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Defenders: holding fort away from the spotlight in the FIFA World Cup

From Obdulio Varela to Fabio Cannavaro, the men who had watched over the backline have often led teams to the FIFA World Cup title.

football Updated: May 30, 2018 10:59 IST
Sarthak Bal
Sarthak Bal
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
FIFA World Cup,FIFA World Cup 2018,Fabio Cannavaro
Fabio Cannavaro of Italy was one of many men who watched over the backline and led his national team to the FIFA World Cup title. (Getty Images)

Riding high on their flamboyant style and a 200,000 strong home support, Brazil were favourites. But Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela had other ideas.

He marshalled the defence to keep Selecao at bay with surprising comfort before half time. But two minutes into the second half, the hosts took the lead through Friaca to send the overcrowded stadium into frenzy.

Varela knew he had to step up. And so, the No 5 began to push forward. Nineteen minutes after the opening goal, Varela found Alcides Ghiggia, who beat his man on the right before putting in a cross for Juan Alberto Schiaffino to equalise.

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Uruguay would go on to take the lead through Ghiggia in the 79th minute and lift the trophy for a second time.

Varela’s role helped bring to redefine a defender’s role in football. A role that would become more than just thwarting forwards; rather becoming a definitive factor in a team’s success.

Fabio Cannavaro
WC 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010
Italy’s Cannavaro (L) keeps France’s Zinedine Zidane off the ball during the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin. AFP
He is one of only two defenders to win the Fifa Player of the Year award (2006), after helping Italy win the Cup. In Germany, Italy conceded only two goals, an own-goal and a penalty. His best came in the semis win against Germany and he was nicknamed the ‘Berlin Wall’.
Lilian Thuram
WC 1998, 2002, 2006
He was at the heart of the French team that won in 1998. His best came against Croatia in the semi-final when he pulled France back from 0-1 down with a brace. In 142 caps, those two were his only international goals.
Franz Beckenbauer
WC 1966, 1970, 1974
He won the World Cup with West Germany in 1974. He is said to have introduced the modern sweeper position. Known as Der Kaiser (The Emperor), he starred in three World Cups. As coach, he helped West Germany win in 1990.
WC 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006
He is the only player to appear in three Cup title clashes. The right-back won the trophy twice, first in 1994 and then led Brazil to their record fifth title in 2002. Cafu is Brazil’s most capped player till date with 142 appearances to his name.
Bobby Moore
WC 1962, 1966, 1970
Regarded one of England’s finest defenders, he went down in history books after leading the Three Lions to their only Cup win in 1966. The former West Ham star has a statue dedicated to him outside Wembley Stadium and was known for his unrelenting attitude.
Getty Images | Graphics: HITESH MATHUR


Only a few players can boast of a goal in a World Cup final and even fewer defenders. Carlos Alberto, captain of the famous 1970 Brazil team that won the World Cup in Mexico, is perhaps best known for his goal against Italy in the final.

Alberto rounded off the fourth goal in the 4-1 win for the Selecao, a goal that is considered one of the best team goals in the tournament’s history.

Andreas Brehme, West Germany’s most famous left-back is remembered for scoring the winner in the 1990 World Cup final against Argentina from the spot in the 85th minute. Over three World Cups he scored four, including in the semi-final against France in 1986.

Lothar Matthaeus, 1990 Germany’s Cup-winning captain, played in five editions and is the only defender to be crowned World Player of the Year alongside Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro. Matthaeus also holds the record for most World Cup caps and scored six goals.


But when it comes to defending as a unit, the Italians have mastered the art like no other. While greats like Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini were key figures in establishing the Azzurri’s dominance at the back, World Cup glory evaded them.

And so Italian fans looked up to the likes of Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini and Giuseppe Bergomi, defenders who had helped end Italy’s 48-year World Cup drought. Gentile’s relentless marking of Diego Maradona in 1982 was just one of those great defensive outings.

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It is undeniable that France’s triumph in 1998 was designed from the back and Marcel Desailly, alongside Laurent Blanc, Frank Leboeuf and Lilian Thuram were able to secure their maiden Cup. The French backline would let in just two goals in that edition, one in the semi-final against Croatia and the other in the group against Denmark.

There is no taking away credit from the goal-scorers of course, but without the men who stand in resistance, World Cup history might have had a different story to tell.

First Published: May 30, 2018 10:25 IST