The role of a fullback has changed dramatically over time and has gone through numerous transitions over the years. It’s not the most attractive position – everyone always wants to be a midfielder or striker. Even goalkeepers are sometimes ahead of fullbacks in that particular pecking order.
Despite his obvious lack of appeal, the modern fullback is one of the most crucial players on a football team. The 1990s witnessed the evolution of the role, with fullbacks venturing into midfield and falling back into position depending on the match situation.
The 4-4-2 was a common formation in the 1980s and fullbacks were more restrained in their attacking efforts than they are today. There are a few names from this era that I didn’t include in my top five, but they do need an honorable mention.
Phil Neal was absolutely staggering for Liverpool. At one point in my career I had played 117 consecutive games and I thought that was commendable. It pales in comparison to Neal, who has played more than 400 consecutive games for his club. The game is different in so many ways now and you can’t make comparisons between generations, but to think that he could play for eight years without missing a game is amazing. To me he is the godfather of all full-backs.
Rob Jones is another Liverpool player who deserves a mention. He was one of the first fullbacks to be part of the transition we’re talking about today, and he was adept at his forward runs and crosses. Without his injury record, he could have gotten a lot of credit for what he’s accomplished.
This is an incredibly difficult list to make as there have been several names that have changed the way we see the game. Here’s my take on the five greatest fullbacks of all time.
On an international level, Cafu is one of the most decorated players on this list. I’ve played with him occasionally over the past few years and he’s still incredibly fit. If he’s like that in his forties, he must have been a nightmare to play against in his prime.
Cafu was part of the evolution of the modern 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 add a certain Brazilian character to the fullback role, and his skill and grace on the ball were impeccable.
With two World Cups to his name, Cafu enjoyed incredible success with Brazil on the international stage. I never came across him as a player, but the time I shared with him on the pitch after my retirement gave me a glimpse of his incredible ability as a fullback.
#4 Dani Alves
Dani Alves is the only active player on my list. With him there was always a question mark – is he really a defender, or is he a defensive winger? What a player. Nine league titles across Europe, three UEFA Champions League wins with Barcelona – he is one of the most decorated players of all time.
Dani Alves came on the scene as the game of football evolved. A fullback couldn’t get by on defensive work alone, and his dribbling and crossing skills made him a formidable force on the right flank. You won’t get very far as an attacking fullback with a smaller team, and the fact that Alves played with one of Europe’s behemoths helped his cause.
There was something more about the Brazilian that set him apart from the rest. He had great character and his rock-solid determination made him the ideal player to have by your side in a big game. That’s the beauty of being a football fan who sees Dani Alves in action – there was something about him that was beautiful to watch, something beyond the football he played.
Also read: Jim Beglin Column – Ranking of the 5 Greatest Central Midfielders of All Time