Maldini, Ramos, Vidic, Van Dijk: Who is the greatest defender in football history?

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Paolo Maldini, Sergio Ramos and Roberto Carlos are some of the greatest male defenders that football has ever seen – and masters in the art of protection.

Whether it’s absorbing finishes, taking a load off the goalkeeper or simply getting a head on it, these defensive icons have made sure that there’s no unexpected surprises at the back.

Football’s greatest ever defenders

Here at GIVEMESPORT, we wanted to separate the greatest of all time from these legends, icons and club heroes to see which defenders were the very best at keeping clean sheets.

And we’ve been Johnny-on-the-spot with a Tiermaker that will achieve exactly that, turning to their popular ‘Greatest defenders of all time’ template and ranking the candidates into varying categories.

Villarreal vs Man Utd Match Reaction (Football Terrace)

From ‘GOAT’ all the way down to ‘Bottom of the pile’ with ‘Simply legendary’, ‘Era-defining’ and ‘Pure quality’ in between, there’s no room for any plastic competitors to hide.

The decisions will be based upon the opinion of your humble writer and the selection criteria will revolve around individual quality, career achievements as well as how smooth of a ride they offered.

Ranking the greatest defenders in history

Oh, and remember that all of this is within the context of the greatest defenders in history, so even the lower ranking players are not those who would easily break, snap or split under pressure.

Get the thrust of it? Right then, well, let’s take a walk through the greatest defenders in football history with our unofficial tier list down below:

Bottom of the pile


An absolute colossus during his pomp with Brazil and Inter Milan, Lucio would intimidate even the most combative of strikers with his aerial dominance and galloping runs into the midfield. 

However, for us, Lucio never quite knocked on the door of the defensive GOAT conversation like the world-beaters to come and stuck out to us as the least sensational in a truly outrageous batch.

Like we said, though, collecting the ‘wooden spoon’ amongst the greatest defenders of all time is absolutely no shame at all. Forgive us, O Cavalo.


Pure quality

Marcel Desailly, Virgil van Dijk, Gerard Pique, Lilian Thuram, Javier Zanetti, Gianluca Zambrotta and Rio Ferdinand

Sure, ‘pure quality’ is the understatement of the century, but there is just so much talent within the Tiermaker that we had to reluctantly place some absolute titans quite far down the pecking order.

Zanetti and Ferdinand deserve all the credit in the world for their long-term achievements with Inter Milan and Manchester United, while Thuram transcended eras as France’s most-capped player.

As for Pique and Desailly, what haven’t they won in the beautiful game? Theirs careers certainly had wobbles along the way, but their colossal trophy cabinets are a testament to their undeniable talent and dedication.

Meanwhile, although we wouldn’t put Zambrotta amongst the 20 greatest defenders in history, there’s no denying that he’s incredibly underrated despite winning the 2006 World Cup with Italy.

Van Dijk is well on his way to climbing the tiers as a Champions League winner and Ballon d’Or competitor with Liverpool, but we just need to see a little more longevity at the top before we give him an upgrade.



Nemanja Vidic, Dani Alves, Claudio Gentile, Paul Breitner, Laurent Blanc, Alessandro Nesta, Gaetano Scirea, John Terry and Carles Puyol

The only defender to ever win two Premier League Player of the Year awards, Vidic is the definition of era-defining as the steely spine of Manchester United’s record-breaking streak of 14 consecutive league clean sheets.

Terry rightfully joins him as the greatest defender in Premier League history, captaining Chelsea to five titles, while Puyol might just be the finest leader on the entire list as Barcelona’s commander in chief.

Breitner is a Bayern Munich and Germany icon as one of the most prolific defenders in history and part of an exclusive club of players, including Pele and Zinedine Zidane, to score in multiple World Cup finals.

Blanc was nothing short of inspirational when France conquered the world in 1998, Nesta was practically invincible at heart of AC Milan’s all-conquering back four and Alves is the most decorated male footballer that has ever lived.

Finally, we come to two Italian greats in Scirea and Gentile who won a combined 13 Serie A titles four Coppa Italia trophies, six European honours and bagged the 1982 World Cup together for good measure.


Simply legendary

Roberto Carlos, Ruud Krol, Fabio Cannavaro, Carlos Alberto, Giacinto Facchetti, Sergio Ramos, Cafu, Daniel Passarella, Bobby Moore and Nilton Santos

So, now we’re reached the stage of defensive royalty where the players’ greatness transcends their era and puts them amongst the very best that football has ever seen – and just look at the legends.

For starters, Carlos and Cafu have a pretty strong claim as the greatest right and left-backs in the sport’s history, winning the World Cup together in 2002 and also boasting Champions League titles.

Cannavaro is one of fews defenders to have ever won the Ballon d’Or and his compatriot, Facchetti, wasn’t far behind with a second-place finish for his dominance of the 1960s with Inter Milan.

And when Ramos isn’t leading Real Madrid to a hat-trick of European Cups and bagging a record-high 180 caps for Spain, he’ll be adding to his frankly insane total of 127 career goals from the back.


Similarly, Passarella is one of the most prolific defenders in history as a two-time World Cup winner with Argentina and World Cup-winning captain Alberto might well be responsible for the greatest goal ever scored.

And he did so taking up the mantle from Nilton Santos who won two consecutive World Cup trophies with Brazil and took his place alongside Alberto in the official World Team of the 20th Century.

‘Who else made the cut?’ I hear you ask. Well, none other than Moore as England’s World Cup-winning captain whose positive defending and clean tackling saw him named as Pele’s toughest ever opponent.

Finally, Krol finished third in the 1979 Ballon d’Or as the defensive rock behind the Ajax and Netherlands sides that won three consecutive European Cups and reached back-to-back World Cup finals.



Franco Baresi, Franz Beckenbauer and Paolo Maldini

Yes, that’s right, we simply couldn’t pick one, so we picked three instead and when you look at the trio sitting at the top table, it’s pretty hard to disagree because they were all nigh on unstoppable.

Truth be told, Beckenbauer would also be in the GOAT conversation for midfielders and sweepers as the only defensive player to win the Champions League, World Cup and Ballon d’Or.

Meanwhile, Baresi is flat-out one of the greatest players in history with 19 major titles at AC Milan, marshalling their unbelievable Serie A defensive record in 1993/94 with just 15 goals conceded.

And anyone who has ever watched even a split-second of Maldini footage will know why the Rossoneri legend deserves GOAT status across more than 900 appearances for his boyhood club.


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Who do you think is the GOAT?

So, there you have it, our definitely-the-complete-and-utter-objective-truth ranking of the greatest defenders of all time. We’re sure they’ll be absolutely no debate and controversy over this…

Ok, jokes aside, there’s no right or wrong way to rank these legends of the game and there are many defensive icons that the template didn’t include who are more than worthy of being members.

From Jaap Stam to Alan Hansen, Alessandro Costacurta to Billy Wright and Marius Trésor to Ronald Koeman, there are countless ball-playing blokes who have made protection an art form.


It just happens that Baresi, Beckenbauer and Maldini are the full package with their cocktail of hard-hitting tackles and safety-first defending always coming good on the big stage, making sure their team never got shafted.

Was that one too on the nose? Fair play, I’ll take the tip. Better latex than never. Sorry…


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