC Milan youth system, excelling in each division before making his senior team debut in 1978. Despite being under the age of 20, Baresi showed exceptional game reading and sweeping capabilities, which won him a place in the starting XI next season. Milan went on to win the Serie A title, with Baresi operating at the heart of the defense.

The following year, Milan were relegated following a match-fixing scandal, but Baresi stood firm with his team. He eventually helped them to five more Serie A titles and three UEFA Champions League titles over the course of his 20-year career. His success makes him one of the most decorated defenders in the world.

Baresi won the 1982 World Cup as an unused substitute with Italy and was named in the 1990 World Cup team of the tournament after helping them to 5 clean sheets and a third-place finish.

#2 Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany
Franz Beckenbauer of West Germany

German defender Franz Beckenbauer was the definition of class, decisiveness, and composure. Dubbed as 'Der Kaiser’ or ‘The Emperor,’ Beckenbauer had an unquantifiable impact on the world’s sport, changing the way the game is played.

Beckenbauer was the mastermind behind inventing the modern day sweeper role or the ‘Libero.’ His new position allowed him to showcase his versatility as a defender as well as an extremely withdrawn deep-lying playmaker. The Bayern Munich man’s penetrating runs were extremely difficult to counter, which allowed his team to bombard the flanks when an opportunity presented itself.

Beckenbauer spent the best days of his club career with Bayern Munich, winning four Bundesliga titles and three UEFA Champions Leagues over 14 seasons at the club. He was also a cornerstone for West Germany, helping the team to the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup. Beckenbauer is also the only defender to win two Ballons d’Or (1972, 1976). There's little doubt that he's among the very best defenders to have graced the sport.

#1 Paolo Maldini

Benfica v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League
Benfica v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League

It's quite literally impossible to talk about defenders and not mention the man who set an incredibly high bar for defenders that followed.

The man who oozed class on and off the pitch — Paolo Maldini — is arguably the best defender the world has ever seen. His game reading, composure and leadership were matched by none. Milan truly could not have asked for a better navigator to lead them out of the dark phase of the early 80’s.

Maldini was a childhood AC Milan fan and rose through the club’s youth academy to make his senior team debut in 1985, at the age of 16. He grew in stature with every passing game and eventually proved to be a capable successor to club legend Franco Baresi.

Over his 25-year-career with AC Milan, Maldini won seven Serie A titles and five UEFA Champions Leagues, cementing his place as not just the greatest defender, but also the greatest player in AC Milan history. He hung up his boots in 2009, having made over 900 appearances for the Rossoneri. Maldini is still a pivotal part of AC Milan, currently serving as the club’s Technical Director.

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Edited by Aakanksh Sanketh
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