The Ballon d'Or is a month away from now. While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are again favourites to win, this time around names like Luka Modric, Antoine Greizmann and others are also in the mix after their strong World Cup run. But all these names have one thing in common. They are not defenders.
The Ballon d'Or winners list has been dominated by midfielders and forwards throughout its history. Only three defenders have won the prize, German legend Franz Beckenbauer, the last German to win the award Matthias Sammer, and Italian legend Fabio Cannavaro. But there have been many other defenders who have deserved the Ballon d'Or during their careers. Here are some of them from this century:
1. Paolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini will be in every football fan's dream team. He had football in his blood. His father was Cesare Maldini who himself was a defender and played for Italian giants AC Milan.
But Paolo went on to surpass his father and spent his entire career in San Siro. His Milan career spanned for 25 years and he won a cabinet full of trophies including seven Serie A and five Champions League titles.
While he spent 14 years with the Italian National team, he did not win any major trophies. He came close on several occasions but ended up in second place in the 1994 World Cup, and Euro 2000. He also held the most number of caps for Italy until Fabio Cannavaro and later Gianluigi Buffon overtook him.
Maldini was a defender with a world-class ability and his tackles were second to none. But more importantly, he was a great leader and captained AC Milan for almost twelve years. Young Maldini started his career along with legends like Franco Baresi, which surely helped during his time as captain as Milan suffered a downfall.
Maldini though stuck around and rallied his club as they bounced back to win the Champions League in 2003 and 2007. When he hung his boots in 2009, his number 3 was also retired by AC Milan in honour of the man who dedicated his entire career for the glory of the Rossoneri.
Maldini finished third in the years 1994 and 2003 for the Ballon d'Or. The gap in these years should be enough to suggest the level of consistency that Maldini performed during his career. Therefore, it is a shame he never got to win the prize coveted by many players. Still, there is no doubting his legacy and his mastery in defending.
2. Carles Puyol
Carles Puyol was nicknamed Tarzan by many people. Though he may have got the name because of his long hair, he had more than that in common with the famous storybook character. Puyol was strong in his tackles and played with a no none sense approach. No one can call his style elegant, but that was exactly what made him such a revered defender.
Puyol spent his entire career in Barcelona, more than fifteen years. During that time he won countless trophies and was the captain during the Blaugrana's most impressive season in 2009 when they won six trophies. He was the mainstay in the defence of Pep Guardiola's all-conquering side. As Messi, Xavi and Iniesta took all the plaudits for their tiki-taka, Puyol silently went on tackling any problems that came his way.
Puyol's international career was equally successful. He won the Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup during his time with Spain. He played for his national side in 100 games and scored 3 goals during that time. One of them was the all-important goal against Germany which sent Spain into the final of the 2010 World Cup.
When taking Puyol's club and national side achievements into consideration it is unbelievable that the Spanish defender never won the Ballon d'Or. He was though selected many times into the team of the year on various occasions for his consistent tormenting of the opposition forwards.
Puyol is a rare beast. In today's football where defenders are concentrating more on playmaking than defending, Puyol's art is dying. Football hasn't seen a defender who goes into tackles and aerial challenges knowing he will win the ball. Puyol may have never won the Ballon d'Or, but Barcelona fans will never forget the player they passionately call "The Wall".
Marcos Evangelista de Moraes, better known to the world as Cafu was a Brazilian defender. But a defender with one goal in mind; attack. He could rightly be called the idol of many modern day fullbacks. He galloped up and down the right side of the pitch with unending stamina. And when called upon he defended well too.
Cafu started his career in Brazil and as a right-sided midfielder. A switch to the right back position saw him find moderate success in the beginning. Cafu found defending hard, but he stuck to it and the rest is history. He won many trophies with Sao Paolo and later moved to Serie A with AS Roma. Cafu helped the Giallorossi to their first title win in 28 years in 2001. He later moved to AC Milan where he won another Serie A title and added a Champions League medal along the way.
It was for his National side though where Cafu made his name. Cafu is the most capped Brazilian player in their history and has the unique achievement of playing in three consecutive World Cup finals (1994, 1998 and 2002). Cafu won two of those finals, in 1994 and 2002. The later one he lifted as the captain of the Selecao. He represented his country for 16 years and is one of their most decorated players ever.
Cafu deserved the Ballon d'Or for changing the play style of full-backs. His attack-focused play has been an inspiration for modern-day full-backs such as Dani Alves, Carvajal, Bellerin and many more. While he was not the first one to play in this style, his success at club level brought the attack-minded full-backs into the forefront of football philosophy.
4. Philipp Lahm
Philipp Lahm could easily be Germany's most important player of this century. His national side career coincided with Germany's march to dominate football. During the ten-year period between 2004 and 2014, Germany reached the later stages of every major tournament except for the 2004 Euros. In 2014 though, Lahm captained his team to their first World Cup win since 1990.
Lahm played the majority of his club career with Bayern Munich. Other than the two years he spent on loan with VfB Stuttgart, Lahm was plying his trade in Allianz Arena. Lahm captained Bayern to many trophies, including the famous treble-winning season of 2013. He won nine Bundesliga titles to go along with the Champions League title in 2013.
Though he played mostly in the right back position, Lahm was two-footed which meant he was able to cross with one foot and cut inside and shoot with the other. And that he did many times. His unique ability also led to many coaches playing him on the left side of the field. He was an attacked minded player like Cafu and with endless stamina, he was a thorn in the opposition's defence. His versatility saw him even play in the defensive midfield role for Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich.
Lahm retired in 2014 from the national team at the age of 30. While it surprised many, it could be said that Lahm decided to leave when he was at the highest point of his career. While Germany had the talent to replace him, they surely have struggled without his leadership.
Germany suffered a shock exit in the 2018 World Cup and have struggled to find their form since. Lahm was certainly Germany's best player when they were on the top. He deserved the Ballon d'Or for not just being a World Class right back but also a great leader.
5. John Terry
John Terry is a divisive figure in English football. His off-field and on-field activities have caused him a lot of trouble including fines and suspensions. But love him or loathe him, he still remains one of England's best central defenders.
Terry started his career at West Ham, but their London rivals Chelsea saw something special in young Terry which led them to buy him. Once he broke into the senior side, he quickly established himself in the heart of the defence. Even though Terry performed consistently, he did not win many trophies. That all changed when Jose Mourinho arrived in Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho made Terry club captain and the Englishman went on to become Chelsea's most decorated captain. From 2004 until 2017, Terry led Chelsea to five Premier League titles, five FA Cups and their only Champions League title. Under Mourinho, Chelsea was one of the best defensive teams in the Premier League and Terry was in the heart of it.
Terry's time with the English national team was however not that successful. He debuted in 2003 and played for the Three Lions till 2012. He captained England from 2006 till 2010, but it was during that time when England failed to qualify for the Euro 2008. Terry's racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand also led to tension in the England set-up. This even led to him being stripped off his captain's armband.
While Terry's England career was not a great one, he definitely deserves plaudits for his exploits at Chelsea. He was a rock in the back with his well-timed tackles and interceptions.
He was also a constant threat for opposing defences in dead ball situations with his powerful headers. He holds the record for the defender with the most goals scored in the Premier League. Minus the controversy that surrounded him, John Terry has shown enough that he was a world class defender and therefore deserved to win the Ballon d'Or.