Let’s take a look at the best centre backs of all time who are the leaders, destroyers and generals of the game
In football, the difference between a champion and a team that almost became champions is so often not goals but rather a strong defense. We have seen over the years how teams can be excellent in attack but have their defense fail them in crucial moments and not be as successful. So it is that is why a great defense can in ways be even more important than attack, because what good is scoring if a team is just going to concede as many as they have scored or even more.
A great defense is usually led by its center backs. These players are the leaders and generals of the team and so often help organize team’s movement in attack as well as in defense, players like the great Franz Beckenbauer or Bobby Moore. Now whether they play as a traditional center back or sweeper, we’ve taken upon ourselves to name some of the players that we think are the best centre backs of all time. So let’s see who is on our list:
As the players on our list are from different eras of football and as is right with these kind of lists, we have refrained from ranking the best center backs of all time, so let’s find out who is on our list:
Devotion is the word that comes to mind when one mentions Barcelona’s former captain, Carles Puyol. He is one of those illusive One-Club players who spent his entire career for the Catalan side, helping them experience a Golden Age with his impeccable defending and even more impressive leadership skills, which is why he is considered by many to be one of the best centre backs in football history.
A great example of a modern defender, Puyol’s ability on the ball as well as his more defensive skills off it made him a perfect player for Barcelona’s style of play, which often meant building up the play from the back. Despite his average height, Puyol was also commanding in the air and could ready the game very well. But the thing he was most known for was his character and attitude towards winning every challenge and every game. He was also well-respected among rivals because of his caring personality on and off the pitch.
Puyol, who captained Barcelona for a decade, helped them win 6 La Liga and 2 Copa del Rey trophies as well as 3 Champions League titles. He also was at the heart of Spain’s Golden generation as he helped them win Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, thus becoming a legend of Spanish football as well as being one of the best centre backs of all time.
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When we talk about goal scoring center backs, there is only one name that comes to mind and that is the stalwart Ronald Koeman. The Dutch defender scored an unbelievable number of 253 goals during his career, which is more than what most great midfielders or even forwards of all time score during their career. But his defensive feats were almost as impressive as his goal scoring abilities which earns him a spot among the best center backs ever.
Koeman’s career which started at Groningen saw him become the only player to play for Eredevise’s Big Three, Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. But he is perhaps best known for being part of Johan Cruijff’s Barcelona team which is known as Dream Team, where he won 4 consecutive La Liga titles as well as scoring the winner in the European Cup final. Koeman was known to be a great leader and an excellent sweeper who could also play as a midfielder.
Koeman was not particularly tall as center backs go but his strong physique lent him a commanding presence in defense that was second to none. This alongside his goal scoring abilities helped him achieve numerous club achievements, including 2 European Cups (now known as Champions League) with PSV and Barcelona as well as winning the 1988 Euros with Netherlands. Ronald Koeman’s status as a football legend is undeniable so it’s no surprise that he finds his way to our list of best centre backs of all time.
Real Madrid’s current captain who has been at the club for the majority of the last two decades is in the eyes of many the best center back of all time, we don’t share that opinion but there is no denying that he is certainly one of the best center backs of all time. The Andalusian defender made a name for himself playing for Sevilla before joining Real Madrid in 2005. He has since won practically every trophy that a European player could.
Despite being one of the best center backs of the last decade, Ramos didn’t start his career at that position, as he was often used as a right back early in his career, because of his physicality and technique. Ramos was certainly a player that got better as he became more experienced, even though he was a talented young player. Playing alongside other best centre backs of all time, like Fabio Cannavaro and Carles Puyol helped him become an even better player, who excelled at both defending and being a leader.
Sergio Ramos, who is also one of the best goal scoring center backs ever and has scored 128 goals in his career, has received numerous trophies, titles and individual awards such as winning 5 La Liga titles, 4 Champions League titles and 2 Copa del Rey trophies with Real Madrid as well as winning 2008 and 2012 Euros with Spain national team with a 2010 World Cup Gold Medal in between. Among the best centre backs of all time Ramos is certainly one of the most decorated players and the best thing is, he is hungry for more trophies and he doesn’t seem like slowing anytime soon.
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The first Italian to appear on this list is The 2006 Ballon d’Or winner and the only defender ever to be named FIFA Player of the Year, Fabio Cannavaro. He is considered to be one of the greatest Italian soccer players ever as well as being one of the greatest center backs of all time. Cannavaro has represented numerous prestigious clubs like Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid. One thing that was always consistent though was his devotion and the high level of performances Cannavaro displayed for all these clubs.
As a defender Cannavaro was quick and excelled at reading the opponent’s game and intercepting attacks. He was also of only modest height, but that did not hinder his defensive, or even attacking capabilities, as his great jumps aided him in aerial duels. On the ground however, he was one of the most gifted players in his position as he had great technique and passing ability.
Because of Calciopoli scandal, all the silverwares that Cannavaro won with Juventus were revoked so most of his club honors came by playing for Parma and Real Madrid. He won 2 Coppa Italia with Parma and 1 UEFA Cup as well as winning 2 La Liga titles with Real Madrid. Cannavaro is also one of the most capped Italian players with 132 games. The highlight of his career, as one of the best centre backs of all time, was leading Italy as a captain to the 2006 World Cup trophy, which earned him a Ballon d’Or award.
They say tackling is an art, well if it is then Alessandro Nesta was surely a master of that art. The Rome born defender, made a name for himself by being part of one of the greatest Lazio sides ever but it was at AC Milan that he truly shined, by stepping into the shoes of the Great Frank Baresi and playing alongside the legendary Paolo Maldini. There isn’t really a more complete defender in football than Alessandro Nesta and that is why he is one of the greatest centre backs ever.
Almost unnaturally quick for a player of his size (1.87cm), Alessandro Nesta excelled at every skill a defender should possess. He was a great man marker as well as being great at zonal marking too, due to his ability to read the play and close down opposition’s attack. He was also great in the air but the thing he is most known for was his artful tackles which stopped opposition’s attack dead in its tracks, with him rarely even making a foul on the attackers.
Alessandro Nesta managed to win 1 Serie A titles, 2 Copa Italia and a Cup Winners’ Cup with Lazio before joining AC Milan to form one of their greatest ever teams, winning 2 Serie A, 1 Coppa Italia and 2 Champions League titles. He also represented Italy in 3 Euro and 3 World Cup tournaments, helping them reach the Euro 2000 final, which they lost, and 2006 World Cup final, which they won. If not for his numerous injuries, Nesta could’ve been the greatest defender of all time but even with him losing so many important games in his career he still manages to be one of best centre backs of all time.
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Daniel Passarella is the first Argentinian player to raise the World Cup trophy in 1978. Passarella is also one of those goal scoring center backs and he comes second in the number of goals scored by a defender behind only Ronald Koeman. Passarella spent the majority of his career at River Plate, becoming a legend of the club, but he also spent several seasons at Serie A with Fiorentina and Internazionale too.
Argentine defenders are often known to be hard tackling players and it all probably started with Passarella. He was quite a short player (1.73 meters) especially considering he was a defender but that didn’t stop him from scoring many goals with headers as well as being strong defensively in the air. He would often help in attack too but above all his abilities, his leadership qualities were praised which earned him the nickname El Gran Capitán meaning the Great Captain.
Widely considered to be one of the best centre backs of all time as well as one of the best South American players, Passarella certainly left a legacy of ferociousness and passion which many South American players, especially defenders, strive towards. His record of 175 goals during his career is also his other legacy which will undoubtedly remain for a long time.
So let’s start with Gaetano Scirea’s achievements as a player since he has won won 7 Serie A titles, 2 Italian Cups, 1 UEFA Cup, 1 Cup Winners' Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 UEFA Super Cup, and 1 Intercontinental Cup with Juventus as well as winning the 1982 World Cup with Italy. Already it’s apparent why he is considered to be one of the greatest defenders of all time as well as being one of Juventus’ greatest ever players.
Scirea signed for Juventus aged only 19 and would go on to play for them until he retired from football 15 years later. His partnership at the back with Claudio Gentile and Antonio Cabrini with Dino Zoff between the two posts soon became one of the most renowned defensive lines ever as they led Italy and Juventus to unprecedented success. With Scirea becoming one of only 9 European players that managed to win everything at the club level.
Scirea sadly passed away at the age of 36 because of a car accident but his memory as one of the best centre backs of all time and a Juventus legend remains with the fans and the club. He has even a stand named after him in Juventus’ current and previous home stadium. Known for his technique, tactical awareness of the game, outstanding leadership and above all his fair play and sportsmanship, Scirea was loved and adored by even rival fans and that is a legacy few players manage to leave behind.
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Bobby Moore is an icon of English football and without a doubt one of the greatest centre backs ever. A great leader who captained England to their solitary World Cup victory in 1966, Moore who also captained West Ham for many years and their greatest ever player, who helped them win a couple of trophies. 15 years after since his passing in 2008, The club has even retired his number 6 shirt.
After being made England’s captain, being only 23, in 1964, Moore soon established himself as a composed central defender who read the game excellently and intercept play rather than being a hard tackling defender. Which earned him high praise by many, to be one of the best center backs ever, with Pele in particular calling him “the best defender he ever faced” and Franz Beckenbauer who called him “the best defender in the history of the game”.
At the club level, Moore helped West Ham United win an FA Cup in 1963-64 season and he also captained them to a European Cup Winners’ Cup win the following season. But he became one of the best English football players of all time as he captained the greatest ever England side to win the World Cup trophy on home soil in 1966 and then helped them to their 3rd place finish in the following Euro 1968. For all his achievement at the club and international level, Moore will forever be an England legend and one of the best centre backs ever.
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One of the most successful Italian players of all time and another one-club player on our list of best centre backs in football history is the AC Milan legend, Franco Baresi, who was integral to the great success that AC Milan and Italy achieved during the 70s, 80s and the even the early 90s. Generally a a central defender or sweeper, Baresi represented AC Milan for 20 season, 15 of which were as captain.
Baresi was very much a ball playing center back, capable of great passes and possessing considerable technique. He was also a great leader for both AC Milan and Italy. Leading AC Milan’s famous and almost impenetrable backline of Maldini, Costacurta and Tassotti, which led to the club practically dominated Europe and Italy for much of the 80s.
He ended up winning 6 Serie A titles, 3 Champions League and even 2 Serie B titles with AC Milan by representing the club in 719 matches and scoring 33 goals. he also helped Italy’s national team win the 1982 World Cup as well as a 2nd and a 3rd place finish in the 1994 and 1990 World Cups respectively. He became the runner-up to the 1989 Ballon d’Or award and was also named the greatest Italian player of the 20th century.
With all that being said and considering his skills which made him a complete defender that rarely made any mistakes, it’s only natural that he is always mentioned whenever a discussion about the best centre backs of all time is being had.
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One cannot finish a list of greatest center backs of all time without having the great Franz Beckenbauer top the list. Der Kaiser or the Emperor is the embodiment of German football, successful both as a player and as a manager for Germany. Beckenbauer’s commanding presence and elegance as a player and also as a coach led Germany and Bayern Munich to great success but we are focusing more on his playing career.
A product of Bayern Munich’s youth academy, Beckenbauer slowly made his way to the first team but originally as more of a midfielder rather than a defender. He would later transition to a role that is now known as the Sweeper or a libero, a role he is largely credited to having invented. His calm demeanor and command on the ball made him perfect to play as a sweeper and act as a shield for the defense.
Der Kaiser led the greatest generation of Bayern Munich and Germany players, that included players like Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller and Rummenigge, and achieved 4 Bundesliga titles and 4 DFB Pokals with Bayern Munich. But their most impressive feat was winning an unprecedented 3 consecutive European Cup (Champions League) titles from 1974 to 1976. At International level, He also captained Germany a Euro championship in 1972 and then 2 years later to World Cup success in 1974, this becoming of the greatest ever German players as well as one of the best center backs of all time.
After retiring from football, Beckenbauer went on to management where he became one of only 3 people who have won the World Cup as both players and managers. He also led Bayern to a Bundesliga and a UEFA Cup title a few years later. Winner of 2 Ballon d’Or trophies, Beckenbauer led Bayern Munich and Germany to every trophy that was available as well as impacting the way football was played immensely and because of it he is so often referred as the greatest among the best centre backs of all time.