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The 10 Best Centre-Backs Of All-Time, Ranked​

Colin Hubbuck

Published 
| Last updated 

The 10 Best Centre-Backs Of All-Time, Ranked​

Featured Image Credit: PA Images

The true greats make the game of football look effortless and that is definitely true of the finest centre-backs in history. Every man on the list below was skilled and gifted with technical ability but also able to dominate strikers physically and mentally. 

Here we pick our top 10 centre-backs of all time – two of them Ballon D’or winners. We've used a number of achievements to quantify our rankings, as well as a player's overall contribution to the game in history. So who makes it into our top 10?

All stats come from www.transfermarkt.co.uk and are correct as of the publish date.

10) Ronald Koeman

Country: The Netherlands

Clubs: FC Groningen, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Feyenoord

  • 8 domestic titles
  • 1 Champions League title (European Cup)
  • 1 European Championship
  • 1 World Cup

One of the best attacking central defenders of all-time, Ronald Koeman was a set-piece specialist and scored an absurd 216 goals in 604 games in Holland and Spain. One of only five European players in history to win a treble in the same year with their club and a cup with their national team, Koeman achieved the mark in 1988 with Gus Hiddink’s PSV side and the Dutch at Euro 88. A year later, he joined former boss Johan Cruyff in Barcelona, where he won four consecutive La Liga titles – with the likes of Hirsto Stoichkov, Pep Guardiola and Michael Laudrup – and scored the winning goal in the European Cup in 1992.

Ronald Koeman (PA)
Ronald Koeman (PA)

9) Billy Wright

Country: England

Clubs: Wolverhampton Wanderers

  • 3 domestic titles
  • 0 Champions League titles (European Cup)
  • 0 European Championships
  • 0 World Cups

Billy Wright spent an incredible 20 years at Wolverhampton Wanderers but also holds a host of international marks. Wright, who was just 5ft 8in, became the first footballer to earn 100 international caps and holds the record for the longest unbroken playing run in international football (70 consecutive appearances for England). Ninety of his 105 caps were as captain from 1946 to 1959 – matched only by Bobby Moore.

Billy Wright (PA)
Billy Wright (PA)

8) Daniel Passarella

Country: Argentina

Clubs: CA Sarmiento, River Plate, Fiorentina, Inter Milan

  • 7 domestic titles
  • 0 Champions League titles (European Cup)
  • 2 World Cup

The only player to feature in both of Argentina’s World Cup-winning teams (although he missed the final at Mexico 86 with a stomach issue), the hardman was also the first Argentinan to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1978. His goalscoring record for a defender (134 goals) was bettered only by Ronald Koeman.

Daniel Passarella (PA)
Daniel Passarella (PA)

7) Sergio Ramos

Country: Spain

Clubs: Sevilla, Real Madrid, PSG

  • 5 domestic titles
  • 4 Champions League title (European Cup)
  • 2 European Championships
  • 1 World Cup

“There are defenders with extraordinary technical ability,” said Real Madrid manager, Carlo Ancelotti, “others have unique defensive qualities – like Cannavaro, brilliant at marking. Others, like Baresi, can command a back line while others influence with strong personalities. But factoring everything together to evaluate a defender then Sergio Ramos is the most complete. He's got a bit of everything: technical ability, strength, personality and leadership.” Ramos played for Real for 16 seasons (six as skipper) and is owns the record for most capped Spanish player, winning two European Championships (2008, 2012) and the 2010 World Cup.

Sergio Ramos (PA)
Sergio Ramos (PA)

6) Fabio Cannavaro

Country: Italy

Clubs: Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan, Juventus, Real Madrid, Al-Ahli

  • 2 domestic titles
  • 0 Champions League titles (European Cup)
  • 0 European Championships
  • 1 World Cup

Only three defenders have ever won the Ballon d’Or since its creation in 1956. Franz Beckenbauer was honoured in 1972 and 1976 and his fellow German Matthias Sammer received the gong in 1996 and most recently, Fabio Cannavaro beat off competition from Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane to win in 2006. That should tell you all you need to know about the 5ft 9in Italian, who was a superb reader of the game and an explosive leaper that made light of his height.

Fabio Cannavaro (PA)
Fabio Cannavaro (PA)

5) Alessandro Nesta

Country: Italy

Clubs: Lazio, AC Milan, Montreal Impact, Chennaiyin FC

  • 3 domestic titles
  • 2 Champions League titles (European Cup)
  • 0 European Championships
  • 1 World Cup

A complete defender, with brains as well as brawn, Alessandro Nesta had technique, speed, a natural flair on the ball and a high football IQ. He won Serie A titles with both Lazio and AC Milan and the 2002/03 and 2006/07 Champions League with the latter. “On a technical level, human level and tactical level, he’s one of the few unforgettable players of Italian football,” said Paolo Maldini. “Nesta reinvigorated the tradition of great central defenders at AC Milan, which goes back to when I started playing 20 years ago.”

Alessandro Nesta (PA)
Alessandro Nesta (PA)

4) Gaetano Scirea

Country: Italy

Clubs: Atalanta, Juventus

  • 7 domestic titles
  • 1 Champions League title (European Cup)
  • 0 European Championships
  • 1 World Cup

Tragically killed in a car accident aged just 36, Gaetano Scirea was so gifted that he kept Franco Baresi (see below) out of the Italy national team for four years and lifted the World Cup in 1982. The defender spent 14 years at Juventus, where he won every UEFA Club and domestic competition during his time at the club (Serie A seven times, two Coppa Italias, UEFA Cup, Cup Winners' Cup, European Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and Intercontinental Cup).

Gaetano Scirea (PA)
Gaetano Scirea (PA)

3) Franco Baresi

Country: Italy

Clubs: AC Milan

  • 6 domestic titles
  • 1 Champions League title (European Cup)
  • 0 European Championships
  • 1 World Cup

Marcel Desailly, who was close to making this list, describes Franco Baresi as “simply the best defender of the last three decades. He always seemed to know in advance where the ball would go and there was no centre-forward on the planet who was capable of surprising him. He also had very good technique when it came to playing the ball, and when he attacked, he was always dangerous. A real icon.”

Franco Baresi (PA)
Franco Baresi (PA)

2) Bobby Moore

Country: England

Clubs: West Ham United, Fulham, Herning Fremad, Seattle Sounders

  • 0 domestic titles
  • 0 Champions League titles (European Cup)
  • 0 European Championships
  • 1 World Cup

England great Bobby Moore – described by Franz Beckenbauer as "best defender in the history of the game" – saved his best performances for the biggest moments on the biggest stages. Think the match against Brazil at Mexico 70 or at the 1966 World Cup. His victorious manager at Wembley, Sir Alf Ramsey called him "my captain, my leader, my right-hand man. He was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team. A cool, calculating footballer I could trust with my life. He was the supreme professional, the best I ever worked with. Without him England would never have won the World Cup."

Bobby Moore (PA)
Bobby Moore (PA)

1) Franz Beckenbauer

Country: Germany

Clubs: Bayern Munich, NY Cosmos, Hamburg

  • 8 domestic titles
  • 0 Champions League titles (European Cup)
  • 1 European Championship
  • 1 World Cup

Aside from being the greatest defender ever to play the game, Franz Beckenbauer, aka Der Kaiser, is one of the best players to ever lace up a boot. “Franz was a marvellous distributor of the ball, a great tackler, he always had control of a situation and never panicked,” Bobby Charlton told FourFourTwo magazine. “He had a lot of the same qualities as Bobby Moore. They were both extremely cool and never looked like they were at full stretch. Such a hard player to play against.” The first defender to win the Ballon D’or in 1972, he repeated the feat four years later.

Franz Beckenbauer (PA)
Franz Beckenbauer (PA)
Colin Hubbuck
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