25 Best Soccer Defenders of All Time

Every great soccer team can get stops when it matters most. That starts with a great defense. Individual defenders can help shut down even the best players in the world. Some are even able to contribute offensively.

These are the 25 best soccer defenders of all time. It is no surprise that all enjoyed quite a bit of team success along the way.


1. Paolo Maldini

  • Turned Pro: 1985
  • Retired: 2009

There is always a debate on who is the best of the best, but many soccer fans will agree that he is the greatest defender of all time. He was a dominant club player for Milan for over 25 years, and he was a fixture on the Italian national team as well.

Maldini was able to do everything on the pitch for his team. He could completely shut down individual talents, while also playing outstanding team defense. He was a leader on that side of the pitch, and seemingly always found himself in the right position.


2. Franz Beckenbauer

  • Turned Pro: 1964
  • Retired: 1983

Many people credit him as the inventor of the modern sweeper position. He was a standout player as well as a manager for Germany, leading them to a World Cup title.

The Germans have had many great defenders throughout the years, but he still stands above the rest. The technical aspect of his game certainly put him on another level altogether.


3. Franco Beresi

  • Turned Pro: 1977
  • Retired: 1996

Another standout for AC Milan, Franco Beresi is the captain who could do it all on the defensive side. He was part of an outstanding defensive unit, and one of the most complete defenders to ever play the game of soccer.

He was strong enough to go up against any type of player, and his endurance made it seem impossible that he ever tired.


4. Cafu

  • Turned Pro: 1989
  • Retired: 2008

All of the goalscorers get the attention when talking about Brazilian soccer, but Cafu is the best defender the country has ever seen. He was a big reason why Brazil made three consecutive World Cup finals, and he was able to succeed thanks to outstanding skill from his position.

Some say he is the most skilled defender of all time, and when watching old videos, it is hard to argue for anyone else.


5. Roberto Carlos

  • Turned Pro: 1991
  • Retired: 2015

Another strong defender from Brazil, he had a standout club career with Real Madrid as well. He was a natural leader for any team he suited up for, and found a way to evolve into one of the most offensive-minded left-backs the game has ever seen.


6. Carles Puyol

  • Turned Pro: 1996
  • Retired: 2014

Barcelona has had many great defenders through the years, but he might be the best of them all. He had a very long and productive career for not only the club, but for Spain as well. Being a captain for Barcelona for over ten years shows just how much of a team player he was as well.


7. Sergio Ramos

  • Turned Pro: 2003

Still playing today, there is a chance that Sergio Ramos moves up his list at some point. He has been able to star as a center back for Real Madrid since 2005, while picking up over 180 caps with the Spanish national team.

With close to 100 goals between club and international play, he finds ways to score in creative ways as a defender as well. Many fans think that he is the class of this current generation of defenders, having to shut down more intricate offenses than ever before.


8. Fabio Cannavaro

  • Turned Pro: 1991
  • Retired: 2015

The 2006 season for Cannavaro solidified himself as one of the grades of the game. He was the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year that season, and he was able to have a lot of team success as well.

His anticipation and awareness made up for him maybe not being the most physically gifted player as a defender. Even if he did not match up that well physically speaking, his competitive spirit made sure that no player ever got the best of him.


9. Philipp Lahm

  • Turned Pro: 2002
  • Retired: 2017

As one of the most consistent players for Germany during his run, Lahm succeeded thanks in large part to his overall knowledge and versatility. A pretty short player who often went up against much bigger opponents, he still found ways to succeed.

Lahm was very cerebral with his play, putting himself in the right positions to make the right play. Instead of taking a ton of risks, his more conservative style ensured that no one got the best of him for easy looks.


10. Alessandro Nesta

  • Turned Pro: 1993
  • Retired: 2013

There was something about Nesta as a professional player, finding ways to succeed against some of the best players in the game.

He had some of the best one-on-one coverage a person will ever find in soccer, and he never seemed to lose a step. His biggest impact came with Milan, but he also spent a decade with Lazio.


11. Bobby Moore

  • Turned Pro: 1958
  • Retired: 1978

English soccer fans can never get enough of Bobby Moore. If it was just based on his match against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, he would already be a legend.

He did much more than that throughout his career, and showed the world that English defenders could stay with anyone.


12. Giacinto Facchetti

  • Turned Pro: 1961
  • Retired: 1978

Very few could score as a defender like Giacinto Facchetti. Another standout player for Inter Milan, he was not afraid to take chances as a defender that was well ahead of his time in the 1960s.

He is one of those soccer players who could arguably play in any era and find a way to have a great amount of success.


13. Cesare Maldini

  • Turned Pro: 1985
  • Retired: 2009

His son might get all the love as a defender, but Cesare Maldini was a very accomplished player in his own right. He played for Milan during the 1950s and 1960s, and suited up 14 times for Italy on the national stage.

His excellent technique was passed down to his son, and the rest is history. Italian soccer fans of a certain age still remember Cesare as the first player to make the Maldini name so well known.


14. Frank Rjikaard

  • Turned Pro: 1980
  • Retired: 1996

Some people would say he does not qualify for this list because of his switch in position to midfield, but he was a strong defender throughout his club and international career.

His individual skill is hard to match, and with so many strong midfielders out there, it would make sense to move him to defense on many all-time teams. That skill never faded away.


15. Daniel Passarella

  • Turned Pro: 1971
  • Retired: 1989

When Argentina won it all in 1978, Passarella was the captain. He was an offensive-minded defender who scored 134 goals in his career, and he always surprised teams with his positioning.

As a pure defender, he could make stops that few other players were capable of. For some reason, the Argentinian does not always get the recognition he deserves in today’s world, but real fans know what he accomplished.


16. Ruud Krol

  • Turned Pro: 1967
  • Retired: 1986

Whether it was starring for Holland or his club team Ajax, Ruud Krol was a well-rounded defender capable of going toe-to-toe with the best players in the game.

His versatility to play just about any defensive position allowed him to move around the pitch when needed. He also was one of the most tactical defenders the game has seen.


17. Fulvio Collovati

  • Turned Pro: 1976
  • Retired: 1993

Plenty of defenders have started for Italy, and Fulvio Collovati was one of the best during the 1982 World Cup win for Italy. He was a very physically strong defender who could create dynamic plays when given the opportunity.

Another very technical player who can do it all, his ability to match up with different types of players made him one of the greats.


18. Mauro Tassotti

  • Turned Pro: 1978
  • Retired: 1997

Sometimes a defender like Mauro Tassotti can get overlooked with so many quality players by his side. However, when he was with Milan or the Italian national team, he was a great team defender with outstanding awareness and strength to go up against physical players.


19. Gerard Pique

  • Turned Pro: 2004

Even by defender standards, Gerard Pique is one of the taller modern defenders in the game. He has been a star for Barcelona since 2008, and he put together a very productive international career with Spain. He is a very well-rounded player who starred for Spain during its most impressive run.

His career is coming to an end, so it is likely that he never moves up any more, but he accomplished about all one could ask for.


20. Alessandro Costacurta

  • Turned Pro: 1985
  • Retired: 2007

The outstanding Italian defenders keep coming, as Alessandro Costacurta helped stop teams for Milan for over 20 years. He was part of an outstanding defense overall during his career, playing with a few others who have made this list.

His ability to play anywhere on the backline allowed him to stick around and have a very long and productive career. Moving around on defense is more complicated than some people realize, but he made it seem easy.


21. Lilian Thuram

  • Turned Pro: 1991
  • Retired: 2008

He accomplished a lot in his career, including becoming the most capped player in France’s national team history. With 142 appearances, the most memorable moment came in 1988 when France hoisted the World Cup.

He also had plenty of success at the club level, playing for giants like Monaco, Parma, Juventus, and Barcelona.


22. Lucio

  • Turned Pro: 1997
  • Retired: 2020

Lucio was able to use his size and overall strength to overpower a lot of teams. He was a major part of the Brazilian national team, finishing with 105 caps.

He found a lot of his success with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan at the club level, and his long career just now finished up.


23. Aldair

  • Turned Pro: 1985
  • Retired: 2009

Yet another Brazilian defender worthy of a spot on the top 25 list is Aldair. Part of the 1994 World Cup-winning team, he also had a long and productive stint with AS Roma.

He was the team captain for a few years, and showed that he was one of the most versatile players during his prime.


24. Manfred Kaltz

  • Turned Pro: 1970
  • Retired: 1991

In the Bundesliga, few right-backs have had a career quite like Manfred Kaltz. He spent almost two decades for Hamburger SV, finding ways to keep them competitive against more talented overall teams.

Although he is a great defender, he was also an outstanding penalty kicker, finding the net 53 times in that regard. That level of versatility came in handy plenty of times for his squad.


25. Claudio Gentile

  • Turned Pro: 1971
  • Retired: 1988

Starring for both the Italian national team and Juventus, Claudio Gentile had a great, long career. At the club level, he won six national titles and two big European trophies.

Of course, his career’s most memorable moment came in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup. Defense has always been a huge calling card for Italy, and although he is not in the discussion as the best of the best, he still played a major role.


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Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

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