Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Ranking the 5 greatest full-backs of all time

The role of a full-back has changed drastically over time and has seen numerous transitions over the years. It’s not the most attractive of positions – everyone always wants to be a midfielder or a striker. Even goalkeepers sometimes find themselves ahead of full-backs in that particular pecking order.

Despite its distinct lack of appeal, the modern-day full-back is one of the most pivotal players in a football team. The 1990s witnessed the evolution of the role, with full-backs venturing into midfield and dropping back into position depending on the match situation.

The 4-4-2 was a very common formation in the 1980s, and full-backs were more reserved in their attacking endeavors than they are today. There are a couple of names from this era that I haven’t included in my top five, but they do need an honorary mention.

Phil Neal was absolutely staggering for Liverpool. At one point in my career, I’d played 117 consecutive games and I thought that was quite commendable. It pales in comparison to Neal, who played over 400 consecutive games for his club. The game is different now in so many ways and you can’t really draw comparisons across generations, but to think he could play for eight years without missing a game is stunning. To me, he’s the Godfather of all full-backs.

Rob Jones is another Liverpool player who deserves a mention. He was one of the first full-backs to be a part of the transition we speak about today, and was adept with his forward runs and crosses. Had it not been for his injury record, he could’ve been highly acclaimed for what he achieved.

This is an incredibly difficult list to make because there have been several names who’ve changed the way we see the game. Here is my take on the five greatest full-backs of all time.

#5 Cafu

Foot : Final / Germany - Brazil / Wc 2002
Foot : Final / Germany – Brazil / Wc 2002

On an international level, Cafu is one of the most decorated players on this list. I’ve played alongside him occasionally in the past few years, and he’s still incredibly fit. If this is what he’s like in his 40s, he must’ve been a nightmare to play against in his prime.

Cafu was a part of the evolution of the modern-day full-back in the 1990s and 2000s. He was a brilliant watch on the pitch, both as a football fan and as a player. He would bring a certain Brazilian-ness to the role of the full-back, and his skill and grace on the ball was impeccable.

With two World Cups to his name, Cafu enjoyed incredible success with Brazil on the international stage. I’ve never come up against him as a player, but the time I shared with him on the pitch after my retirement gave me a glimpse into his incredible prowess as a full-back.

#4 Dani Alves

FC Barcelona v Sevilla FC - La Liga
FC Barcelona v Sevilla FC – La Liga

Dani Alves is the only active player on my list. With him, there always was a question mark – is he really a defender, or is he a defensive-minded winger? What a player. Nine league titles across Europe, three UEFA Champions League victories with Barcelona – he is one of the most decorated players of all time.

Dani Alves burst onto the scene when the game of football was evolving. A full-back couldn’t get by with only defensive work, and his dribbling and crossing skills made him a formidable force on the right flank. You won’t get very far being an attacking full-back with a smaller team, and the fact that Alves was playing with one of Europe’s behemoths did help his cause.

There was something more to the Brazilian that set him apart from the rest. He had plenty of character and his steely determination made him the ideal player to have on your side in a big game. That’s the beauty of being a football fan watching Dani Alves in action – there was something about him that was lovely to witness, something beyond the football he played.

Also Read: Jim Beglin column – Ranking the 5 greatest central midfielders of all time

Edited by Vishal Subramanian


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