Football Legends: The Defenders

For many years, the sole purpose of a DEFENDER was to stay back and protect the goal. They were seen but almost never heard. The soccer equivalent of freshmen Senators, offensive linemen, and models. There wasn’t much glory, but it was a necessary part of the game.

However, the game started to change, and defenders began doing more than just tackle, cut out passes, or jump up for 50-50 balls. As defenders became more skilled and more athletic, they became integral parts of their team’s attack. Some of them thrived along the wing, making lung-busting runs back and forth while whipping in crosses into the box. Others took the more straightforward approach and did a good job acting as midfielders while being able to track back and defend whenever the other team got the ball.

A changing game demanded greater flexibility and versatility from defenders, and these players were at the forefront of that evolution.

Once again, we’ll go in chronological order. You’ll note that there are 11 listed instead of the usual 10. After the first nine, I was down to one spot for Paolo Maldini or Roberto Carlos. I couldn’t decide which one to leave off, and I didn’t want to face the consequences for having to choose between them. So, since this is an informative feature (not a poll or column ranking the legends) I figured that both of them deserved to be mentioned. I’m sure no one here will complain… ;]

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Nilton Santos

BRAZIL
1940-1976
Botafogo PR
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He doesn’t get as much respect or adulation as Carlos Alberto Torres (see below), but Santos was just as good as his more celebrated countryman. He was a wingback who operated on the left side of the field, and was known for his excellent dribbling, his outstanding technique, and his tackling. He also possessed one of the best minds in the game, as he was nicknamed “The Encylcopedia” due to the vast amount of football knowledge residing in his mind. He was one of the first defenders to attack out of the backfield, and he scored a memorable goal during the World Cup when he dribbled the length of the field and skillfully put the ball in the back of the net against Austria.

He combined with Djalma Santos to form an impressive partnership in defense, and was widely credited with stabilizing Brazil’s heretofore shaky backline, which had been the cause of their undoing in previous World Cups. With the international team, he won two World Cups and one Copa America title. With Botafogo, he played 1,004 matches, won the Campeonato Carioca six times, and won the Rio/Sao Paulo Tournament three times.

He eventually received his due as player after retiring from active competition. He was named to Mastercard World Team of the 20th Century, ahead of the likes of Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Carlos, and Paolo Maldini. It was a fitting tribute to this smart and multi-talented player who helped usher in the modern era of fullbacks.

Nilton Santos VIDEO:

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Bobby Moore

ENGLAND
1958-1978
West Ham United (1958-1974)
Fulham (1974-1977)
San Antonio Thunder (1976)
Seattle Sounders (1978)

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He wasn’t the biggest defender on the pitch. He wasn’t the fastest, either. Instead, Moore’s skills lay in his unique ability to read the game, close off lanes, mark his man, and anticipate plays, all of which were world class. As such, he established himself as the thinking-man’s defender and earned praise from no less than Pele for his defensive skills.

Moore’s greatest asset was his leadership, and nowhere was this more evident than during the 1966 World Cup, when he captained England to the championship. During the Finals, against West Germany, Moore showed that he could do more than defend. He set up England’s first goal as his quick free-kick found Geoff Hurst, who knocked it into the net for the first of his three goals on the day. He also set up England’s fourth goal, as he won possession of the ball in his own territory after West Germany sent most of their men forward in a desperate attempt to equalize and then sent a long pass to Hurst, who then fired it home to put the result beyond doubt.

Ultimately, his 108 caps stood as a record for English footballers until Peter Shilton broke it. Recently, David Beckham equaled his mark for an outfield player. Moore had success domestically, as well. He guided West Ham to the F.A. Cup in 1974, and added the Cup Winners Cup in 1975. Despite his reputation as a class-act on the pitch, he was known to partake in late-night carousing and drinking. However, he would always show up to the training facilities bright and early the next morning, usually to work off the alcohol.

He was a true national hero and a beloved figure in world football. He was named the most outstanding footballer of the past 50 years by the Football Association, and a statue of him stands outside Wembley Stadium to commemorate his greatest accomplishment, namely lifting the World Cup.

Bobby Moore VIDEO:

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Giacinto Facchetti

ITALY
1960-1978
Inter Milan
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The backbone of the “Le Grande Inter” Era, Facchetti could do it all. He could play left back, where his dribbling and crossing skills, as well as his ability to make great runs down the flanks, made him an integral part of his team’s offense. He could also play center back, where his 6’3” frame and excellent tackling skills could make any forward’s day miserable. He had a nose for scoring, as well, notching 59 goals during his career for Inter Milan, and 3 goals for the Italian National Team.

His play at left-back was instrumental in turning Inter Milan into a dynamic offensive team that took the defensive-minded Serie A by storm, leading to loads of silverware. Facchetti won four Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, and won back-to-back European Cups in 1964 and 1965. He earned 94 caps for his country, which was a record at the time, and captained his side 70 times. He went to three World Cups and finished as a runner-up in 1970 (losing to a loaded Brazilian team). He did win the European Championships in 1968, though, and earned the honor of lifting the trophy in front of his home fans.

Perhaps most impressively, Facchetti was a sportsman on the pitch who was only sent off once in his career (for sarcastically applauding the referee – Wayne Rooney can relate). After he retired as a player, he showed his skills as an executive, moving his way up Inter’s corporate ladder until he became President in 2004. Sadly, he passed away due to pancreatic cancer, and Inter Milan honored their long-time captain and team official the best way they could. They retired his no. 3 jersey, a rare honor for any player in football.

Giacinto Facchetti VIDEO:

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Carlos Alberto Torres

BRAZIL
1963-1982
Fluminense (1963-1966, 1974-1977)
Santos (1966-1974)
Flamengo (1977)
New York Cosmos (1977-1980, 1982)
California Surf (1981)

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When you play for Brazil, you’re taking up the mantle of excellence and carrying on a glorious tradition built by legendary players like Pele, Zico, and Garrincha. For defenders, no figure has been more influential in Brazilian football than Torres. Playing as a wing-back for most of his career, Torres displayed outstanding offensive instincts to go along with his great tackling skills and ability to read the game. He was instrumental in Brazil’s attack and contributed 8 goals during his time with the national team.

His greatest accomplishment came in the 1970 World Cup. Torres scored one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history when he made a great run down the right wing and scored against Italy in the Final. Most importantly, on a star-studded team that consisted of the likes of Pele, Clodoaldo, Gérson, Jairzinho, Roberto Rivelino, and Tostão, it was Torres that held the trophy as the skipper.

On the domestic front, Torres won more than his fair share of silverware. He collected three Campeonato Carioca titles with Fluminese, and won the Taça Guanabara twice. He also won the Paulista Championship twice while with Santos, and supplemented his trophy case with four NASL titles with the Cosmos.

He was a pioneering defender who was just as much of a threat on offense as he was on defense.

Carlos Alberto Torres VIDEO:

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Franz Beckenbauer

GERMANY
1964-1983
Bayern Munich (1964-1977)
New York Cosmos (1977-1980, 1983)
Hamburger SV (1980-1982)
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“Der Kaiser” is generally regarded as the greatest German footballer of all time, and with good reason. No one was better at winning trophies than Beckenbauer. He became the driving force of some of the greatest teams in football history while playing with Bayern Munich, combining with Sepp Maier and Gerd Muller to win four Bundesliga crowns, four DFB Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, and, most notably, three straight European Cups from 1973-1976. His winning ways continued after he left Bayern Munich, winning a Bundesliga title with Hamburger in 1982, and winning three NASL Championships with the Cosmos.

As successful as he was in domestic competition, he was even better on the international scene. Beckenbauer captained the West German side to the 1972 European Championships and the 1974 World Cup. During the 1974 World Cup Final, he had, arguably, his finest moment, as his West Germans were big underdogs against the Johan Cruijff and the “Total Football” Dutch juggernaut. However Beckenbauer, Berti Vogts, and other German defenders man-marked Cruijff so well that the Netherlands managed only one goal on a penalty shot.

Beckenbauer wasn’t just a winner. He was a pioneer that changed the way the game was played. Not content to sit back and concentrate on defense when he had great playmaking and attacking skills, or to stay in midfield when he had such excellent defensive instincts, he became the first great sweeper (“libero”) in the game.

Beckenbauer remains a dominant figure in German football. He won the 1990 World Cup as a manager, guiding the very last West German squad to glory. He also won a Bundesliga title as Bayern Munich’s manager, and picked up a UEFA Cup title to boot. He’s currently the Chairman of Bayern Munich, as well as the Vice-President of the DFB. He was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to Germany in 2006, and frequently makes headlines for criticizing various German players and managers. Hey, when you’ve won as much as he has, I guess you’ve earned that right.

Most notably, Beckenbauer’s success as a libero, prompted many teams to look for their own version of “Der Kaiser.” Some teams, like Italy with Scirea and Baresi or the later-day German squad with Matthaus succeeded. But, by and large, most teams found out that there was only one Beckenbauer.

Franz Beckenbauer VIDEO:

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Elias Figueroa

CHILE
1964-1982
Union La Calera (1964)
Santiago Wanderers (1965-1966)
Penarol (1967-1972)
Internacional (1972-1976)
Palestino (1977-1980)
Ford Lauderdale Strikers (1981)
Colo-Colo (1982)

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Widely regarded as the greatest Chilean footballer of all time, Figueroa was highly respected by the rest of the world, as well. He was voted South American Footballer of the Year in 1974, 1975 and 1976. He was voted “Best Defender” at the 1974 World Cup, and named Best Player in the World by FIFA in 1976. He was also voted “Greatest Chilean Player of All Time” cementing his legendary status in his home country.

Nicknamed “Don Elias,” Figueroa was a dominant center-back who was known for his leadership skills on the pitch. He captained Chile to three World Cups starting in 1966. Never known as an international power house, Chile never advanced past the first round during Figueroa’s tenure as skipper. They could also thank the lottery gods, who put them in the same group as the host country in both 1966 and 1974 (during the latter World Cup, they were actually in the same group as both East Germany and West Germany), and put them with powerhouse West Germany once again in 1982. Despite the adversity, Figueroa played hard and enhanced his worldwide reputation, as evident by the “Best Defender” award at the 74 Cup.

Figueroa had much more success domestically, winning league titles in Uruguay (with Penarol), Brazil (with Internacional), and Chile (with Palestino). He also captained Chile to a runner-up finish in the 1979 Copa America. Figueroa has continued to make an impact on the world, serving as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.

Elias Figueroa VIDEO:

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Gaetano Scirea

ITALY
1972-1988
Atalanta (1972-1974)
Juventus (1974-1988)
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He’s often considered to be greatest Italian defender of all time, which is high praise considering the sheer number of great defensive players that have come from there. He was so good that he essentially shut Franco Baresi (see below), another legendary sweeper, out of the national team until 1986, when Scirea was near the end of his career.

He wasn’t as offensively inclined as Beckenbauer, nor was he as predisposed to staying in the back like Baresi. Instead, he synthesized both approaches and combined his graceful and skillful tackling and man-marking with his offensive talent to become an important part of his team’s attack. He scored 24 goals during his time with Juventus, and notched an additional 2 goals while playing for Italy.

Most importantly, he was universally respected for his sportsmanship and class and was never sent off or suspended during his career, a feat that seems unthinkable given his position on the field and his defensive responsibilities. His ability to win balls fairly and make hard, yet clean tackles, was a testament to his skills and talents. His low-key approach won him few individual honors, but everyone who followed football knew how important he was to his club and to his country.

He won seven Scudetti (all with Juventus), two Italian Cups, one UEFA Cup, one Cup Winner’s Cup, one European Cup, which makes him one of the rare players to have won every single major domestic and international club trophy. He also won the 1982 World Cup, helping to lead his team past West Germany in the Finals. Tragically, he died in a car accident shortly after his retirement. Today, he’s remembered as one of the greatest players in Italian football history, as well as a fantastic role-model and sportsman.

Gaetano Scirea VIDEO:

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Franco Baresi

ITALY
1977-1997
AC Milan
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Like Beckenbauer, Baresi played the libero role to perfection during his two decades at Milan. Unlike Beckenbauer, Baresi concentrated more on his defensive duties, holding down the middle of field and easily dispossessing anyone who dared enter the penalty area while he was standing guard. That’s not to say he didn’t go forward, because he did. However, his primary role was to protect his keeper and win the ball, which he did with amazing success.

Baresi had a phenomenally successful career with Milan, winning six Scudetti, three European Cups, and four Italian Supercups. As an international player, he was on the 1982 World Cup winning squad, but at 22 years old, he was an unused substitute behind Italian great Gaetano Scirea (see above), albeit one that left with a Winner’s Medal. He missed the 1986 World Cup, and didn’t make his debut until 1990, when Italy hosted the tournament. With high expectations, Italy came up short, losing to Argentina in the Semi-Finals, but were able to finish third after defeating England in the consolation match. He was the skipper for the 1994 team that lost to Brazil in the Finals, and was one of the players who missed in the penalty shootout, although he did not face nearly as much criticism as his teammate, Roberto Baggio, whose miss clinched the Cup for Brazil. Throughout his career, Baresi earned 81 caps, a number that would have surely been in the triple-digits if he hadn’t been competing with Scirea.

Ultimately, his greatest influence can be seen through his protégé, Paolo Maldini. Baresi spent a lot of time tutoring his younger charge while the two of them played together at Milan. As such, when Baresi retired, he turned over his captain’s armband to Maldini in a memorable moment involving the clubs current and future icons. Only Maldini has won more matches, made more appearances, and won more trophies with the club than Baresi.

Franco Baresi VIDEO:

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Lothar Matthäus

GERMANY
1979-2000
Borussa Mönchengladbach (1979-1984)
Bayern Munich (1984-1988, 1992-2000)
Inter Milan (1988-1992)
New York/New Jersey Metrostars (2000)

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The heir to Beckenbauer as the best German libero in the world, Matthaus actually spent a lot of time playing in midfield due to his excellent passing skills and tremendous shooting ability. He amassed 184 goals during his career for both club and country, but wasn’t just an offensive force, as he was often tasked with man-marking the opposition’s best player. During the 1986 World Cup, he did an admirable job on Diego Maradona in the Finals. Even though Argentina went on to win, a respectful Maradona later said that Matthaus was the best rival he had ever had. This was well before Matthaus switched to the libero role upon returning to Bayern in 1994, having become a much more complete player and better defender after spending time in Italy.

Even though he came up short in 1986, Matthaus had plenty of other occasions to celebrate. He won seven Bundesliga titles (all with Bayern Munich), three German Cups, one Serie A title, and two UEFA Cups. He won the Ballon d’Or in 1990, and was FIFA World Player of the Year in 1991. He captained the West German side to glory, winning the World Cup in 1990. He also won the European Championship in 1980, which meant that he had won every single important domestic and international trophy, except for the UEFA Champions League/European Cup. He came close, losing in the Finals on two heartbreaking occasions to Porto in 1987 and to Manchester United in 1999. Ironically, when Bayern Munich finally won the Champions League in 2001, he had already retired, having played his final year in MLS with the Metrostars as the first big-name acquisition in the league’s history (though hardly the last).

Despite not having that Champions League medal, most players would gladly swap places (and trophy cases) with Matthaus. Almost all of them would gladly take his talent and versatility as well.

Lothar Matthäus VIDEO:

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Paolo Maldini

ITALY
1984-present
A.C. Milan
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Like his mentor, the great Franco Baresi (see above), Maldini is an AC Milan legend who has played his entire career at the San Siro. Maldini has followed in Baresi’s footsteps in a number of other ways as well. He’s been club skipper, he’s been an inspirational and iconic figure, and most importantly, he’s been a winner. Maldini has won more games than anyone in an A.C. Milan kit, and has a crowded trophy room to boot. He has won seven Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, four Italian Super Cups, and five UEFA Champions League Titles. He was also the first European-based captain to lift the World Club Championship,. In 1994, he became the first defender to win World Soccer’s World Player of the Year award.

He is extremely versatile and has excelled at both left-back and center back during his career. He moved to center back after Baresi retired and has played much of his career for club and country in the heart of the defense. Indeed, the heart metaphor is apt when describing Maldini since he was always the inspirational leader of his team’s backline. He didn’t just use words and emotions to get the job done, though. He also led by example, and his exquisite skills, solid tackling, and guile made him, arguably, the greatest defender in the world during his day. He wasn’t as flashy as his counterpart, Roberto Carlos (see below), but most experts will tell you that he was a much better defender.

Internationally, he remains Italy’s most capped player with 126 appearances. He was skipper for 74 of those appearances, which is also a record. He didn’t win any trophies during his time with the national team, coming closest in 1994 when he was on the Italian squad that finished second to Brazil. He was also a runner-up at Euro 2000, where he came up short against France. Nevertheless, he is one of the most beloved players in Italian history and a true icon.

Paolo Maldini VIDEO:

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Roberto Carlos

BRAZIL
1990-present
Uniao Sao Joao (1990-1993)
Palmeiras (1993-1995)
Inter Milan (1995-1996)
Real Madrid (1996-2007)
Fenerbahce (2007-present)

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The latest in a long line of excellent Brazilian wingbacks, Roberto Carlos continues to excel, even as he approaches the end of his career. Roberto Carlos carved out a niche for himself in football history by becoming one of the very best free-kick takers in the world. He frequently dazzled fans, teammates, and opposing players with his skills, and scored a number of important goals for both club and country. He could bend balls in from angles, including one from almost impossible angle along the left end-line. He was also famous for a free kick against France in which he scored from 35 yards out and bent the ball so ferociously that it looked like it was going to a good 10 yards wide of the post, only to curl back in and easily beat a stunned Fabien Barthez.

Roberto Carlos was more than just a brilliant free-kicker, though. He was an excellent defender who was a vital part of his team’s defense. He was twice voted to UEFA’s team of the year, and finished second to Ronaldo in the voting for the FIFA Player of the Year in 1997. His lightning quickness made him a force on both sides of the ball, often tiring out opposing players and leading to scoring opportunities.

He was a part of some of the best modern-day teams in football history. He won three Champions League crowns and four La Liga titles with Real Madrid. He won a World Cup in 2002 for Brazil, and won a Copa America in 1997 and 1999. While he was usually brilliant for whatever team he suited up for, his career hasn’t been without controversy. He was vilified by the Brazilian media for his failure to mark Thierry Henry during the 2006 World Cup because he was busy adjusting his socks. Henry ended up scoring the lone goal in the match and Roberto Carlos took the blame. Additionally, he was roundly criticized for giving up an early goal to Roy Makaay in the Champions League Knock Out phase, which essentially ended Real Madrid’s chances of winning in 2006-2007. Nevertheless, his reputation as one of the greatest of all time has not diminished, despite these setbacks. If anything, they remind us that nobody is perfect, especially after 16 years.

Roberto Carlos VIDEO:

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Text & Career Summaries by Victor Li. Formatting and Image Research by Marco Pantanella.

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