Cafu and Philipp Lahm are the best full-backs of all time in tiered rankings

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The physical demands of playing in a full-back role is like no other on a football pitch.

Those operating in that position need to be a sort of hybrid footballer, proficient in both attack and defence. They are required to defend their lines one minute and play as auxiliary wingers, threatening on the overlap and charging into the final third next.

From tier one to four, we examine eight of the best – retired players only – that have ever graced game.

TIER 1

PHILIPP LAHM

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Pep Guardiola once declared Philipp Lahm “the most intelligent player” he’d ever trained. Coming from someone who at the time had coached the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andes Iniesta, that was high praise.

The then Bayern Munich boss had transformed the full-back into a central midfielder orchestrating a possession-based system, a decision that revealed the extent of Lahm’s talent and tactical understanding.

However, it’s at full-back where he’ll be remembered and rightly so after revolutionising the role. His versatility allowed him to feature on either flank and was not only born out of his two-footedness but also his superior positional awareness.

With endless energy reserves, Lahm patrolled the length of the field like any good full-back but his ability to blend into midfield created a new dynamic and allowed him to have more influence on proceedings.

Lahm was a quality crosser of the ball and the cleanest of tacklers, ending his career without a single red card. A World Cup-winning captain with Germany, he won 21 trophies at Bayern but his greatness lay in his character and resolve. Slight of frame, Lahm showed big character, commanded respect and led by example. He was an understated genius.

CAFU

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During the nineties, Cafu was the right-back who laid down the blueprint for all aspiring in that position to aspire to. Modern day full-backs have vastly demanding roles and often need to be the fittest players on the pitch. Cafu was one of the first in that mould.

He was listed as a defender but with relentless forays down the right flank, his attacking influence was immense. He was dynamic in style, defensively astute and attacking by instinct. Crucially, his energy was unparalleled and his crosses unerring.

An athletic specimen he most certainly was but he also boasted the tactical sophistication to be counted among the elite. His positional sense and intelligence meant he would effortlessly feature at centre-back or even as a right winger on occasion.

Part of his legendary status though is owed to his leadership. He captained Brazil to the 2002 World Cup trophy. After a trophy-laden start to his club career in Brazil, he won Serie A twice, with Roma and then AC Milan, while also securing a Champions League crown with the Rossoneri.

The Brazilian’s professional career spanned over 18 years. He retired at the age of 38 and is the only player to have featured in three World Cup final matches.

TIER 2

LILLIAN THURAM 

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In his prime, Lillian Thuram was the Virgil van Dijk of full-backs – an absolute colossus at the back, indomitable in the air, technically sound, brilliant in one-on-ones and a supremely powerful yet tidy defender.

The Frenchman’s intimidating physique was nearly impossible to surpass but he was also deceptively mobile, keeping up with the most fleet-footed forwards while embarking on his own attacking forays, charging down the flanks like a freight train.

His ability with both feet as well as his excellent reading of the game meant he could feature on either side of defence or even in the centre while he was renowned for making heroic last-ditch tackles. It’s no wonder for the likes of Juventus and Barcelona during his career while winning the World Cup with France in 1998, a tournament that incidentally produced his defining moment.

A rare mistake from Thuram in the semi-finals against Croatia played Davor Suker onside who gave the dark horses the lead. The full-back reacted magnificently, bombing down the right flank before finding himself in the box to score the equaliser in the very next minute.

Another inspiring run from Thuram culminated with a superb left-footed shot into the bottom corner before some outstanding defending helped France hold on to a 2-1 win and make it to the final where they would beat Brazil.

PAOLO MALDINI 

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Some forwards were born to dribble past defenders and score goals. Paolo Maldini was born to stop them.

Ever since he first threaded onto a football pitch, he displayed an innate ability to defend his goal and when he began his professional career he showed maturity beyond his years.

It was like his mind was pre-programmed, capable of calculating risks, reading danger and assessing the best courses of action before executing them perfectly.

While dominating defenders were seen as physically intimidating figures who would yield no inch and take no prisoners Maldini was a different, more evolved, breed.

There was so much elegance about his game. Playing at left-back for most of his career, you could hardly notice that Maldini was naturally right-footed. He was technically superior to other defenders, showed outstanding athleticism and made sliding tackles an art form – clean as a whistle.

A one-club man throughout, he made an incredible 902 appearances for Milan, winning seven Serie A titles and five European crowns. In the twilight of his career he shifted to centre-back and remained an infallible leader of the rearguard.

Ronaldo said in 2014 that the Italian was the “best defender” he’d ever faced. When Maldini brought the curtain down on his career at the age of 41, Milan retired his No3 jersey.

TIER 3

CARLOS ALBERTO 

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You hear the name Carlos Alberto and that goal at the 1970 World Cup immediately springs to mind. A sweeping move from back to front with nearly every member of the team involved captured the very essence of that Brazilian side, still regarded as one of the finest the sport has ever seen.

It’s fitting that Alberto – Il Capitao – had applied the emphatic finishing touch in that 4-1 victory over Italy. Bombing down the right, he burst into the box and without breaking stride, thumped Pele’s layoff into the back of the net.

The goal also epitomised him as a right-back; athletic, technically gifted and forward-thinking. It’s no wonder the strike is even familiar to avid football fans today, half a century later.

During a 19-year career, Alberto achieved success with Fluminense, Santos and then the New York Cosmos. But he’ll always be remembered as the leader of that scintillating Brazilian team in 1970 and one of the greatest full-backs of all time.

GIACINTO FACCHETTI

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Giacinto Facchetti oozed class. The towering defender was naturally an imposing figure but he retained excellent composure on the ball and would glide forward from his left-back position frequently.

A one-club man, he made 629 appearances for Inter Milan and during the sixties and seventies, he was a mainstay on the left side of defence for them as well as Italy.

The attacking full-back had an eye for goal, netting 75 times during his club career but his ventures forward rarely compromised his team defensively.

Facchetti won the 1968 Euros with Italy and finished as a runner-up to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup.

He won four Scudettos, two European and two intercontinental titles with Inter as he went down as one of their greatest. The Nerazzurri retired his No3 shirt after his passing in 2006.

AC Milan had Maldini, Inter had Facchetti.

TIER 4

ROBERTO CARLOS

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There are players who can strike a football hard and then there is Roberto Carlos who had net manufacturers sweating every time he lined up one of his trademark free-kicks.

The power he would generate is the stuff of legends and his effort against France in 1997 has gone down as one of the best free-kicks of all-time. But that was only one of several spectacular strikes throughout a career that lasted more than two decades.

In 945 appearances for club and country, Carlos scored 113 goals. Not too shabby for a left-back. The Brazilian also achieved huge success, winning 19 domestic trophies including four La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues with Real Madrid. With the national team, he won the 2002 World Cup as well as two Copa America crowns.

His incredible stamina, flair and eye for goal make him one of the most attacking full-backs of all-time. However, he was no slouch in defence either. He took a lot of risks and vacated his position at will but always had the pace to recover and was a superb tackler in his time.

ASHLEY COLE

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If you listed all the qualities that would make the perfect modern day full-back, you’d be describing Ashley Cole. In his prime, his greatest strength was that he had no weakness.

He was attacking by nature but he knew his priority was to defend and fortunately, he was incredibly talented at that aspect of the game too.

As part of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ he forged a superb partnership with Robert Pires down the left flank and also linked up well with Thierry Henry who favoured that side.

He was at his best as soon as the Gunners would win possession, instantaneously charging forward in support of the attack. During his time at Chelsea in particular, his man-marking and positional sense came to the fore under Jose Mourinho though he retained his attacking side.

Cole won 16 trophies with Arsenal and Chelsea but despite never tasting success with the national team, he is regarded as the finest left-back to have played for England.

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Euro 2020 qualifiers: Gareth Bale admits lucky escape during Slovakia draw

Phil Blanche 18:32 12/10/2019
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Gareth Bale admits he is lucky to be playing in Wales’ vital Euro 2020 qualifier against Croatia after fearing being sent off in Slovakia on Thursday.

Bale had already been booked when he sent Slovakia defender Milan Skriniar crashing to the ground in the closing stages of the 1-1 draw in Trnava.

The Real Madrid forward was maybe spared a red card as he was also hurt in the collision and spent a couple of minutes needing treatment.

“I’m fit and I’m fine, it was just a knock on the knee and a bit of ice has sorted that out,” Bale said ahead of the Cardiff clash with World Cup finalists Croatia.

“I was more worried about getting sent off to be honest. I was just happy to get away with that one!

“But saying that, I didn’t think the first one deserved a yellow, so maybe it evened itself out.”

Bale’s second yellow card of Euro 2020 qualifying means another booking would see him suspended.

Wales, who trail Group E leaders Croatia by six points and are three adrift of second-placed Slovakia, with a game in hand on both, finish their campaign with November games against Azerbaijan and Hungary.

Bale celebrates alongside Moore after his opener against Slovakia. (Credit: Wales FA/Twitter)

Bale celebrates alongside Moore after his opener against Slovakia. (Credit: Wales FA/Twitter)

“I can’t make too many silly tackles, I have to be mindful of that,” Bale said.

“I don’t want to miss any games for Wales, especially at the crunch time of the group.

“So I have to be clever with what I’m doing, but maybe expect someone’s going to rile me to get me suspended.

“I’m experienced enough to get through the period without picking up another booking.”

Wales and Croatia have been familiar foes in recent qualifying campaigns, with the Dragons never having won in five previous encounters.

Croatia have often edged games by the odd goal and Bale admits he would love to beat his Real team-mate Luka Modric.

“We know each quite well, as we’ve played together for a long time in Tottenham and Real Madrid, and it would be nice to get one over on him finally,” he said.

Modric and Bale are teammates at Real Madrid (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Modric and Bale are teammates at Real Madrid (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

“We’ve not spoken yet, maybe there will be a little message later on.

“They’ve beaten us a few times in the past, but it’s always been a tight game between us.

“We know what a great team they are. They had a great World Cup and shown year after year how good they are.

“But playing at home gives us an advantage and we’ve had some great results against some big teams in our stadium.

“It’s nice to have the experience and know-how of how to do it.”

Wales will make a late decision on Aaron Ramsey’s fitness.

The Juventus midfielder, who is yet to feature in Wales’ Euro 2020 qualifying campaign because of injury, has a thigh problem and trained on his own on Saturday away from the main group.

“We have not ruled Aaron out,” said manager Ryan Giggs.

“He’s on a different schedule, he didn’t travel to Slovakia with the team and stayed back with the physio.

“So we’re just giving him all the time we can and (will) see how is in the morning (on Sunday).”

Wigan forward Kieffer Moore, who scored against Slovakia on his first competitive appearance for Wales, is likely to start after suffering a cut head in Trnava.

Ethan Ampadu and Jonny Williams are also available after coming off in the second half in Slovakia.

But Giggs says he has to recognise that he may have to “freshen things up” with only a three-day turnaround between fixtures.

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Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff emerge as greatest forwards of all time in tiered rankings

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Diego Maradona

Forwards have brought life to the phrase a “Beautiful Game”.

This invigorating role requires sublime skills and complete vision. Its finest protagonists also boost a telling influence and punishing consistency.

From the pugnacious street fighter Diego Maradona to the complete Ruud Gullit and unbounded creativity of Johan Cruyff, they come in various guises.

Using only retired players, we’ve reviewed the all-time greats.

TIER 1

DIEGO MARADONA 

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Potentially, the greatest player to ever kick a football. Unquestionably, the sport’s most-gripping personality.

Maradona beguiled with his preternatural ball control and enraged with his controversial antics – on and off the pitch. Tellingly, he remains nothing short of transfixing to this day.

“El Pibe de Oro” (“The Golden Boy”) rose from the slums of Vila Fiorito to twice break the world transfer record, enrapture a city when miraculously leading his revitalised Napoli to the 1986/87 and 1989/90 Serie A titles and singularly inspire Argentina to a sensational victory at the 1986 World Cup.

The defining match of his career would come at the latter-mentioned tournament, a 2-1 quarter-final victory against England. This was an exhibition of the dichotomy within Maradona’s soul; a combustible mixture of genius and scoundrel.

There was the infamous “Hand of God” when he punched the opener past a perplexed Peter Shilton, a moment he would later describe as “symbolic revenge” for the Falklands War.

Then came the unalloyed majesty of his second, dribbling past five England outfielders with 11 touches from within his own half and unforgettably leaving Shilton on his backside with an insouciant feint before slotting in.

Maradona’s playing career would end amid a haze of drug addiction, intoxicating idolisation and scandal that would follow him into retirement. But a legend had been forged that will last for eternity.

JOHAN CRUYFF 

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A rare band of footballers boast an influence that transformed into an ideology.

‘Cruyffismo’ has come to define two of the game’s grandest clubs; Ajax and Barcelona. Its enduring values – crisp passing, rapid movement and unyielding dominance of the ball – underpin Lionel Messi’s ascension thanks to the founding of the La Masia academy at his insistence, inform the inimitable Pep Guardiola and made Spain dominant World and European champions.

For the ‘Beautiful Game’, the invaluable gifts bequeathed by Cruyff match those left by Socrates to Western philosophy and Descartes to the Scientific Revolution.

This process began long before Cruyff’s reputation as a deep thinker was solidified when manager of Barca’s ‘Dream Team’ from 1988-96.

Born on a street just five minutes away from Ajax’s stadium, the pure aesthete boasted otherworldly technique and adherence to the doctrine of ‘Totaalvoetbal’ espoused by mentor Rinus Michels. After three-successive European Cups, a world-record move to Barca in 1973 would move his stardom into another stratosphere.

The deft ‘Cruyff Turn’ – often imitated, rarely matched – and miraculous ‘Phantom Goal’ – a back heel against Atletico Madrid at neck height, facing away from goal – would further define his mastery.

Football lovers are united in gratitude for Cruyff’s contribution.

TIER 2

ZICO

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Brazil’s gloriously flawed underachievers from World Cup 1982 are enshrined in football history.

Zico was their catalyst; the diminutive playmaker – suitably nicknamed ‘O Galinho’ (The Little Rooster) – with 360° vision and a thunderous free-kick, capable of manipulating the ball to satiate his every whim.

This magnificent ability marked him out at a tender age. Denizens of Rio de Janeiro’s Quintino Bocaiuva neighbourhood would gather to watch the infant Zico toy with much older children, prior to the auspicious intervention of radio reporter Celso Garcia sending the 14-year-old on his way to Flamengo.

This relationship came in the final generation before Europe’s increasingly enriched giants started sweeping up Brazil’s finest at a tender age. It would feature, across two spells, 13 major trophies and 401 goals from 580 appearances.

But it is the vibrant yellow of the Selecao that Zico is vividly remembered. He reached his zenith in 1982, entrancing the globe – alongside the likes of Socrates and Falcao – prior to a devastating interjection from Italy’s Paolo Rossi puncturing their dreams.

GARRINCHA

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Football’s original maverick left a trail of destruction.

Tragically, for both himself and those near him, this chaos impacted all those close to Garrincha prior to liver cirrhosis bringing a premature end to his life aged just 49.

Born with a bent spine, misshapen knees and a left leg a couple of inches shorter than his right, the Mage-native looked like he required a wheelchair. Yet the Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Bent-Legged Angel) was imbued with magic, his mischievous spirit and disdain for conformity combining to craft football’s greatest dribbler.

He was, patently, more than just mere foil to Pele.

They combined to enlivening effect in victory for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup. With the immortal striker then belligerently booted out of the 1962 edition after the second group match, a solitary Garrincha became the first player to win the Golden Ball (player of the tournament), Golden Boot (leading goal scorer) and World Cup in the same tournament.

The cavalier spirit in which his successes, largely for Brazil and Botafogo, were achieved engendered the nickname Alegria do Povo (People’s Joy) and saw his joyful torturing of defenders rewarded with the sport’s first “ole” chants.

Garrincha’s tumultuous lifestyle – that presaged the downfall of George Best (more on him later) would provide his premature undoing. The memories, however, would long outlive him.

TIER 3

RONALDINHO 

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There was a sweet spot in Ronaldinho’s career, the time when his joyful excesses on duty were not matched by those off it.

After countryman Rivaldo had departed and Lionel Messi had yet to ascend, the Brazil icon’s ebullient smile and endless array of tricks made him king of Barca’s Camp Nou. His hedonistic streak fuelled him at that stage; it would all too soon, sadly, come to define him in an unbecoming journeyman’s finale.

From July 2003’s raid on Paris Saint-Germain to the stark underperformance at World Cup 2006 that heralded a slow descent, Ronaldinho operated in a sphere few have inhibited.

His sublime first clad in Blaugrana foretold what was to come. Charging clear from deep against Sevilla, a rasping shot from distance hammered off the underside of the crossbar and back up into the roof of the net.

Ronaldinho was already a World Cup winner by then, his ‘floating leaf’ free-kick against England in 2002’s rollercoaster quarter-final earning a place in football lore. Long before then, as a futsal prodigy he rose to the Brazilian media’s attention with all 23 goals in a 23-0 victory.

Such was Ronaldinho’s limitless talent, two FIFA World Player of the Year awards, a Ballon d’Or and 13 club trophies seem like a relative underachievement. But what an underachievement it was.

GEORGE BEST 

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Best was the ‘Fifth Beatle’, a winger whose flamboyance in possession was matched by his pop-star lifestyle of it.

He was a born showman on turf. Regular humiliation was dealt to brutish defenders of the era via a succession of nutmegs, cut backs and even mischievously playing of one-twos off their shins.

The Northern Irishman glided his way to the 1967/68 European Cup with Manchester United and that year’s Ballon d’Or, heading a field that also included legendary team-mate Sir Bobby Charlton and Germany’s colossus Franz Beckenbauer.

His extra-time goal in the final against Eusebio’s Benfica became emblematic, a mazy run and cheeky dummy that sat down goalkeeper Jose Henrique redolent of true genius.

At only 22-years old, the world was his. But he didn’t want it.

Dragged down by United’s steady decline, alluring excesses of the pitch and growing alcoholism, his last competitive outing for the club came aged just 27.

He was an apathetic and troubled individual by then, unable or unwilling to halt shameful relegation to the Second Division.

Tabloid scandal would follow him until his deathbed, as would the cherished memories from almost 40 years prior that saw approximately 100,000 mourners line his funeral route from east Belfast to Stormont.

TIER 4

RUUD GULLIT 

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If Cruyff promulgated the tenets of ‘Totaalvoetbal’, Gullit exemplified them.

The Netherlands great, instantly recognisable with trademark dreadlocks and mustache, was world class in every position apart from goalkeeper and full-back. Yet it was his role as support striker to the supreme Marco van Basten in which the greatest glories were summoned.

Cajoled by remarkable synchronicity alongside lifelong friend and fellow Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard, Gullit would rise from street football in Amsterdam’s Old West to a key cog in the revolutionary Arrigo Sacchi’s winning AC Milan machine.

Clad in the Rossoneri’s colours from 1987-94, three Serie A titles and two European Cups – the first of which featured a Gullit brace against Steaua Bucharest in the final – were claimed.

Individual success with the 1987 Ballon d’Or would also be joyously followed by the collective triumph at Euro 1988. As skipper, Gullit would open the scoring in the 2-0 showpiece win against the Soviet Union.

Throughout, his tactical awareness and ceaseless engine made him a cut above. This faultless work rate caused him to be content tracking back to win a tackle, or bursting into the penalty box when netting almost 200 club goals.

There was also a pronounced ability to transcend the game. From the ubiquitous nature of the “sexy football” refrain as Chelsea player/manager, to an influential promotion of Nelson Mandela’s travails and the iniquities of Apartheid South Africa.

Gullit, in all his endeavours, symbolised the best things in life.

KEVIN KEEGAN 

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“I was the mongrel who made it to Crufts, and that was fine by me…”

Humble words from Keegan in his auto-biography ring true.

His remarkable football journey took him from training on a concrete car park at fourth division Scunthorpe United, to lighting up the Kop alongside John Toshack at Liverpool and twice being crowned with the Ballon d’Or in 1978 and 1979 after a bold decision to join West Germany’s big-spending Hamburg.

Keegan was a stickler for physical fitness. This unquenchable winning spirit was witnessed in shuttle runs during the weeks and to legendary effect on match days at the weekend.

An intuitive understanding with Toshack, who towered over him to form a memorable ‘little and large’ duo, propelled Liverpool to nine major trophies during his seven-year stint at Anfield. Exactly 100 goals were netted in this spell from 323 run-outs – some return for £33,000.

Keegan’s stellar exploits then meant he had a pick of Europe’s elite. A troubled start at Hamburg, which featuring knocking out a lower league player and mundane struggles finding his beloved British cereals in German supermarkets, would soon be forgotten with 1978/79’s Bundesliga success and near miss with the European Cup.

Success in the club game would not bleed into the international arena. The low ebb of the 1970s for England was followed by an abysmal Euro 1980 and then the horrific point-blank header spurned by a half-fit Keegan in the must-win clash against Spain at World Cup 1982.

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