The best right backs of all time
There is a famous quote that is often pulled out from the archives – ‘nobody wants to be a Gary Neville‘ – that suggests being a right back isn’t popular amongst aspiring footballers. Here we look at some of the best right backs of all time in an attempt to show why there is nothing wrong with being a full back.
Before we dive into the names, let us clarify that we’ll only be looking at those players who have retired.
So, who are the best right backs of all time?
Number 10. Djalma Santos
It’s so easy for younger generations to ignore a player like Santos; in fact, they probably won’t even know his name. They should do though because he was part of the Brazil side that won consecutive World Cups in 1958 and 1962. He made the team of the tournament on both occasions – something he also achieved in the 1954 tournament.
Like a lot of Brazilian full backs, Santos was good going forwards but he was actually better as a defender. This is perhaps something that came from his experience of doubling up as a centre back on occasion. Unfortunately, he played in an era when very few players made the jump from South America to Europe. If he had plied his trade on the European circuit then perhaps he’d receive more recognition.
Number 9. Phil Neal
Liverpool legend Neal is often overlooked when you dig into the archives. Why? We have no idea. He was sensational. The ex-England international made his name at Northampton before joining Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in 1974. He spent 11 years on Merseyside. By the time he left for Bolton as a 34-year-old he was the club’s most decorated player. That remains fact to this day.
It’s hardly surprising either given he hauled in a total of 17 major honours with the club. That honours list includes eight league titles and four back to back European Cups. He was defensively sound and displayed such attacking quality that his teammates dubbed him ‘Zico’ after the Brazilian genius.
Number 8. Giuseppe Bergomi
Hard man Bergomi could play anywhere across the back four but is best known as a right back. He spent his entire 21 year career with Inter Milan where he retired as their top appearance maker. Even now he is still second on that list. Bergomi was known for having a touch of rage – as 12 dismissals will back up – but he was still seen as the leader of the Nerazzurri for much of his career.
Going forwards he offered quality end product with his crossing and shooting ability. On the defensive side his game was built around the ability to mark players out of a game with pace and strength contributing to his all round arsenal. On the international scene, he won 81 caps for Italy winning the World Cup in 1982. It is one of six career honours he won.
Number 7. Phil Lahm
Would Philip Lahm rank higher in this list if it wasn’t for his versatility? Quite feasibly. The Bayern Munich stalwart was predominantly a right back but spent plenty of time on the opposite side as well as occupying a holding role on enough occasions for it to be noteworthy. In spite of his small stature, he was a force to be reckoned with defensively. He had excellent ball winning ability and in the offensive phase of games he could be lethal.
He spent his entire career – with the exception of a loan spell – at Bayern and won 15 major honours with the German giants where he was also captain for a number of years – including during their Champions League winning campaign in 2013. A year later, he was leading his national team to a World Cup win in Brazil. That tournament was the third time in a row he made a World Cup All-Star team.
Number 6. Gary Neville
Neville, who we mentioned has been used as a reason not to be a right back, is unquestionably one of the best right backs of all time. He spent 19 years with Manchester United – when they were at their most dominant – and was England’s first choice right back for over a decade. A lot of people view Neville as a player who worked hard for the team, which is true, but his quality shouldn’t be underrated.
He was strong and dependable defensively whilst he provided sound end product in the final third; his ability on the ball is perhaps overlooked because he had David Beckham playing ahead of him for much of his career. Either way, through a combination of mentality and skill Neville retired with seven league titles, five domestic cups and two Champions League trophies to his name.
Number 5. Carlos Alberto
What’s the main reason Carlos Alberto makes the top five on this list? It’s not his sparkling club career; his trophy cabinet was hardly lacking, mind you. His entire career was spent between North and South America hence his domestic profile hit somewhat of a ceiling. He was a revelation on the international scene though.
Alberto missed out on the 1966 World Cup squad that massively flopped but became the shining light of the rebuild. He captained them to glory in 1970. Alberto was a leader alright but it’s the way he played the game that made him so good. He was one of the first full backs to really pour forwards and he was so comfortable on the ball that he was almost like watching a playmaker. It’s no surprise many Brazilian full backs cite him as a role model.
Number 4. Lilian Thuram
When you think about powerhouse footballers there are few who compare to Lilian Thuram. The French record appearance holder was a force to be reckoned with back in the late nineties and early 2000s. His game was built around his physical attributes. He was quick, strong, he could leap well and his stamina was incredible. It meant he was one of the toughest defenders to come up against. He was pretty sound in possession too.
Thuram played for five teams in his career and won some form of silverware with each of them. Surprisingly, it was with Barcelona where he won least. His only trophy in Spain was the Super Cup compared to the Coupe de France with Monaco, the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup with Parma and two Serie A titles with Juventus. Of course, his crowning moments were the World Cup win in his homeland at France 98 and the subsequent European Championship success in 2000.
Number 3. Javier Zanetti
If Bergomi, who is number eight on this list, goes down as one of the best right backs of all time then the man who eclipsed his appearance record at Inter Milan is definitely deserving of his place. Zanetti started his career in his homeland of Argentina with Talleres and then Banfield before joining Inter. Once in Milan, Zanetti was home. He went on to win a total of 858 appearances captaining the side for 13 years.
Zanetti’s most obvious traits were his fitness and stamina, which would see him get up and down the flank all game, every game despite being a near ever present in the team. He wasn’t one for launching into tackles but he was a tough opponent to come up against with his reading of play and timing of a challenge impeccable. When on the ball, his distribution was usually spot on even if he wasn’t the sort of full back to provide a real cutting edge.
Number 2. Cafu
There will be plenty of people who think Cafu should rank first amongst the best right backs of all time. We rank him second but he certainly has a strong case for those who think otherwise. For starters, he’s won more Brazilian caps – 142 – than any other player. During that side of his career, he won a Confederations Cup, two Copa Americas and two World Cups with the 2002 tournament seeing him lift the trophy as captain.
His club career saw him represent six clubs but it’s his time in Serie A where he is most fondly remembered having clocked up nearly 400 appearances during spells with Roma and Milan. He was a capable defender but few remember that about him because he was so good offensively. He and Roberto Carlos were a fundamental part of Brazil’s game plan during their dominant spell on the international stage. The only thing keeping him off top spot is the fact he only (we use the word loosely) won four major honours during his domestic career in Europe.
Number 1. Dani Alves
Okay, this is a slight rule bender. Alves is still playing but that is in his homeland of Brazil and nothing that happens in his career now will influence how his career is looked back on. There are few sights in the game that will top a marauding run down the right flank and Alves was brilliant at it. His ability to contribute offensively was as reliable as any attackers. The now 38-year-old has four major international honours to his name – two World Cups and two Copa Americas – whilst his domestic honours list isn’t too shabby either!
Most will remember him for his time at Barcelona where he formed part of one of the greatest teams ever seen; they won 23 trophies in his time at the Nou Camp. You shouldn’t forget that he played a huge role in Sevilla’s success to earn that move in the first place as they won two UEFA Cups and a Copa Del Rey. A further five major honours with Juventus and PSG are just icing on a trophy filled cake.
A Dani Alves update:
So, it turns out our feelings on how the last years of Dani Alves’ career would play out were wide of the mark. Since the original post was written, Alves has swapped Sao Paulo for a second stint at Barcelona. It means he back in the big time, however, we won’t be cutting from our list under the ‘must be retired’ rule. We stand by our claim that nothing he does now will diminish the career he has had. In fact, despite his advancing years, he’s actually added major honours to his list since our original publication. How? With a Gold medal at the delayed Tokyo Olympics. It’s going to take some doing to knock him off top spot.
There you have it, the 10 best right backs of all time. If you want to check out the talent on the other side, we have a guide to the best left backs ever too!
Who are the best right backs right now?
Before we head off, we thought we’d look at a few names who might join this list in the years to come. So, who are the best right backs right now? We won’t make this an exhaustive overview but there are a few standout names who deserve to be mentioned. There are four currently playing in England; they are Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Man City duo Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo. In Europe, PSG boast Achraf Hakimi, Bayern have Benjamin Pavard and Real Madrid have Dani Carvajal. They’re just a taster of the names that might push for a spot in this list in the future.