The best defenders in football history hardly get their due share of the credit. When the lists of the greatest players in football history are drawn up, it inevitably features forwards and midfielders. After all, they are getting on the end of goals and assists, which eventually helps win football matches. This is also reflected in the fact that only three defenders in history have won the Ballon d’Or, the prize awarded to the best player in the world in a particular calendar year.
The old phrase, ‘Great attack wins you matches but strong defense wins you trophies,’ might sound cliched, over-used, and out-of-time, but there’s a strong truth to that claim. Every successful team, be it Real Madrid’s multiple Champions League wins, Manchester City’s recent Premier League dominance, Bayern Munich’s domestic triumphs, or Barcelona’s other-worldly football, all of them were built on the back of a strong back line.
Defending is an art that has continually evolved with time. The days of traditional old-school, no-nonsense defending have become a relic of a bygone era. Modern defenders need to be quick and comfortable on the ball and actively participate in the buildup. Passing attributes are highly appreciated in the football world and defenders like Virgil Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Giorgio Chiellini, and Thiago Silva are carrying the flag for defenders currently.
But how many of them feature in the lists of the best defenders in football history? Let us explore below:
Best defenders in football history: Top 10 list
|Name||Nationality||Career span||Matches played||Clubs represented||Major trophies won|
|Paolo Maldini||Italy||1984 – 2009||773||AC Milan||5x European Cup/Champions League, 7x Serie A|
|Franz Beckenbauer||Germany||1964 – 1983||663||Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos, Hamburger SV||1x FIFA World Cup, 1x European Championship, 4x Bundesliga, 3x European Cups|
|Franco Baresi||Italy||1977 – 1997||613||AC Milan||1x FIFA World Cup, 6x Serie A, 3x European Cup/Champions League|
|Cafu||Brazil||1989 – 2008||570||Sao Paulo, Palmeiras, Roma, AC Milan||2x FIFA World Cup, 2x Copa America, 2x Copa Libertadores, 1x Champions League, 2x Serie A|
|Alessandro Nesta||Italy||1993 – 2014||529||Lazio, AC Milan, Montreal Impact, Chennaiyin||1x FIFA World Cup, 2x Champions League, 3x Serie A|
|Dani Alves||Brazil||2001 – present||721*||Bahia, Sevilla, Barcelona, PSG, Juventus||2x Copa America, 3x Champions League, 6x La Liga, 1x Serie, 2x Ligue 1|
|Philipp Lahm||Germany||2001 – 2017||561||Bayern Munich||1x FIFA World Cup, 1x Champions League, 8x Bundesliga|
|Roberto Carlos||Brazil||1991 – 2015||718||Palmeiras, Inter Milan, Real Madrid||1x FIFA World Cup, 2x Copa America, 3x Champions League, 4x La Liga|
|Sergio Ramos||Spain||2004 – present||697*||Sevilla, Real Madrid, PSG||1x FIFA World Cup, 2x European Championship, 4x Champions Leagues, 5x La Liga, 1x Ligue 1|
|Carles Puyol||Spain||1999 – 2014||581||Barcelona||1x FIFA World Cup, 1x European Championship, 3x Champions League, 6x La Liga|
Unquestionably the greatest to ever do it, Paolo Maldini isn’t merely the best defender in football history, he is also a rebel who changed people’s perceptions of what defending actually meant. Prior to his legendary and storied career, many people had the idea that defending involved ugly sliding tackles, shirt pulls, or using force to push aside players off the ball.
However, Maldini showed that timing, anticipation, skill, and grace were as important attributes as physicality. A one-club man, in love with AC Milan, he played and won nearly everything the game had to offer.
Paolo Maldini had won two European Cups and three Champions League trophies in his glittering career. Maldini was regularly recognized as the greatest defender in the world and formed historic partnerships with Franco Baresi, Cafu, and Alessandro Nesta. Following his retirement, Milan retired his iconic number 3 shirt.
Franz Beckenbauer’s impact on the game of football remains unmatched. ‘Der Kaiser,’ as he was popularly known, was a born leader and played with bravado and fortitude on the football pitch.
He made over 400 appearances for Bayern Munich and led the team to three European cups successively from 1974 to 1976. Der Kaiser also won four Bundesliga titles. If that’s not enough, he led West Germany to the European Championship in 1972 and also became the first defender to win the Ballon d’Or that year and followed it up with another triumph in 1976. Only a handful of defenders can claim to have won the world’s most prestigious individual football award.
However, his greatest moment was in the 1974 World Cup final where Beckenbauer nullified Johan Cruyff’s Dutch national team’s Total Football and led his country to World Cup glory. In 1990, Der Kaiser also became the second player in history after Mario Zagallo to become a World Cup winner as both player and manager.
It is ironic that Franco Baresi began his football career under the shadow of his older brother Giuseppe Baresi but ended up becoming an AC Milan legend who marshalled the backline with distinction for over two long decades. Baresi was with the club through its worst periods as well as its astronomical rise in European football.
Possessing leadership qualities, the likes of which Milan had hardly seen before, Baresi won three European Cups and six Serie A titles with the Rossoneri, thus ushering an extremely successful era for the Rossoneri. He was also key to Arrigo Sachhi’s tactical instructions and held a historic defensive line alongside Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, and Paolo Maldini. He was also an expert in leading offside traps.
Baresi also appeared in multiple World Cup finals, winning the title with Italy in 1982. He was also the runner-up in the 1989 Ballon d’Or. He was voted as Milan’s Player of the Century in 1999 and after his final season in 1997, the club decided to retire his number 6 shirt.
Cafu is recognized as one of the greatest full-backs of all time and one of the best defenders in football history. He began his career in stellar style with Sao Paulo and won the 1992 Copa Libertadores title. Cafu moved to Europe soon and found success with AS Roma and AC Milan. He won the UEFA Champions League in 2007 and also won multiple Serie A titles.
With 142 appearances for his country, Cafu is the most internationally capped Brazilian player of all time. He represented his country in four World Cups between 1994 and 2006 and played in multiple World Cup finals. Cafu is the only player in history to have appeared in three consecutive finals of the FIFA World Cup. He won the 1994 and 2006 FIFA World Cups, the latter as captain. He also won two Copa America titles in 1997 and 1999.
If defending was an art, Alessandro Nesta would be the Michelangelo of it. Elegant and composed, Nesta played with an air of invincibility around him that got the better of world-class forwards time and time again. Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Cristiano, Romario, Ibrahimovic have fallen short in front of him. Hell, at the ripe old age of 36, Alessandro Nesta made a near-perfect challenge on prime Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou that can only be described as divine intervention.
Beginning his career with Lazio, he became the captain of the team at 23 and led them to a domestic double. Having won three consecutive Serie A Defender of the Year recognitions, he joined Milan a decade later and won the Champions League in his debut season and another one in 2006-07. Nesta also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006.
No player in history has won more titles than Dani Alves, who has reinvented the role of a right-back. Before him, full-backs occasionally ventured forward to participate in attacks. However, Alves set the template of modern attacking full-backs who went forward multiple times in the same match and often got on the end of final passes and crosses.
Dani Alves was part of that historic Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique that won three glorious Champions League titles. Alves won as many as eight first-division titles in his career which includes five La Liga wins with Barcelona. He had even won two UEFA Cups and a Copa Del Rey with Sevilla before joining the Catalan club. The right-back also won the Serie A and Ligue 1 with Juventus and PSG respectively.
He made over 120 appearances for Brazil and won two Copa America titles in 2007 and 2019. In 2022, Dani Alves secured a return to Barcelona where he continues to romp forward and redefine his role at the age of 38.
If German efficiency was a player, it would be Philipp Lahm. He was one of the faces of Bayern Munich since the turn of the century and quickly established himself as a dominant defender. Lahm witnessed a few lows with the Bavarian club before pulling them to the top of world football, a dominance that has continued in the years following his retirement in 2017.
One of the smartest footballers in history, Philipp Lahm famously captained them to a historic treble in 2013. He also enjoyed plenty of success with the German national team and they became a ruthless unit under his leadership. Lahm was an important part of the German side in three World Cups and lifted that elusive trophy in Brazil in 2014.
He also played the role of a defensive midfielder in the latter part of his career which shows his astuteness and versatility. Lahm was never sent off in his lengthy and high-profile career.
Perhaps the most iconic left-back of all time, Roberto Carlos was famous for ripping apart defences with his powerful, pacey runs as well as his mean crosses from the left. Speed, aggression, great crossing technique, and dead-ball prowess that would make his countrymen Ronaldinho and Juninho proud, Roberto Carlos had a legendary career with Real Madrid and the Brazilian national team.
His incredible swerving banana free-kick has become legendary in world football and will be cherished for decades to come. The left-back won one World Cup, two Copa Americas, three UEFA Champions Leagues, and four La Ligas. Not bad.
Although he has an ill reputation for being too aggressive and getting red-carded frequently, Sergio Ramos is also, perhaps, the most successful of modern centre-backs. Ramos’ speed, physicality, tenacity and smart understanding of the game makes him a formidable challenge for any forward to handle. His duels with Lionel Messi for the greater part of a decade have been legendary.
The former Sevilla man lifted the World Cup with Spain in 2010 and also won two European Championships. He has also won four Champions League titles, three of them consecutively.
When you think of gutsy and brave, Carles Puyol is the first defender that probably comes to mind. He wasn’t afraid to throw his body in the line of fire to protect his backline.
He was also a true disciplinarian while defending and formed world-class partnerships with Rafa Marquez and Gerard Pique in his Barcelona career. Carles Puyol also mentored the likes of Pique and Ramos in 2010, the year Spain won their first World Cup in history. He also won the Euro Cup in 2008.
Carles Puyol hung up his boots in 2014, having served Barcelona all his life. He ended his career with three Champions League and six La Liga titles and continues to inspire budding defenders across the world.
Who are the best defenders in the world right now?
Ruben Dias, Virgil Van Dijk, Marquinhos, David Alaba, and Thiago Silva are some of the best defenders in the world right now.
Who were the best defenders in the 90s?
Paolo Maldini, Ronald Koeman, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Alessandro Nesta would top the list of the best defenders of the 90s.
Who is the best centre-back in football history?
Paolo Maldini is regarded by most experts and fans as the greatest centre-back in football history.