Best Soccer Defenders

By Vince •  Updated: 07/29/22 •  10 min read

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Soccer defenders usually don’t have such a glamorous job as strikers or midfielders, but can they become superstars as well?

Best Soccer Defenders of all Time: Sweepers

Velibor Vasovic (1958-1971)

A controversial Yugoslav played for both fierce rivals from Belgrade – Red Star and Partizan, before he signed for, in that time, unknown Ajax Amsterdam. He became the first non-Dutch player ever who was Ajax’s captain and celebrated the first European Cup ever for Amsterdamers. Vasovic spent 5 years being Johan Cruyff’s tutor and coach Michel’s key playmaker in the creation of Total Football.

Bobby Moore (1958-1977)

When Pele and Sir Alex Ferguson agree that someone is the best defender ever, there is no space for doubts. Bobby Moore was a real leader and an untypical defender whose game-reading skills came before classic defender’s attributes. He won the only World Cup for England in 1966 as the team’s captain. During his professional career, he didn’t move from London, captaining West Ham for 9 seasons and later signing for a city rival Fulham.

Daniel Passarella (1971-1989)

Probably the greatest defender ever among South American soccer players was well known for his atypical attacking and finishing skills. Passarella had one of the key roles in both World Cup titles for Argentina. He became the legend of River Plate spending 10 seasons in their squad, but he also played in Italy for Fiorentina and Inter Milan. Although he didn’t have a height advantage (5.7 ft), Passarella was winning the most aerial duels, scoring many headers.

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Franz Beckenbauer (1964-1983)

Bearing in mind his leadership attributes shown in every team he played for, Beckenbauer was named Der Kaiser, which is translated as “The Emperor”. Interestingly, the famous Bayern Munich has won only one Bundesliga title and was mostly competing in the 2nd Tier before Beckenbauer. Der Kaiser won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1967, followed by three Bundesliga and three UEFA European Cup titles from 1972 to 1976. His international career was crowned with two major titles – the 1972 European Championship and the 1974 World Cup. Beckenbauer is still among only three World Cup winners both as a player and as a manager, since he managed the West German national squad to the title in 1990.

Elias Figueroa (1964-1982)

Figueroa is the only Chilean on the list. He appeared in three World Cups without significant success, but he captained Chile to the silver medal in the Copa America 1979. The most successful part of his career was in Brazilian club Internacional, where he had an iconic status, becoming one of the three players ever who won the South American Footballer of the Year award three times.

Gaetano Scirea (1972-1988)

In the world of soccer, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were well known for one of the strongest defenses ever. It was formed by the Italian national squad and Gaetano Scirea was its irreplaceable member. After starting at Atalanta, Scirea spent most of his career at Juventus, where his performance made him the club’s and nation’s captain. Scirea was a real example of a professional player on and off the field. He never earned a red card in his career. Unfortunately, he died in a car accident in 1989.

Giuseppe Bergomi (1977-1997)

This member of the famous Italian defence during the ‘80s was well-known for spending his whole career in one club – Inter Milan. These were not so successful years for Inter, as Milan and Juventus had very strong teams, but Bergomi won one Serie A, one Coppa Italia and three UEFA Cups. Additionally, he won the 1982 World Cup.

Franco Baresi (1977-1997)

Another player who spent 20 seasons in the city of Milan, but in different colors – Baresi was captaining AC Milan for 15 years, being named the player of the 20th century by Rossoneri. He was lucky to play in Milan’s golden era, bringing six Scudetti, three UEFA Champions Leagues and 12 more trophies. Despite the fact that he couldn’t find his place alongside Bergomi and Scirea, Baresi was a part of the Italian national squad winning the 1982 World Cup.

Best Center Backs of all Time

Marcel Desailly (1982-2006)

One of the strongest players and the best tacklers ever was born in Ghana with a birth name Odenke Abbey. He was equally successful as a club and as an international player, winning two UEFA Champions Leagues, several national titles in Italy, England and Qatar, but also the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 UEFA European Championship playing for the French national squad.

Matthias Sammer (1985-1998)

Although he played as a defensive midfielder during the first part of his career, Ottmar Hitzfeld moved him to a center back position and made him one of the three defenders ever awarded the Ballon d’Or. Sammer won two Bundesliga and one UEFA Champions League titles with Borussia Dortmund, but also the 1996 UEFA European Championship with the German national squad.

Fernando Hierro (1986-2005)

If one looked at Hierro’s statistics during three seasons (1991-1994), they would never say he was a center back, bearing in mind he has scored 55 goals in that period. His aerial strength, but also finishing abilities, presented him as one of the best defenders in his generation. He won five La Ligas and three UEFA Champions Leagues with Real Madrid.

Fabio Cannavaro (1991-2011)

Cannavaro was the only defender ever to win the FIFA World Player of the Year and the only defender alongside Beckenbauer and Sammer to earn the Ballon d’Or award. All these prizes came after winning the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The most successful years of his club career were spent in Real Madrid, despite the fact that he was also successful in Italy, where he played for Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan and Juvents.

Lilian Thuram (1991-2008)

This dominant athlete has won at least one trophy in every team he played for. Thuram was a key figure in winning the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 UEFA Euro Championship with the French national squad. An amazing international career was confirmed by the title of the most capped player with 142 caps for France. After retiring, Thuram devoted himself to politics and books publishing.

Nemanja Vidic (1998-2016)

“He comes from Serbia, he’ll fu***ng murder ya’…” – Manchester United fans knew how to describe Nemanja Vidic’s attitude. After captaining the Red Star Belgrade for 4 years, he moved to Spartak Moscow, where he spent only one season before Sir Alex Ferguson insisted on his transfer.

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Rio Ferdinand (1995-2015)

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand probably made the best center-back duo in the history of the Premier League. He had a notable role both in West ham and Leeds United, but the best years of his career were spent in Manchester United, where he celebrated 14 trophies. His playing career was followed by several controversies, including sexual abuse, homophobia, and driving bans for drunk driving.

But this is an article on the best players, not the best people.

Sergio Ramos (2003-)

A whole article could be dedicated to the probably best active defender in the World – Sergio Ramos. He won five La Liga and four UEFA Champions League titles during 16 seasons in Real Madrid. On the international level he participated in Spain’s golden era winning the 2010 World Cup and the UEFA European Championship in 2008 and 2012, being the most capped player with 180 appearances. Ramos is the most carded player ever with 262 yellow and 26 red cards in his career.

Best Full Backs of All Time

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Paolo Maldini (1984-2009)

Cesare Maldini’s son had no choice but to start his career in AC Milan. He stayed there for 25 seasons, becoming the club’s legend with 26 trophies on his record and the most capped player with 902 matches for Rossoneri. Maldini started as a right back, but was later deployed to the left side and to a center back position. His skills and the ability to use both feet allowed him to be a versatile player.

Marcos Cafu (1989-2008)

Being the most internationally capped Brazilian player ever with 142 appearances automatically puts a player in the soccer hall of fame. After a distinguished career in Brazil, Cafu played his best years in Roma and AC Milan. He appeared in four World Cups, representing Brazil in three consecutive finals and winning two tournaments in 1994 and 2002.

Roberto Carlos (1991-2016)

Probably the best left back in the history of soccer and surely one of the best foreigners who ever played for Real Madrid, winning 27 trophies in his playing career. Carlos was famous for his powerful shooting skills which made him score a few fabulous goals. His “banana shot” against France in 1997 was considered the best free kick ever. He appeared at three World Cups, winning the Korea/Japan in 2002.

Javier Zanetti (1992-2014)

Currently the Vice-President of Inter Milan and club’s legend and the player who appeared in more than 90% of Inter’s matches during 19 seasons. Although his natural position was a full back, he was often used to fulfill deficit positions on both sides and in the midfield. He appeared in 1.115 official matches in his career, winning 17 trophies.

Philipp Lahm (2001-2017)

One of the best full-backs who was equally good on both sides of the pitch spent his whole career in Bayern Munich, except for two seasons being loaned to Stuttgart. He captained Bavarians to 21 trophies in all competitions, but also led the German national squad to the 2014 World Cup title. Lahm retired at the age of 30, too young for a professional soccer player.

Daniel Alves (2001-)

Winning 47 official trophies during a still ongoing career has made Dani Alves the most successful player in history. His winning mentality and leadership brought trophies to every club he played for, but the best achievements in his career were made in Barcelona. In order to deserve his place in the 2022 World Cup, he decided to move to Mexican UNAM.

Final Thoughts

After reading these names and summarizing all the trophies and prizes they have won throughout their careers, one must admit there are superstar players among defenders. Some other players could also find their place among the best, but one thing is for sure – all the players on the list definitely deserved it.


I'm a qualified soccer coach, who has been involved with the sport for most of my life. I started Woodland Soccer to talk about the game I love.