The right-back role has undergone quite the transformation in recent years. A typically unfashionable position on the pitch, the man chosen to guard the right side of defence has often been ridiculed as unambitious, untalented, or simply the best at doing the least important job in football.
Famously, Jamie Carragher even cracked the joke that a full-back is either a ‘failed winger, or a failed centre-back’ while ‘no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville (more on the Manchester United man later). But that disrespect and devaluing of the right-back has plagued the game for decades.
But these guys broke the mould. Some of the greatest players to step foot on a football field all hugged the right touchline, guarding their goalkeeper with their lives, as they did the dirty work that no one else could manage.
And my word, did they do it well. So, 90min has taken a look back at the ten best right-backs to have ever played our beautiful game, inspiring generations to follow in their untrendy footsteps.
We start with possibly the greatest and certainly the most decorated right-back in football history. The only way to justly summarise Dani Alves’ stellar career would be to say he was a standout star in the greatest club side ever constructed, and he deserves each and every one of his 43 trophies.
A flying wing-back, the Brazilian spent the majority of his time in the opponents’ half, supplying ammunition to some of the most talented forwards of his generation. His link-up play with Lionel Messi will never be forgotten at Barcelona, and the gap he has left in their defence only grows bigger with each passing year. An unmissable watch.
Elegance. Dynamism. Grace. Cafu was the very best of his era. The Brazilian managed to make the right-back role fashionable, and demonstrated that you can possess silky skills and a bag of tricks even if you don’t occupy the opposition’s final third.
Cafu confirmed his place among football royalty by captaining Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002, and cemented his status as the most GIF-able full-back in history with a triple sombrero over Pavel Nedved during his time at AS Roma. A winner and an entertainer.
Less thrills surrounding this full-back, but that takes nothing away from the genius that is Javier Zanetti. The Argentine was the king of longevity, producing a career that spanned over 22 years – and at the highest level of the sport, too.
Zanetti marshalled the Inter defence for almost two decades, making over 850 appearances for I Nerazzurri, and becoming the most iconic captain in the club’s history. A consistent, reliable presence at the back, he will forever be remembered as a football icon.
Another captain of a World Cup winning Brazil side, Carlos Alberto walks straight into this list of right-back legends. Known for his technical ability as well as his defensive resoluteness, Alberto was as complete as they come.
He is also remembered as the scorer of one of the greatest goals in World Cup history, rounding off a wonderful team move by rattling home a stunning drive in the cup final. A man for the big occasion, you could always rely on Alberto to deliver the goods.
Talk about an ever-present. Gary Neville was the beating heart of Manchester United’s most successful era, epitomising everything that Sir Alex Ferguson demanded from his players. The England international was a bubbling cauldron of passion, drive and determination, while also possessing the technical skills needed to survive at the highest level.
Perhaps an underrated figure in that brilliant United side, given the quality which surrounded him, Neville was also an excellent crosser of the ball, and provided the perfect foil to the unstoppable David Beckham. Good times.
One of the most versatile players on this list, Philipp Lahm could operate at right-back, left-back or holding midfield, making him the most utilised star in an always-victorious Bayern side. A manager’s dream.
Lahm’s tactical awareness and forensic understanding of the game meant he could outsmart any forward, who perhaps edged the German in pace, strength or any other physical attribute. His ability with the ball at his feet made him such a graceful joy to watch, but he never shied away from the gritty side of the game, either. Oh, and he is a World Cup winning captain, too – for a change.
A steam train of a full-back, Lilian Thuram was one of the best in the business. The Frenchman is a classic 90’s defender from Serie A, celebrated for his incredible displays at Parma and then Juventus. Physically, tactically and technically, there were few better than him during his domination of the right-flank.
On the international stage, Thuram took to the field 142 times for France, scoring only two goals for Les Bleus. Those two goals incredibly came in the form of a brace in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, a tournament France would go on to win. Vital.
Reliability and consistency may be two of the most boring traits to assign to a footballer, but they also win you trophies. Just ask Gianluca Zambrotta. The former Italy international may not have been a flashy, tricky defender, but he was a man who did his job – and did it extremely competently.
He did also possess the characteristics needed to get forward and cause problems, though. Zambrotta was incredibly two-footed, meaning he could bamboozle his marker by cutting in or pulling wide to deliver excellent crosses. Defensively, he was tenacious and resilient, culminating in him being honoured in the 2006 World Cup team of the tournament, following Italy’s dramatic success over France in the final.
You don’t win two World Cups with an average defender in your side. Luckily for Brazil, they boasted Djalma Santos in their right-back slot throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, which they dominated in glorious fashion.
Santos only appeared in the final of the 1958 success, but his performance was so good that he was named in the Best XI of the tournament. That display sealed his spot as Brazil’s permanent right-back for the foreseeable future, and he starred again four years later, with the Seleção triumphing over Czechoslovakia in the final. A solid defender and a very good dribbler of the ball, Santos just oozed Brazilian class.
Would you fancy taking on a man with those wild eyes, bushy eyebrows and thick moustache? No, me neither. Giuseppe Bergomi was a natural-born winner, and his tunnel-vision mentality made him one of the most ruthless footballers to play the game.
The Italian star spent his entire career at Serie A giants Inter, making over 750 appearances for I Nerazzurri and lifting a whole host of silverware. The moustache was given the chop and his eyebrows were trimmed as his career progressed, but those wild eyes could never be tamed. What a legend.