If you close your eyes and picture coming up against a central defender, chances are you’re envisioning a snarling, foaming at the mouth, wide-eyed giant well above average height, missing at least a few teeth and with sharp elbows.
But, in reality, some of the best in the business have been graceful, elegant, ball-playing geniuses who would not have looked out of place in central midfield. True, centre-backs are often fearless warriors who will put their bodies on the line. But they are also thinkers, astute readers of the game, inspirational leaders and not exclusively above six feet tall.
Some stellar examples today are Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk and Mats Hummels. But throughout the annals of time who can truly be considered the best of the best?
From Tier one-four, we examine eight of the best with the stipulation they must be retired.
Few footballing nicknames have been more fitting than the one bestowed upon German and Bayern Munich behemoth, Beckenbauer – “Der Kaiser” (The Emperor).
The legendary German rules all centre-back’s that came before or after him. His grit, guile and grace was unlike anything that had been seen previously from players viewed primarily as lumbering, uncoordinated oafs.
A midfielder in his youth, Beckenbauer made his name as a central defender and is credited with the invention of the sweeper – or Libero – role. He was one of the first defenders to possess an all-round game, able to break up play and spark his own team’s attacks.
A two-time Ballon d’Or winner (1972 & 76), he was the first defender to win the award.
He won the 1974 World Cup as a player and guided Die Mannschaft to 1990 glory as coach – one of only three men to win it as both player and manager. He also won three consecutive European Cups with Bayern from 1974-76.
Like Beckenbauer, Baresi – known as “Kaiser Franz” later in his career in homage to his fellow sweeper – was a trailblazer; a player somewhat ahead of his time who embodied everything great and glorious about the role of centre-back.
The Italian icon was a warrior, an excellent tackler and powerful battler who defied his 5’ 9” frame. He combined tenacity with elegance, vision, athleticism, immense positional sense and a brilliant reading of the game with outstanding leadership and professionalism.
He played his entire 20-year career with the Rossoneri, lifting six Scudettos in the famous red and black shirt, as well as captaining Milan to three European Cups. Won a 1982 World Cup-winners medal with the Azzurri, with whom he finished third in 1990 and second in 1994.
Finished second only to clubmate Marco van Basten in the 1989 Ballon d’Or voting. Along with Paolo Maldini, the only Milan player to have his jersey number retired.
“A man who stands half a step above all other English footballers,” is how Guardian journalist Richard Williams described Moore in 2014.
Moore captained England to their only World Cup triumph in 1966, aged only 25, and went on to feature 108 times for the Three Lions. He remains the fifth most capped England player ever.
Moore was best known for his reading of the game and ability to anticipate opposition movements, distancing himself from the image of the hard-tackling, high-jumping hatchet men so prevalent during his days.
Described by Pele as the greatest defender he ever played against, he was labelled the “best defender in the history of the game” by the man actually considered the best defender in the history of the game, Beckenbauer.
Moore, who had the middle name Chelsea, played nearly 650 games for another London club, West Ham, over 16 seasons, lifting the FA Cup with the Hammers in 1964 and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup a year later.
How about this for a maiden moment in the spotlight. During a training session as an aspiring young centre-back at Napoli, 18-year old Cannavaro put in a crunching tackle on Diego Maradona. His recklessness angered his coaches but pleased El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy), who later presented his boots to Cannavaro.
Cannavaro, a converted winger, was a ball boy when Maradona led the Partenopei to their maiden Scudetto in 1986/87.
Standing just 5’ 9” he possessed immense aerial prowess, athleticism, timing and intelligence. His style of play was characterised by tigerish power, physicality and never-say-die attitude, and his ability to inspire those around him singled him out as a true leader.
Never more so was this evident than when he galvanised a national team ravaged by the Calciopoli scandal that engulfed Italy in the summer of 2006.
He nevertheless captained the Azzurri to World Cup triumph, and was awarded the Ballon d’Or that same year – only the third defender to win it after Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer.
A colourful career that included leading Argentina to their maiden World Cup triumph in 1978, Passarella’s old school values of hard work and discipline clashed with the freedom and spiritual nature of a new La Albiceleste generation led by Maradona.
A stickler for rules, yet revelations from Maradona revealed El Gran Capitan regularly jetted off to Monaco to carry on an affair with a national teammate’s wife, while during his post-playing days he became president of boyhood club River Plate, only to leave in disgrace amid allegations of fraud in 2013.
On the field, however, Passarella was peerless, again dismissing the notion you had to be tall to make it. He was only 5’ 8” but was a superb header of the ball, intimidating leader and prolific goal-scorer. A consummate penalty taker, he netted 175 goals in 521 games and is the game’s second-highest ever scoring defender behind Ronald Koeman’s 253.
If it wasn’t for Maradona and Lionel Messi, Passarella would probably be renowned as his nation’s greatest ever product.
Santamaria enjoyed a storied career that took in a multitude of titles at both Nacional in Uruguay, as well as with Real Madrid.
Born in Montevideo to Spanish immigrants who’d moved to South America at the turn of the century, Santamaria earned 20 caps for La Celeste and reached the 1954 World Cup semi-finals before earning a further 16 caps for Spain and featuring at the 1962 World Cup for La Roja following his move to Real in 1957.
Santamaria earned the nickname ‘The Wall’ during a career which started out as an elegant defensive midfielder, but he was pushed back into defence in 1950 by Nacional manager Enrique Fernandez, who noted Santamaria’s strength, power and organisational skills.
Already winners of the first two European Cups, the presence of the Uruguayan herded Real to three more successive triumphs and four in total during 11 seasons and more than 450 appearances.
The most prolific goalscoring defender ever, Koeman rocketed in an incredible 239 goals in 685 club appearances. A further 14 in the famous Oranje shirt means he stands on 253 total goals – 78 more than Passarella in second place.
Koeman excelled in the sweeper position. He was an adroit long range passer of the ball and was known for both his shooting accuracy and power.
During his 17 seasons at club level he only failed to enter double figures for goals on four occasions, netting a breathtaking 26 strikes in 46 games for PSV in 1987/88.
He moved to Barcelona in 1989, becoming part of compatriot Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’, helping the Blaugrana win La Liga four years in a row and the 1992 European Cup, scoring the winning goal as Sampdoria were beaten 1-0 in the final.
He held the Barca record for most free-kicks scored (26) until Messi overtook him two years ago.
Captained the Netherlands at the 1994 World Cup and a European Championship winner with them in 1988.
Liverpool claimed a sixth European Cup in May, but an English top-flight title drought stretches into a 30th season. It’s no coincidence the last time the Reds tasted glory, skipper Hansen was at the heart of their success.
He is considered one of the best defenders of his era and regularly appears in top-10 Liverpool players of all time discussions and all-time XIs.
He retired after being unable to play a single game in 1990/91 due to injury – the Reds went trophyless for only the third time since Hansen’s arrival, 14 years earlier.
The Scotsman’s reading of the game and positioning were supreme and in his 14 seasons at Anfield he won eight first division titles and three European Cups.
Hansen was the latest in a long line of brilliant Liverpool centre-backs – going back to Ron Yeats, Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson. But he is revered above them all – celebrated for sparking attacks with the class as Moore or Beckenbauer, and blessed with the passing accuracy of a midfielder.
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