The GOATs of Soccer: Defenders

By Lucien Betancourt

This is part two of an ongoing series on the best soccer players of all time. Here we will be talking about the greatest defenders of all time at every position: left, center, and right back as well as sweeper.  

The first position we will discuss is the sweeper. The sweeper is the center-most defender, whose role is to be the very last obstacle between the forward and the goalkeeper. They need to go all out on the forward and sweep the ball away to give the backs time to deal with the threat. It is a rather uncommon position today but it was used frequently in the 1950s through the 1970s. 

The first sweeper worth mentioning is Mihaly Lorant, a defender for Hungary during the 1950s. He was vital in Hungary’s run to the final, giving the team enough breathing room to constantly have 5 forwards press up at once. He was the first true sweeper, rushing up from his position to clear the ball upfield and control it. He also played a vital role in Budapest Honved’s dominance in the 1950s.

The second sweeper with all-time great status is fellow 1950s defender Jose Santamaria. He was part of Uruguay’s last World Cup winning team in 1950 and a key player for Real Madrid’s dominance from 1955 to 1965 . He helped Real Madrid win 6 La Ligas and 4 Champions League trophies , as well as a Copa del Rey, making 227 appearances for Real Madrid in total. Like Lorant, he was an attacking minded player, sliding in for challenges and clearing the ball.

Franz Beckenbauer is the third and final sweeper on this list, and if you’re a big soccer fan he may have been the first sweeper that came to your mind. He was a key defender of Bayern Munich’s dominance in the 1970s, as well as a key player in Germany’s World Cup win. He is regarded as one of the greatest defenders in history, and there’s a good reason why. He won 2 Ballon D’Ors in 1972 and 1976. He won 4 league titles and 3 Champions League titles with Bayern Munich and a short spell with Hamburg SV where he won a league title and Champions League. His style of play is like that of a center defensive midfielder today, lying between the defenders and midfielders, waiting to pounce on the ball and carry it upfield. He was tall and faster than average , which he used to his advantage quite often. He registered 80 goals in 560 games, which is rare for a sweeper.

Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, one of the best defensive duos ever.

The first center back on this list is Paolo Maldini, AC Milan legend. He won 7 Serie A as well as 5 Champions League titles with AC Milan. However, he didn’t win much with the Italian national team, losing in both the World Cup final and European Cup final. That said, he has the 2nd most appearances in Italy national team history with 647. He mastered the art of the stopping tackle in which  the defender would run parallel to the ball and step down between the ball and the forward’s foot, stopping the ball and disrupting the forward’s balance. This caused  them to fall without being able to recover the ball quickly, allowing for Maldini to take it.. He also broke the record for the least goals conceded by a center back duo, conceding just 23 goals in 196 games with… 

Franco Baresi, AC Milan and Italian legend . He won 6 Italian league championships  and 3 Champions League trophies alongside Maldini. However, he did end up winning a World Cup with Italy in 1982. He was more of a modern center back, being tall, skinny, and fast. 

Another Italian and AC Milan legend is Alessandro Nesta, who played with both AC Milan and Lazio, bringing success to both clubs. He won the 2006 World Cup with Italy, an Italian championship, and a European Cup Cup with Lazio in the late 1990s. He won 2 Serie A’s, and 2 Champions League trophies with AC Milan in the 2000s. He was also a stopping tackle defender that transitioned to a more centralized and stationary role of a modern center back.

The first non-Italian on this list is Dutch center back Rinus Israël. He played in the 1960s and 1970s and was part of the 1974 Dutch team that reached the final. He won an Eredivisie (the Dutch League championship) with AFC DWS, and after he transferred to Feyenoord, he won 3 Eredivisie, a Champions League, and a Europa League with them. He was a strong defender who excelled at one-on-one defending and using height to clear the ball in the box. He’s not very well known despite being part of a Champions League winning team, the reason being that Dutch powerhouse Ajax have always overshadowed Feyenoord. Still, he is widely considered as the greatest Dutch center back.

The only modern day center back on this list is still currently active in Sergio Ramos. A Spain and Real Madrid legend, he famously won 2 European Championships and the World Cup, as well as 5 La Ligas, 2 Copa Del Reys, and 4 Champions League titles with Real Madrid. He was also named to the FIFA WorldPro11, a list of the best players in each position for the year, a total of 11 times–a record for any defender. Plus, he was on the UEFA Team of the Season nine times, another defender record. He’s known for being an aggressive defender both with and without the ball. He has scored 99 goals for both club and country in 714 appearances.

Sergio Ramos with some guy you may have heard of.

Onto the far left of the field, at left-back position. We will start off with possibly one of the most underrated players ever in Paul Breitner. He played left-back for Germany and Bayern Munich in the 1970s, alongside the aforementioned Franz Beckenbauer. He won 5 Bundesligas (the German league championship) and a Champions League. He also won 2 La Ligas with Real Madrid. In international play, he won a World Cup and UEFA European Championship with Germany in 1972 and 1974, respectively. He was known for his offensive role on the left flank of Germany, scoring 115 goals in 400 games, as well as his defensive ability in front of the penalty box and along the left wing. Later in his career he turned into a left midfielder, becoming one of the best in the 1980s.Although he isn’t known too well, as many 1970s and 1980s players are, he should be regarded as one of the greatest left-backs ever, without a doubt.

Continuing with this list is Ruud Krol, another left-back from the 1970s, this time with the Dutch team from 1974-1978. He was a key player in Ajax’s dominance in the early 1970s, winning 6 Eredivisie, 3 Champions League trophies, and 2 UEFA Super Cups. He was a major pioneer of the Dutch ideology of playing the ball upfield. He was the best of the offensive left-backs and played a major role on the Dutch national team, scoring 28 goals in 600 matches, as well as countless assists. Overall, Krol’s impact on the future of the sport was bigger than most other players of this era, and that’s why he is considered one of the best.

Last up on this list is Robert Carlos, a Real Madrid and Brazil legend. He played a major role in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win and their overall dominance from 1995 to 2006, winning two Copa Americas in 1997 and 1999 and a Confederations Cup in 1997. Even so, he is more well known for his time at Real Madrid, where he won 4 La Ligas and 3 Champions League trophies. He was well known for his aggressiveness and role in playing the ball across the field. He was also a goalscorer, scoring 82 goals in 700 games, his most memorable goal being in 1997 that was registered at 105 MPH, earning him the nickname of “Bullet Man.” His tackling was also some of the best and cleanest, as well as assists. 

Now, onto right back. First on the list is all-time legend Cafu. He won two World Cups with Brazil, heaps of league trophies with Sao Paulo, Serie A victories with Roma and AC Milan, and a Champions League victory with the latter club. He was an energetic, offensively-minded, and athletic right-back, making deep runs down the wing. He was also a good crosser like his counterpart on the left wing in Roberto Carlos. He holds the record for most international appearances with Brazil, with 142, on top of the World Cup record at 21 appearances. He also made an appearance in 3 consecutive World Cup finals, a world record.

Cafu with the 2002 World Cup trophy.

Next on the list is French legend and Parma legend, Lilian Thuram. He was abnormally physical and defensive for a right-back. That said, his biggest strength may have been his unique combination of speed and stamina, which he used to his advantage to track down the forward and dispossess the ball. He is best known for his role in the French national team’s dominance from 1998 to 2006. He won the World Cup in 1998, the European Cup in 2000, and the Confederations Cup in 2003. France came just short of a second World Cup in 2006 against Italy. He played a big role in France’s World Cup win, even scoring 2 goals against Croatia in the semifinals. He also is well decorated domestically, winning countless trophies including multiple Serie As with juggernaut Italian club Juventus.

Next up is Brazilian legend Djalma Santos. He won back-to-back World Cups with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, becoming one of the only players in history to do so. He also famously set up the winning goal for Brazil in the 1962 World Cup. He also had great success with Palmeiras domestically, winning the Brazilian Serie A twice. He first started as a wide midfielder but moved to the defensive flank because of his unique skills at the position. He was quick and physically strong, which were perfect for a right-back of his time. His offensive abilities set him apart from other right-backs, having exceptionally well dribbling and crossing skills, which made him a threat on the wing. Combine that with his speed, physicality, and stamina and you have one of the most frightening players in history to go one-on-one with. 

Last on the list is Dani Alves, a decorated player across several countries and leagues. With Brazil, he won 2 Copa Americas and 2 Confederations Cups, as well as an Olympic gold medal. His domestic career started at Sevilla, where he won a Copa del Rey, 2 Europa League trophies, and a UEFA Super Cup all in the span of two years. He then made the move to Barcelona, where he won 6 La Ligas, 5 Copa del Rey trophies, 4 Supercopas de Espana, 3 Champions Leagues, and 3 UEFA Super Cups. He then moved to Juventus in 2016, winning a Serie A, Coppa Italia, and placed second in the Champions League. He then moved to PSG in 2018, where he won 2 Ligue 1s. He then ended his career at Sao Paulo, winning the Campeonato Paulista. Overall, he has the record for most trophies won by a single player, with a jaw-dropping 43. He is known for his aggressiveness in moving the ball upfield, as well as defensive ability on the run, pace and stamina.

Next time, we’ll move upfield and discuss one of the unsung heroes of football: the midfielders.