The Best Soccer Defenders of All Time

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Defenders are one of the most overlooked positions on the field. Without the glory of a goal—and hopefully not with the shame of an own goal—defenders often are shunned to the side when it comes to the spotlight.

However, an off-the-line clearance can be a game changer as a last-minute goal. Since defense is such an important position, these five players have earned their mark in history as the best soccer defenders of all time.

​The Best Soccer Defenders

While it’s tough to narrow the list down to just five, we feel confident that these are the five greatest defenders of all time. We start at #5 and work to be the top defensive player in history.

Tip: If you want to become just like them, train hard and get your defender cleats for soccer.

​#5 Bobby Moore

​Famous for being an England hero, Bobby Moore is one of the classiest defenders in English football history. His legendary reputation doesn’t just stop within England’s borders. He also played a crucial role in the World Cup of 1966.

Pelé refers to Moore as the best “man marker he played against.” To do so with class and not have a bad mark on his name is a pretty incredible feat.

As a World Champion and an FA Cup winner, Moore has the record to back up his claim to fame.

Cafu soccer player wearing his number two jersey while in a soccer game

​Source: parisians.fr

​#4 Cafu

​One of the greatest Brazilian defenders in the history of the team, Cafu had the speed and agility to fly up the flanks and make a name for himself.

With this tremendous speed, Cafu was always a rugged defender to play against on the wing. He also had incredible timing when going in for the tackle.

He is the most internationally-capped (has the most international games with the national team) Brazilian player of all time. He also played in four World Cups and is considered among the 125 Greatest Living Footballers at a FIFA Awards ceremony.

​#3 Carles Puyol

​​As one of the best defenders of his generation, Carles Puyol played for Barcelona and was their captain for years. Playing usually as a right back, throughout his career, he was rewarded with six La Liga trophies and three Champions League trophies. He also was part of the Spanish international team when they went on to win the Euros 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.

As an outside right back, he played with center-back Gerard Pique in the defensive line. Instead of having immense soccer skills, Puyol was mainly known for his timing to tackle and his detailed effectiveness.

Only a couple of games short of 600 for Barcelona and Spain, Puyol went down in history for being one of the best Spanish defenders of all time.

​#2 Franz Beckenbauer

​If you just focus on who Franz Beckenbauer was as a player, he was one of the greatest defenders of all time. As a sweeper role in German football history, he was highly skilled in defense and then could easily transition his skills into the attack. He went from being the reliable sweeper to a creative, instigating deep center midfielder.

Although his football days are long over and he is now a team manager, he donned the nickname Der Kaiser, which means the Emperor. He got this name because of his elegance, dominance, and leadership on the field.

While he began his career as a midfielder, he moved to a central defender, which is why he had such a center midfielder mindset.

  • He won European Footballer of the Year twice.
  • He played in three World Cups and was named in the World Team of the 20th Century.
  • He received the honor of being on the FIFA World Cup Dream Team in 2002.
  • He won three consecutive European Cup championships and won even more awards as a manager, as well.
Paolo Maldini in a red and black soccer jersey raising his hands to the crowd

Source: squawka.com

​#1 Paolo Maldini

​As a former left-back and center-back, Paolo Cesare Maldini Maldini was a captain for Italy for 8 years and was a captain for AC Milan for 12. He was so impressive in his captaincy and his years in the leadership role that he was nicknamed “Il Capitano,” or ‘The Captain.’

He retired at the age of 41, which is quite a career. During his playing time, he won UEFA Champions League five times. He also won Serie A titles seven times and a few other awards—totaling up to 25.

He held the record as captain of team Italy with 126 games until Cannavaro and Buffon overtook him.

He always gave the opposing forwards a hard time when he was a player on the field. He always seemed to give his opponent a challenge, even when it came to superstars like Ronaldo and Zidane.

​How We Made the List

​Although there are hundreds of thousands of good defenders out there in history, these five have made their mark. Even though soccer fans are all entitled to their opinions, there are a few that stand out on their own—no matter what list you refer to.

Whether the defender played either of these:

  • center back
  • outside back
  • stopper
  • sweeper

They were influential athletes for their team. They claimed their spot in history.

Throughout their career, they revolutionized what it meant to be a defender, game by game. Even though soccer is a team sport, every position is incredibly important.

A man in a red shirt and dark colored shorts kicked the socker ball in an open grassy land

We looked for defenders that shut opposing strikers down. We wanted to see that they stepped up against the best. It’s one thing to shut down an opposing offense – another to stop and defend against the world’s best.

We also wanted to see the winners. Another criterion of being the very best is that you had to have one title. And, we preferred to see championships on both the club and country level. Some of the major tournaments that played into our determination are such as the following:

  • World Cup
  • Champions League
  • Domestic Campaigns

Lastly, we wanted to see individuals that possess leadership traits, both on and off the field. A great defender doesn’t just shut down the opponent – they also bring the entire back line together. They call out positioning commands and ensure that everyone is doing their job.

What It Takes to Be a Good Defender

QualityImportance
IntelligenceHigh
SpeedMedium
AccuracyMedium
TenacityHigh
LeadershipHigh
DribblingLow

​While being a good defender starts with being excellent at the fundamentals, it extends far beyond that.

​Athletic

​No matter what position you play in soccer, you need to be athletic. However, as a defender, you have a variety of twists and turns that are required of you throughout the game. Whether center back or in the outside fullback position, a defender must be agile and quick.

The opposing strikers and forwards will run at you at full speed, and you’ll have to turn on a dime to follow one. You’ll have to defend in the air, going up for headers to defend your goal. You’ll have to throw your body in front of shots and slide tackle the opposition to save a goal.

You must keep your hands and arms against your body, as any touch of the ball with these body parts, and the opposing team will have a penalty kick.

​Smart

​It is common to see the most innovative players on the field in defense. Especially at center back, a soccer defender must be able to use his or her head just as much as their feet.

For starters, the defender must have good positioning. Doing this right will ensure that they will be at the right place at the right time.

With soccer happening in a split second, proper positioning is vital as a defender, and knowing where to be is a brilliant trait.

Man in white socks and orange soccer cleats with a soccer ball

Defenders must execute complicated cover strategies, ranging from zone to man-to-man to a combination. They must execute the offsides trap perfectly while also trading off defending different strikers seamlessly in the middle of the play.

Needless to say, you need to be able to think while defending.

​Tenacious

​​Defenders must be decisive and aggressive in their actions on the soccer field. This isn’t to say that they should be overly-aggressive or reckless, as this will result in costly fouls and yellow cards.

Instead, though, a soccer defender must be able to use their body to their advantage. Being tenacious, both on the ball and off of it ensures that you will have the maximum impact for your team even with passing the ball and as big as making a goal. 

Soccer players playing on the field with a white ball right next to them

​Related Questions

Here are some related questions about the best soccer defenders.

Who is the Best Defender in Premier League History?

Although it could be debatable, Chelsea’s John Terry is the best defender in Premier League history. The debate comes when Rio Ferdinand and his remarkable career at Manchester United are mentioned.

Both defenders can be considered top-tier in the English league’s history. However, statistically, John Terry has more clean sheets than any other defender, making him the greatest.

Who is the Best Defender in La Liga History?

Carles Puyol is the best defender in La Liga History. The Spanish league has had extraordinary defenders such as Roberto Carlos and Fernando Hierro. However, Carles’ career makes him the most successful.

Who is the Best Defender in Serie A History?

The best defender in Serie A history is AC Milan’s Paolo Maldini. The Italian league has a lot of competition when it comes to defenders. However, reaching Maldini’s performance is a very difficult challenge.

Wrapping It Up

​​One thing that most people don’t calculate in team sports is the importance of every position. Especially as a defender, your role might be a little overlooked because you don’t seem to have the opportunity to take much glory for goals.

However, saving a goal from off the line is just as important as scoring one. What would be the point of scoring all those goals if your team just let in goals, as well?

Defenders are one of the most overlooked positions on the field. Without the glory of a goal—and hopefully not with the shame of an own goal—defenders often are shunned to the side when it comes to the spotlight.

However, an off-the-line clearance can be a game changer as a last-minute goal. That said, since defense is such an important position, these five players have earned their mark in history.

Tim Frechette is an avid athlete, having played sports like soccer and basketball his entire life. He brings a wealth of athletic knowledge to his writing.