Often likened to a Neanderthal for the long locks he once sported, there is something of the baser man to Ramos, a central defender of such astounding strength and athleticism that he can do just about anything on the field. At just 19, Real Madrid paid Sevilla some $35 million for him, an unprecedented amount for such a young defender. But he has delivered, becoming the rare long-term regular for the regal club. He’s been named the La Liga defender of the year for two straight seasons and included in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI for the last three years, and once in 2008 as well.
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Born and raised in Brazil, but exported to Portugal at 18 like so many other young Brazilian soccer players, Kepler Laveran Lima Ferreira – or simple Pepe; pronounced “Pep” – found his way to the FC Porto powerhouse by way of Maritimo and was snagged by Real Madrid a few years later. The center back was reportedly called up for Brazil in 2006 but chose to wait on his Portuguese citizenship and lined up for his new country in 2007 instead. A player with a mean streak, Pepe also is wonderfully adept with his feet. So much so that Portugal often deploys him as a holding midfielder.
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Giorgio Chiellini, Italy
Catenaccio is dead. That mirthless, old Italian tactic that translates as “door bolt” and essentially consisted of 89 minutes of all-out defending in hopes of scoring a goal in the 90th has mercifully gone out of vogue. Chiellini, however, is a throwback to that uncompromising Italian defending of yore. A center back by trade but occasionally dispatched to left back, he is as hard as they come. The sort of defender who makes forwards wish they’d chosen some other professional for the day. He’s been voted the Italian Serie A’s defender of the year three times for Juventus, an incredible feat in a league that still prizes quality defending before all else.
Getty ImagesValerio Pennicino
Philipp Lahm, Germany
Nicknamed the Magic Dwarf, Lahm had aspirations of becoming a baker as a boy but instead grew up to be perhaps the world’s best right back. Or the best left back, when he’s posted over on the other flank instead. And this past season, Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola even used him as a central midfielder. That’s because his technique and savvy are such that he could play anywhere on the field if he put his mind to it. Named in the Best XI at the last two World Cups and the last two Euros, his longevity and consistency are perplexing.
Wait. What? Koscielny? Yes. Koscielny. That French central defender who was playing for Lorient in the French league and got sent off in his Arsenal debut. You may not have noticed it – and most people haven’t – but he has quietly grown into one of the best at his job. Unforgiving, strong in the air and masterful in one-on-one marking, it’s no coincidence that he’s always the one assigned to the other team’s best forward. Notice how Lionel Messi had anonymous games against Arsenal a few times? Go back and watch the tape. Koscielny!
Getty ImagesJulian Finney
Leighton Baines, England
Beatles haircuts aren’t out of fashion in Liverpool yet, as evidenced by Baines’s unwieldy mop – which, to be fair, he occasionally trims back a tad when it grows too unruly. Nonetheless, the Everton left back is a bit of a rarity in England: a modern player. Surging up the left wing, he is frequently among Premier League leaders in chances created while tending neatly to his defensive chores. And it’s rather a compliment to any player to have 22 caps while playing in the same position as the ever-dependable Ashley Cole.
Getty ImagesPaul Thomas
Vincent Kompany, Belgium
The term “meteoric rise” is overused. But it works ever so well in Kompany’s case. At just 17 he was a regular for Belgian powerhouse Anderlecht and Belgium. As a central defender no less, a position demanding great physicality and savvy. Soon enough, he was off to Hamburger SV in Germany, where injuries prevented him from blossoming. But once Manchester City bought him – just before they were taken over by oil sheikhs and hit the big-time – he flowered into one of the very finest at his craft.
AFP/Getty ImagesANDREW YATES
You’ll see the afro bobbing up and down often this summer, as Marcelo streaks down the left flank in that Brazilian tradition of wing backs. He is the natural heir to Roberto Carlos, one of the all-time great left backs. Marcelo is every bit as dangerous going forward, looking eerily similar to his predecessor’s for both Real Madrid and Brazil. Except for the hair, of course, since Roberto Carlos was bald as a cue ball. But the speed is there, and the toughness, and the defensive acumen and dribbling prowess and frightfully hard shot.
Getty ImagesChung Sung-Jun
Thiago Silva, Brazil
It was rather telling that when Paris Saint-Germain bought Silva from AC Milan in tandem with one of the world’s all-time great strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic, more than two-thirds of their combined $85 million price tag was affixed to the defender. He’d come a surprisingly long way. In his first foray from Brazil to Europe, he had failed to make a single appearance for FC Porto and Dynamo Moscow before heading home, tail between his legs. Six years later, after three seasons with Fluminense and three with Milan, he was considered one of the world’s best center backs as well as one of its most expensive ever. A complete defender, he is now also PSG and Brazil’s captain.
AFP/Getty ImagesTHOMAS SAMSON
Dani Alves, Brazil
As Barcelona gradually ascended to the perch of one of the world’s greatest teams in recent years, their right back Alves and his reputation grew commensurately. The perfect tiki-taka back, he is comfortable advancing very high upfield and essentially becoming the right winger in possession. Truth be told, Alves can be a tad suspect on the defensive end every now and again – on the rare occasion that Barca do have to defend – and his crossing is not always on point. But his other attacking contributions are such that nobody pays that much mind.
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As emblematic an exponent of the movement towards possession-soccer as you’ll find, Zabaleta was a right midfielder until he got knocked back a line with Espanyol. He joined Manchester City in 2008, where, with his defensive duties done, he’ll push forward and overlap on the right flank, assisting in the Citizens’ swashbuckling attacks. Thriving in that role, he has edged homegrown fan favorite Micah Richards out of a job. For Argentina, meanwhile, he adds stability to the back line and allows all those wonderful attackers to drift inside.