The number 3 position in soccer is usually reserved for the left back. However, it’s not set in stone, as there have been several world-class central defenders and even defensive midfielders who have taken the number.
Some of the best defenders in history have proudly worn the number three throughout their careers, making the left side of defense their own.
Today, we’re going to take a trip down memory lane and look back at seven of the most fantastic number 3s in soccer history, names most soccer fans will know well.
Every one of the players on our list was a winner for either club, country, or both. Our list has a healthy mix of central defenders and left-backs, with players whose names will live forever in the hearts of fans.
Here are the 7 greatest players who wore the number 3 jersey.
7. Denis Irwin
One of the most underrated players on our list and arguably one of the most reliable and essential Manchester United players of all time, Denis Irwin was the perfect number 3.
An Irish international, Irwin is one of the two most successful Irish players of all time, alongside fellow Manchester United legend Roy Keane.
While not all number 3s are full-backs, Irwin spent most of his career as one of the most resolute, intelligent, and reliable defenders of his era.
Former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, often cited Denis Irwin as his greatest-ever player. The reason the Irishman rarely gets mentioned is that he rarely put a foot wrong.
Having won 19 trophies as a player, and making it to the last 16 of a World Cup with Ireland, Denis Irwin’s career holds up against anyone’s; an excellent free-kick taker, he also chipped in with several goals during his 21-year career. An absolute must for any defense, Irwin was pure quality.
6. Ashley Cole
Another world-class full-back, England’s Ashley Cole makes it onto our list as he’s arguably the best left-back of the past two decades.
After making his debut for Arsenal in 1999, Cole spent twenty seasons as a professional, nearly all of them at the very top of professional soccer.
An ever-present player for England, Cole won 107 caps for his country, and spent seven seasons with Arsenal, before a controversial move across London to rivals Chelsea.
In a hugely successful career, Cole won three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, and a Europa League and Champions League with Chelsea.
Ashley Cole was an excellent tackler, superb passer, and had pace that terrified opponents. One of his trademarks was flying down the left wing to support the attack, carving through defenses, and still having the energy and pace to recover his position in defense.
Cole is certainly one of the most successful English players of recent years, and remains England’s best left-back in a generation.
5. Roberto Carlos
If there’s one word that’s perfect to describe Roberto Carlos, it’s “unique”. One of the most famous left-backs of all time, Carlos’s specialty was a free-kick that took a 30-yard run up. And while most went wide of the net, when the Brazilian legend hit a perfect free-kick, it was impossible to save.
When struck, the free-kick would bend almost to the point of missing the net by yards, and then curl back in for a wonder goal.
With thighs larger than many people’s waists, Roberto Carlos could run all day, and was one of the most offensive-minded defenders in history. A superb crosser of the ball, the Brazilian superstar was much more comfortable in attack than defense.
Despite that, Carlos was a superb all-round player, and was one of Real Madrid’s most important players during the “Galactico” period when the club sought out the most high-profile players on earth. If you’ve never seen a Roberto Carlos free-kick, add it to your watchlist.
4. Thiago Silva
With a team of Thiago Silva’s, you’d never lose a game; and that’s not just because the Brazilian center-back is one of the best players in his position; it’s because of his sheer drive and determination.
The consummate leader on the pitch, Silva has proven himself to be one of the all-time great Brazilian players.
As comfortable with the ball at his feet as he is sliding into tackles, Silva has perfect timing, excellent composure, and seems to only improve with age.
The most experienced defender in the Premier League, Silva has made Chelsea’s back line most composed. Still playing at the top level at the age of 38, He’s still one of the classiest defenders in world soccer.
While Silva has, for obvious reasons, lost a yard of pace, his brain is as quick as ever, and it’s rare that the Brazilian international is caught out of position.
His talent shows in the trophies he’s won over the years; the Serie A with AC Milan, seven Ligue 1 with PSG, and a Champions League with Chelsea. As for domestic trophies; Silva has won them all.
You don’t make it to 133 caps for Portugal without being an outstanding soccer player, and Pepe, the former Real Madrid center-back, is one of the toughest defenders you’ll ever see.
A fierce, at times, dangerous defender, Pepe spent ten seasons with Madrid, scything down opposing players and often received yellow or red cards for his over-the-top challenges.
Despite his tenacious style, Pepe is a cultured player who is comfortable on the ball, it’s just that he prefers the enforcer role to the elegant ball-playing defender position.
Currently back in Portugal with Porto, Pepe is once again bossing the defense, and despite being 39, shows no signs of slowing down.
With a trophy haul that’s scarcely believable, Pepe will go down as one of the greatest defenders of all time, with four Primeira Liga titles with Porto to go with his three La Liga and three Champions League wins with Real Madrid.
Pepe was also part of the Portugal team which lifted the 2016 European Championships; he’s a serial winner, even if he does like to leave a boot in.
2. Gerard Pique
Having only retired in 2022, Gerard Pique is still fresh in the mind of most soccer fans, especially given his truly incredible career with Barcelona.
One of Spain’s most decorated players, Pique has won pretty much every honor there is to win, both domestically and internationally.
A European Champion and World Cup winner with Spain, the Barcelona center-back won multiple La Liga and Champions League titles as a member of arguably the best club side of all time.
Super Cup, World Club Cup, Barcelona won every competition they entered, and at the heart of the defense was their excellent number 3.
Music fans may recall that Pique was married to world-famous singer Shakira, though it’s for his world-class defending that the former Barcelona youth player will be remembered.
Pique combined strength and mental toughness with the level of skill you’d expect from a Barcelona player. Now he’s retired, Spain will have some job replacing one of its greatest players.
1. Paolo Maldini
It had to be Paolo Maldini who makes it into the number one spot on our list of greatest number 3s; the former Italy and AC Milan player was one of the greatest soccer players of all time.
A cultured, elegant defender with the leadership qualities of a battlefield commander, Maldini was the most complete left-back of all time.
Having spent his entire career at AC Milan, Maldini is afforded legendary status in Milan and throughout Italy, thanks to his tireless efforts for club and country. Maldini spent his entire career at the very top with 126 caps for Italy, seven Serie A titles, and an astonishing five Champions League winners medals.
One of the most composed players you’ll ever see, Maldini made the game look easy; never ruffled by the occasion, the Italian made even the most heated of games look like a kickaround in the local park.
As he glided across the pitch to intercept the ball, head held high; you just knew he’d make the tackle. In fact, Maldini was so good at reading the game he didn’t always need to tackle an opponent, often strolling away with the ball with ease.
In a nation where defending is considered an art form, Paolo Maldini was the Da Vinci of center-backs, the greatest number 3 of all time.