It is quite natural for offensive players to hog the lime-light. We, at TheHardTackle, do not deny that and have already paid our tribute to them. However, trophies are won on the basis of a great defence. It is not a coincidence that teams with stingy defensive lines usually end up winning league titles. Yet, defenders are sadly a neglected lot. They rarely get the spotlight or awards, despite performing well. Here’s a little homage to the top five Barcelona defenders in the last decade.
Frank De Boer
How many defenders nowadays can play as a fullback and centre back with unnerving ease? How many can distribute the ball with the precision of a surgeon? Moreover, how many can be lethal from dead-ball situations? Usually defenders might possess one of the aforementioned attributes and are considered good and at times even great. In special cases any individual with any of the two of the characteristics mentioned is considered gifted. There comes a third category and this is exactly where Frank De Boer belongs. The Dutchman, now the head coach of his former club Ajax Amsterdam, was one of the finest exponents of Total Football. With over 300 outings for the famous Ajax Amsterdam, about 150 with FC Barcelona and over a 100 for Netherlands, Frank has etched himself in the history books. The defender, along with his twin brother Ronald de Boer, arrived at Barcelona in 1998. Often the player switched positions and functioned with aplomb either as a left-back or a centre-back. At a time when Barca suffered from the lack of competent personnel at the heart of the defense, de Boer’s performance stood out; however, he was far from the dizzy heights that he scaled at Ajax.
He Possessed one of the finest left feet in football, and his ball distribution was exemplary. Perhaps his amazing 60 yard pass to the legendary Dennis Bergkamp, in the 1998 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals against Argentina, who then demolished the latter’s hopes of progressing further in the competition, was the most emphatic. Second can be the unbelievable goal by Rivaldo, in 2000-01, from the edge of the area in the 90th minute of the game against Valencia. Barca won the match by a margin of one goal, which earned them a spot in the UEFA Champions League next season, but in all the hullaballoo, de Boer’s immaculate assist was forgotten. Under Van Gaal, Barcelona played the type of football, which cannot exactly be termed as balanced. The team often over-attacked, despite not having enough control in midfield and as a consequence the defense suffered. Frank might have been made the scapegoat for a number of such occurrences, but he was more of a dupe than culpable. Unfortunate events in the form of testing positive for the banned substance nandrolone might just have tarnished his image a bit, but then again, he’s as human as a Maradona or a Zidane. De Boer’s tenure might not have been one of the brightest – one La Liga title in 1998-99. However, as an individual, the Dutchman will always be a part of the Catalan folklore. An interview of the legendary Dutchman is here.
Without an iota of doubt, Puyol has to be one of the all time greats at the Camp Nou. The captain of the current Barca team – often considered as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) teams to have graced the planet – Puyol has been the talisman. From a goalkeeper to a striker to a defensive midfielder, captain Carles finally settled as a defender and is as comfortable as fullback as he is as a centre-back. Awards in the form of ‘UEFA Best European Right Back in 2002‘, ‘UEFA Best European centre back’ in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and the ‘UEFA Club Best Defender’ trophy in 2006, bear testimony to Puyol’s versatility, resilience and character. Sid Lowe describes him perfectly as – “Barcelona’s very own Captain Caveman, playing with his heart on his sleeve and his hair in his eyes, screeching into challenges, never, ever letting up. Rough and rugged.” Carles might not be as technically gifted as his current defensive partner Gerard Pique, he however commands the defense and ergo it is in his presence that the image of Pique is projected as one of the best central defenders. The point to be noted here is Pique’s lackluster outings in the games that he had to play without Puyol.
Puyol started for Barcelona as a 17-year old kid. He went on to make his debut at the age of 21 and quite surprisingly appeared pedestrian. The kid from the small town of Pobla de Segur, didn’t quite have the best of techniques or the ability to distribute the ball with panache or the speed to catch up with faster oppositions. However, the desire, passion and the heart to make it big and give it all made him what he is today. Probably the current Barcelona is the best that the world has seen in quite sometime and the Xavis or the Iniestas or the Messis might just hog the limelight, but that the end of the day the team without Puyol definitely lacks character. In the recently concluded season, Barcelona’s apparent lack of form in the second half of the campaign can very well be attributed to the absence of the Caveman. A spirited captain on the pitch, Puyol is an equally good individual off it. His gesture to allow Eric Abidal to lift the UEFA Champions League Trophy after beating Manchester united at Wembley, exemplifies his greatness as an individual. At an age of 33, Puyol might just be in the twilight of his career, however, his presence is still a matter of concern for opposition – whoever it may be. The day the Cavemans decides to hang up his boots, not only will Barcelona lose a great son, but football as a whole would lose a fabulous individual – an inspiration to many!
The first Mexican ever to play for FC Barcelona and also to win the elusive UEFA Champions League, Marquez is perhaps one of the best defenders to have played for Mexico. He might not be up there with the all-time greats for Barcelona, however he still occupies the echelon that many fail to do in their entire lifetime. The unassuming Mexican started his career at the tender age of 17, at Mexican club Atlas de Guadalajara. His stint at Club Atlas in the Primera División de México earned him rave reviews, and even before the age of 20, he went on to make 77 appearences for them and also found the back of the net as many as 6 times. Definitely above average statistics for a defender, who was just 17 years then. The inevitable thing happened in 1999 – Marquez’s talent brought him suitors from around Europe, but the lanky youth chose AS Monaco, who paid as much as €6 million for his services.
Marquez set out for Europe to announce his arrival at the highest level. In his very first season for Monaco, the Mexican won the the French League title and was named the best defender of the league. He also went on to win French League Cup in 2003. FC Barcelona, who were going through the doldrums then, came knocking for him and quite expectedly the Mexican moved to the hallowed Camp Nou for a paltry sum of €5 million, under the tutelage of Frank Rijkaard and was part of the rennaissance. An epitome of versatility, Marquez also slotted in as an effective defendive midfielder. Often referred to as the ‘The Kaiser of Michoacan’, Marquez definitely did justice to the title. Contrary to what defenders usually are, Marquez was exceptionally skillful and manisfested his abilities with swagger for the Spanish giants. His elegance on the ball, dependability and skill coming out of defence to distribute the ball made him one of the key figures for Barcelona in overtures to dominate Spain and Europe for years to come. In the midfield, the Mexican was as good as they come. His ability to stunt opposition and his aerial prowess drew comparison to the legendary Franz Beckenbauer. In his entire tenure of seven years, Marquez played over 240 matches and also scored 13 goals to establish himself as one of the most successful foreigners to have donned the Catalan colours. As many as 12 titles in 7 years will definitely ensure that the Mexican is remembered by Cules around the globe for years to come.
They say that – “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Do we need a bigger example than Eric Abidal to endorse this? In March 2011, the Frenchman complained of feeling unwell and was rushed to hospital for an routine check-up. A liver tumor! In May 2011, the intimidating Frenchman lifted the UEFA Champions Trophy at Wembley, after emphatically beating Manchester United, as the ‘captain’ of FC Barcelona. Liverpool legend Bill Shankley once said, “Football’s not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that.” Well, Eric somehow made a similar statement and may have just added something extra, in his own special way, decades later. The Frenchman joined the Catalan giants from Lyon for just €9 million – a testament of how the Blaugranas once bargained in a splendid way. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case now! In his first season at Camp Nou, Abidal vied for a place in the starting eleven with Sylvinho but later made it his own with consistent and solid display. Albeit a fullback, Eric was occasionally used as a centreback too, but to disastrous consequences. He, however, seems to have worked on this, and today performs his duties at the heart of the Catalan fortress as well as anybody.
A tactically aware defender, Eric performs his defensive duties without fuss and can sustain the entire rigours of a 90-minute, high tension game with ease. Occasionally, he also assists in offence, thereby opening other avenues for the team to notch up goals. A career spanning over ten years, for four different clubs, Abidal has always been a champion. He has expressed his desire to end his career at Barca and someday he will. However, his legacy will remain and he will continue to be an inspirational figure for many around the globe.
Perhaps the youngest to be included in this list, Alves is without doubt the best right-fullback in the world. To add the the woes of oppositions, Alves also glides on the side of the pitch which has Messi in it. The mercurial fullback started at Esporte Clube Bahia, Brazil and such was his impact that Spanish club Sevilla moved to secure his services mid-season, although on loan. He was named the third best player in the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup, behind Ismaeil Matar (UAE) and Dudu (BRA), and Sevilla made the move permanent.
In his 8-year long stay at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Alves’ statistics speak for themselves. In 246 matches, not only did the Brazilian score 16 goals but also made 73 assists. The sheer audacity of the number of assists would even make some of the midfielder hide for cover and no wonder FC Barcelona did not hesitate in spending €32.5 million for him. A price, which Alves has thoroughly justified! After a switch to Camp Nou, he has gone to a level where he has re-defined the duties of being a fullback, and quite rightly, going by the clubs motto Mes Que en Club, ZonalMarking.net defines him as ‘More than a right back.’ Being from the land of the legendary Cafu and Roberto Carlos, it’s inevitable that Alves will be compared to them. However, it should not be confused that the formers were more of wingbacks than fullbacks. Yet another beautiful piece of work by ZonalMarking.net, which defines the subtle differences can be referred to here.
Such is the presence of Alves that Messi is often rendered less decisive for his national team where he has to play sans the buldozing Brazilian (Although Xavi and Iniesta are not mentioned in this context, it’s needless to say that they too play an extremely decisive role to aid the little champion from Argentina). As many as six Brazilian fullbacks have plied their trade at Barca and quite clearly, Alves is the best at what he does. In a league that has players of the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso amongst others, Alves features in the list of the top five players with the most number of assists in the period 2008-11 in entire Europe – a sensational statistics, more so when we consider that the player is primarily a defender. At 28, Alves is certainly at the top of his game and has won it all at club level. Recently he has signed a contract extension for Barca which would keep him at Camp Nou till 2015. He might be a little too young to be called a legend, but without an iota of doubt, he’ll be one by the time he decides to hand up his boots.
Notable absentees – Gerard Pique, Sergi Barjuán, Michael Reiziger, Oleguer Presas, and Giovanni v. Bronckhorst.