Defenders hold an important position on the football field. Along with the goalkeeper, they are responsible for preventing the opposition from building up momentum and scoring goals. Right now, names like Thiago Silva, John Terry and Philip Lahm might be ruling the roost and it is easily forgotten that there were many defenders who, during their heydays, revolutionised the art of defending. Such was their impact that they became instant hits and later legends.
A person who knows his footballing history will immediately come up with Franz Beckenbauer as the best defender of all time (sweeper to be precise). He evolved himself into an offensive minded “sweeper”. The job of a sweeper is to “sweep” up attacking moves by the opposition. But he added an offensive component to it. Beckenbauer was always known to have elegance in his style of play and an element of surprise. “Emperor Franz” or “The Kaiser” as he is lovingly called, is one of the only 2 men (the other being Mario Zagallo) to win the World Cup as a player (1974) and manager (1990). His exploits for Bayern Munich and the national team earned him the European Footballer of the Year award in 1972 and 1976. He had a brief stint as a coach for Bayern Munich in 1993-94 and again in 1996.
“Anticipation and not intimidation was the name of the game, for him” said a reputed pundit about this defender. But if you ask him, Paolo Maldini will deny it, being the gentleman he is. A Left Back by nature, Maldini is one of the few footballers to have played consistently at the top level for a long time. He spent 25 years with AC Milan and retired at the age of 41 in 2009. Blessed with a technical and tactical mentality, Maldini played for the Italian national team for 12 years and captained them for 8. But it was his eternal stint with AC Milan that garnered him a lot of attention. He lifted 26 trophies with his club including 5 UEFA Champion Leagues Cups. His demeanour and character earned praise even from the fans of direct rivals, Inter Milan; the club paid him a tribute at the last derby he played before retiring. Paolo and his father Cesare, who was also a former player of AC Milan, are the only father-son duo to have captained their team to winning the European Cup and Champions League.
One of the lesser known defending legends in football was Bobby Moore. Why he wasn’t so well known might be a matter of debate. It maybe because of his premature death at the age of 51 or his career in itself, which saw a free fall after he crossed his 30s. Nevertheless, in his prime, he was one of the top Center Backs to have played in the game. Pele described him as the greatest defender he ever faced. Moore is fondly remembered for captaining the England team to their maiden World cup title in 1966, where England defeated West Germany. At club level, he turned out for West Ham consistently for 10 years and made more than 500 appearances.
Another flamboyant Left Back that took the world by storm was Roberto Carlos. The Brazilian was known locally as the “bullet man” for his speedy bending free kicks which have been measured at 169 km/hr. His unceasing stamina, speed and crossing ability made him an asset. At club level, he was a member of the Galacticos at Real Madrid where he played for 11 seasons and scored 71 goals in 584 matches. With them, he also won 4 La Liga titles and 3 UEFA Champion Leagues. Carlos went on to become the most capped foreign player for Real Madrid in La Liga. At National level, he helped Brazil win the World Cup in 2002.
Now, we come down to the most capped Brazilian player of all time, Marcos Cafu. He is the only player to appear in 3 World Cup finals and win 2 of them. The Right Back is well known for his energy, dynamism and tactical intelligence. His level of consistency was so high that he has appeared in 21 World Cup games, setting another record. It was his successful stints with Roma and then AC Milan which established him as a fearful Right Back. Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson jokingly said once that Cafu has two hearts – such was his ability to keep running till the very end.
Another AC Milan defender who was not only ranked as one of the best sweepers but also became a legend with his club was Franco Baresi. His stellar 20 year career with AC Milan saw him captain the club for 15 seasons straight and help them win 6 La Liga titles and 3 UEFA Champion Leagues. He was nicknamed “Piscnin” by his fans, which meant “little one”. After his retirement, the club retired his No.6 jersey. Though he was often the last man in defence against any attack, what made Baresi stand out was his potential to launch counterattacks with his long balls. Fans considered him the perfect combination of power, elegance, pace and stamina.
At club level, this legend had successful stints with Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid. Once, he held the distinction of being the most capped Italian team player (overtaken then by Maldini and later Gianluigi Buffon). Fabio Cannavaro was also the captain that led Italy to their World Cup victory in 2006. This Center Back was dubbed the "Berlin Wall" for his physical presence on the pitch. In 2006, he became the first defender in a decade to win the Ballon d’Or. Cannavaro was versatile; he could play on both right and left flank with ease. He was also excellent in defending and attacking set pieces. It was his leadership skills that earned him a lot of praise. The fact that he’s the most capped Italian captain of all time is a testament to his abilities.
Alessandro Nesta is revered for two things - One, his tight marking and two, his well-timed tackles. He went on to make 224 appearances for AC Milan and was part of 3 World Cup campaigns with Italy, including the triumphant 2006. But injuries hampered his career with the national team. He was unable to play beyond the group stages in each of his 3 World Cups. Besides being unusually quick for a centre back, he had good physical presence on the pitch.
The only Spaniard in this list, Carles Puyol should not be judged by his quiet demeanour off the pitch. He’s a beast when he’s on the football field. He has played more than 600 official games for Barcelona and won 6 La Liga titles and 3 UEFA Champion Leagues with them. In his 100 caps for the Spanish national team, he was part of the squad that won the Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup. His career was plagued by many serious injuries and had to undergo 6 major operations. It was his positivity that caught the eye of fans and teammates alike. He had a never-say-die attitude. Even when the team was trying to overturn a big goal deficit, he would frequently urge his teammates to maintain focus; he tried to do the same even when his side had a healthy lead. His ability to read the game was an added asset.
The last man who shook the world with his skills was a Brazilian named Djalma Santos. He possessed immense attacking skills despite being just a defender. This Right Back also holds the distinction of never being sent off during his professional career, a remarkable feat for a defender. He has been officially capped 98 times for Brazil between 1952 and 1968. Other than possessing durability and strength he was an excellent penalty taker. He had a calm presence on and off the pitch and played club football for Portugesa and Palmeiras.
After examining these 10 defenders, we can come to one conclusion that Italy and Brazil have churned out most of the best defenders of the by-gone era. Now, the tables have turned. They aren’t a the force they used to be. Countries like Belgium, Netherlands etc are also producing World Class defenders. This shows the versatility football possesses. It is anybody’s game. Hopefully, other sports will follow the trajectory of this beautiful sport.