Top 20 Greatest Captains in Soccer History

A number of attributes are thought to be necessary in order to make a great captain, most notably; leadership, experience, decision making and the ability to motivate the players around them. This is far from a blanket rule though, and different captains can often have very different approaches. Whilst some will be very vocal and imposing figures who make their presence and feelings known throughout the squad, others will adopt a a quieter, more subtle approach, choosing instead to lead by example on the pitch and allowing their football to do the talking.

A captains only official role stated by the Laws of the Game is that they must participate in the coin toss prior to the start of a match and once more should the game go to penalties. However, it is very common place for a referee to take extra time talking to a captain, perhaps warning him to keep his players disciplined or explaining to him why a certain decision has been made. It is also the norm for the captain of a team to symbolically lift any trophy that the side may have won.

However, these relatively menial tasks are not considered to be the captains most important duties. The importance of captaincy has been argued about in soccer for decades, but it is still often a matter of great interest which player a manager picks to captain his side. The criteria by which a 'great' captain should be decided are far from absolute, however these players have all displayed remarkable leadership, motivation and inspired their teams to greatness.

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20 Iker Casillas

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Iker Casillas is the only captain in the history of the game to have lifted eight different major trophies, namely; La Liga, Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup, Champions League, European Super Cup, Club World Cup, World Cup and the European Championships. Due to the presence of another legendary Real Madrid captain, Raul, it took until 2010 for Casillas to claim the armband as his own.

Similarly, Raul was the captain of the Spanish national team, although he relinquished the armband slightly earlier for his country and Casillas has captained Spain since 2008 where he led them to their first major trophy in 44 years, in his first as captain. In 2010, perhaps his crowning moment, Casillas lifted the World Cup for the first time in Spanish history and became only the third goalkeeper to ever do so.

19 Patrick Vieira

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Patrick Vieira's leadership qualities were recognized from a young age, at the age of 19 he had already captained Cannes. The Frenchman most likely would have captained Arsenal from a young age also, were it not for the presence of Tony Adams. Instead, Vieira was made vice-captain up until 2002 when Adams's retirement allowed him to become full club captain. Dominant, physically imposing, consistent and tactically very adept, it is little surprise Vieira made for such a fine leader.

As Arsenal captain he won a Premier League title, two FA Cup's and two Community Shields. Most notable of course was the 2003-04 Premier League season in which Arsenal went undefeated over the entire campaign under Vieira's captaincy. For France, he did not receive the armband until Zinedine Zidane retired and even then forced the legendary midfielder back out of retirement and handed him the captaincy back once more.

18 John Terry

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Love him or hate him, and it's probably the latter, John Terry has been an outstanding captain for Chelsea. Wayne Bridge may see it slightly differently, but Terry has been a tremendous servant at Chelsea, in both his leadership and general play. Terry has been at Chelsea for 17 years now and captained the side for 12 of them. He is the most successful captain in the club's history, having won three Premier League titles, four FA Cup's, three League Cup's and a Champions League medal, and will most likely add another Premier League title this season.

Emerging at a young age, Terry has shown remarkable consistency and an exceptional reading of the game in his 445 games for the club. Terry also captained England for a total of five years before retiring from international football, although his success as England captain is rather dwarfed by his achievements at club level.

17 Paolo Maldini

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Paolo Maldini captained Italy for eight years and AC Milan for 12, and was renowned for his leadership skills, earning him the nickname "Il Capitano", or 'The Captain'. At Milan, Maldini won the Champions League five times, seven Serie A titles, five Supercoppe Italiane, five European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, one Coppa Italia and one FIFA Club World Cup title. Maldini spent his entire career, spanning a quarter of a century, at AC Milan, and even when he did retire at the age of 41 he had shown no obvious signs of decline.

Although he never led Italy to victory at a major tournament, he did go to two finals as captain, at the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000. Maldini was also voted third in two Ballon d'Or contests, in 1994 and 2003. His unwavering loyalty to Milan and his relentless excellence made him an ideal captain. Sir Alex Ferguson said of him, "Kaka has impressed, Zinedine Zidane was brilliant but without a doubt, Paolo Maldini has been my favorite."

16 Bryan Robson

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Bryan Robson is the longest serving captain in the history of Manchester United, and only Bobby Moore and Billy Wright have captained the English national team on more occasions than Robson's 65. Nicknamed 'Captain Marvel', for his leadership skills, Robson did not play in the dominant Manchester United team that younger readers may be more familiar with. Although the Manchester United team was not poor, it was far from exceptional, and often had to call upon Robson for a bit of magic or inspiration.

In total, he captained Manchester United for 12 years and England for nine years. Robson twinned courage and industry with exceptional ability, and he was not only a great leader; for a lot of his time with England he was also considered the finest player in the country.

15 Didier Deschamps

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Studious and intelligent with an unbounded will to win, Deschamps always had the makings of a legendary captain. Eric Cantona dismissed him as a "water-boy", but Deschamps's contribution and achievements with the French national team exposed Cantona's comments as misinformed to say the least. As a captain, Deschamps is one of only three men to have lifted the Champions League, the World Cup and the European Championship trophies. He was made Marseille captain in 1992 and became the youngest man to ever lift the Champions League a year later, at the age of 23.

Deschamps was not the most talented man in the French team labelled their 'Golden Generation', no, the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry had a stronger claim to that mantle. However, it was the older head of Deschamps that tied these outstanding talents together to make that French team so formidable. Dynamic, robust and combative in midfield, Deschamps provided the perfect foil for those more talented attacking players and made for an exceptional leader on the pitch. He is currently the manager of the French national team.

14 Ian Ashbee

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The least technically gifted man on this list perhaps, but don't let that taint your view on Ian Ashbee as a great captain. Ashbee never won a World Cup, or a Ballon d'Or, or even a Champions League. He did win back-to-back promotions with Hull City before adding a third a couple of years later when the club won the 2008 play-off final though. This meant Ian Ashbee made history; the only man to ever captain a team through all four divisions of the football league.

Ashbee played over 200 games for Cambridge before joining the Tigers where he was sent off on his debut. Another five red cards would follow but did little to damage the appreciation he received from the club's fans. He managed to tame his disciplinary problems as his career went on and in the nine years he captained Hull City he displayed exceptional leadership skills, instilling tremendous desire in those around him and guiding the club to the Premier League for the first time in their history.

13 Jose Nasazzi

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Born in 1901, Jose Nasazzi is widely regarded as the finest footballer that Uruguay have ever produced. Moreover, Nasazzi was not just a great player but a born leader. Nicknamed "El Gran Mariscal", or 'The Great Marshal', Nasazzi first made his name on the international stage leading Uruguay to gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games.

When the inaugural World Cup was arranged to take place in Uruguay in 1930, the hosts were unsurprisingly one of the favorites and under the leadership of Nasazzi, and they did not disappoint. His mother was Spanish and his father Italian, but born in Uruguay, Nasazzi chose to represent his place of birth and could have added another World Cup in 1934, but Uruguay chose not to enter the tournament hosted by Mussolini's fascist Italian regime.

12 Tony Adams

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A one-club man, Tony Adams spent his entire 22-year career with the Gunners where he won four Premier League (First Division) titles, three FA Cup's, two League Cup's and one Cup Winners Cup. There are four statues outside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium; one of Thierry Henry, one of Dennis Bergkamp, one of Herbert Chapman, and the other of Tony Adams. Alongside Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould, Adams made up a formidable Arsenal back four which laid the building blocks for a great team.

He captained Arsenal for a remarkable 14 years and England from 1994-96 and then once more in 2000. He played over 500 times for Arsenal and made 66 appearances for England, although he always expressed some resentment over Glenn Hoddle's decision to hand the captain's armband to Alan Shearer instead of him in 1996.

11 John McGovern

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John McGovern played for Brian Clough at Hartelpool as a youngster and the two forged a relationship that would span almost their entire careers. After Hartlepool, Clough took McGovern to Derby, then Leeds and eventually to Nottingham Forest. McGovern was Clough's voice on the pitch and his insistence on having him at every club he managed (with the exception of Brighton, although he did try) is a sure indicator of his importance to Clough's success.

McGovern's finest hour, or hours, came at Nottingham Forest where he captained the unfancied English club to back-to-back European Cup titles, a remarkable achievement, down to, in no small part, McGovern's leadership. Bizarrely, McGovern was never capped for Scotland.

10 Steven Gerrard

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It looks as though Steven Gerrard will draw the curtain on 28 years at Anfield this summer as he joins LA Galaxy, but he will surely be remembered as a cult figure at a club steeped in history. Gerrard has led the Liverpool team through an era which could politely be described a rough patch. Much like Bryan Robson at Manchester United, Gerrard was the man Liverpool looked to for inspiration for so many years, and more often than not, he would deliver.

As a captain he is both vocal and able to lead by example on the pitch. Without doubt his most iconic moment came in the 2005 Champions League final when Liverpool appeared dead and buried, 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan. However, Gerrard rallied the troops, scored the goal to get Liverpool back in the game and inspired the team to a historic comeback and a famous Champions League trophy.

9 Francesco Totti

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Few men are more closely associated with their club than Steven Gerrard, however, Francesco Totti may be one of them. Commonly referred to as the 'King of Rome', Totti has spent his entire 23-year career at Roma, where he leads both the all-time goal scoring and appearance charts. Still going strong at 38, Totti has 240 goals for Roma in 582 games.

As soon as he emerged in the Roma set-up his leadership qualities were noticeable, and he was made club captain at the tender age of 21. He was already the club's most successful captain eight years ago, in 2008, and has captained the team for 18 years to date. His passion for the game has rubbed off on teammates and his leadership skills have often seen Roma overachieve. He was never made captain of the Italian national team, as the team was never starved for a leader, with Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro captaining the team in Totti's time with the Azzurri.

8 Diego Maradona

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If it is a captain's job to inspire and lead by example then there can be no better example than Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup. He played every minute of the tournament for Argentina as he guided them to World Cup victory, scoring five and getting five assists, meaning he was directly involved in 10 of Argentina's 14 goals in Mexico. Never has a team's success but so solely put down to one man and whilst the Argentina team of 1986 was not a poor one, they were not a great one without the magic of Maradona.

He almost did it all again when he captained Argentina in the 1990 World Cup where they reached the final. Maradona also captained Napoli from 1986 until 1991, winning two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia, a UEFA Cup and a Supercoppa Italiana as captain and leader, in every respect.

7 Francisco Gento

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Gento is the most successful captain of all time and one of the most successful players of all time. The Spaniard won 12 La Liga's, six European Cup's, two Copa del Rey, two Latin Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. No other player has equaled his tally of six European Cups and it is not wholly unreasonable to suggest that no one ever will. He joined Real Madrid at the age of 20 and stayed until the age of 38, amassing 428 caps and scoring 128 goals as an outside-left. Widely regarded as one of Spain's greatest ever players, Gento captained the legendary Real Madrid side of the 50's and continued as the team's leader up until his retirement in 1971.

Earlier, we spoke of there being two kinds of captains. The vocal and imposing type, and the quieter, more subtle type. Gento was perhaps the finest of this second category. A rare case of a winger being implemented as captain, Gento was incredibly driven and hell-bent on improving his own game and those around him, making for an excellent captain of a legendary team.

6 Carles Puyol

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When Carles Puyol retired last year, analysis of his footballing career and contribution to the great Spain and Barcelona sides of his era began. Puyol retired after 15 years of first team football at Barcelona and a decade as club captain. Puyol played 392 games for Barca, in which he won six La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey, six Spanish Supercopas, three Champions Leagues and 2 European Supercups.

Although he was never made captain of the Spanish national team, he was still a leader on the pitch as Spain enjoyed their greatest spell of success in the game. Catalan-born, Puyol knew what it meant to captain and play for Barcelona, and ensured that his teammates did too.

5 Franco Baresi

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Franco Baresi was a man of great character; he defied the odds throughout his career. Rejected by Inter Milan as a youngster, he joined cross-city rivals AC Milan instead, where he was handed his debut at 17. In 1989, Baresi would take to the field for Italy against the Dutch and play the entire second half with a broken arm. At the 1994 World Cup, Baresi was injured at the beginning of the tournament but refused to fly home, instead going under the knife immediately and he eventually recovered in time to play in Italy's final game, the World Cup final.

All of these tales make up the fabric of the Baresi legend and provide a glimpse into why he was such an extraordinary leader for Milan for two decades. Made captain in 1982, at the age of 22, he held the position for 15 years, before Paolo Maldini succeeded him in 1997. During his time with Milan he dragged them from the mire, twice relegated to Serie B in his early days with the club, he would go on to lead them to six Serie A titles, three Champions Leagues, four Supercoppa titles, three UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one Mitropa Cup.

4 Obdulio Varela

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Obdulio Varela is the man who inspired Uruguay to victory, against all the odds, at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The final of the tournament was considered a foregone conclusion to many, the Uruguayan FA were fearful of humiliation and had even warned the players to just avoid embarrassment, telling them "Four is acceptable." Varela refused to accept such an attitude and rallied his troops, telling them to forget what they had just heard, to ignore the 170,000 Brazil fans in the stands and just to play their own game the only way they knew how.

Despite Varela's speech, the Uruguayans did go 1-0 down. Fearful of the Brazilians gathering momentum, Varela argued with the referee about the clearly legitimate goal to kill any tempo the Brazilians may have been building up. It worked, as after the restart Uruguay grew into the game and eventually shocked the world winning 2-1. Known as 'The Black Chief', Varela is largely credited with inspiring that incredible comeback and Uruguay never lost a World Cup game in which their legendary leader played.

3 Roy Keane

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With 11 career red cards, some may think Roy Keane lacked the discipline required to make a great captain. Although anyone of that opinion presumably never saw him captain either Manchester United or Ireland. In a star-studded Manchester United team it was remarkable how much poorer they looked without Keane. Perhaps he got sent off so many times as a reminder of his importance to the team... Joking aside, Keane was incredibly driven, and he ensured that everyone else in the squad was too. Failure was not an option and Keane epitomized absolute commitment and unrelenting effort for the cause.

His effort was richly rewarded, as Manchester United won seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups and one Champions League trophy. His finest performance came in 2001 against Juventus when Keane silenced the considerable talents of Edgar Davids and Zinedine Zidane, controlling the midfield for Manchester United. He was equally brilliant and controversial in great doses for Ireland, where he often inspired a rather average team to greater than average performances.

2 Bobby Moore

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"He was not a ranter or a raver or a fist-pumping captain," Geoff Hurst said of Bobby Moore, and he did not need to be. Moore's authority on the football pitch was assumed without any need to bellow or shriek. Hurst went on to say you knew Bobby wasn't happy just by a glance; and praise from him was so rare, you knew you had done something of great worth when it came your way. Cool, calm and composed are the type of adjectives which best surmise Moore's play and demeanor, even on the grandest of stages, such as a World Cup final at Wembley, perhaps.

The youngest England captain ever, handed the armband at 22, Moore had great pressure put upon him, leading an England team that had high expectation put upon it. You would do well to spot a spec of dirt upon Moore's distinguished white shirt; his reading of the game was such that going to ground to make a challenge was rarely deemed necessary. Bobby Charlton described Moore as "The Natural Captain," while Pele declared Moore the greatest opponent he ever faced after England's 1-0 defeat to Brazil in 1970. Moore's leadership qualities shone through at club level for West Ham also, where he guided the Hammers to an FA Cup win in 1964, before following that up with a Cup Winners' Cup a year later.

1 Franz Beckenbauer

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As a captain, Franz Beckenbauer won every trophy going at both club and international level. His elegance and ability as a player were immediately obvious but his steely determination and ferocious will to win were most glaringly made apparent at the 1970 World Cup, when he played on with his shoulder dislocated and his arm in a sling, as Germany were defeated 4-3 by Italy in 'The Game of the Century'. Then aged 24, he had already been Bayern Munich's captain a year earlier and was given the role for the West German national team when the tournament concluded.

At the time, 'Der Kaiser', as he was known, was playing in central midfield but he would go on to create the modern sweeper or libero role, and play it with a style, elegance and effectiveness that still hasn't been matched to this day. In his first two major tournaments as West Germany's captain, he won both Euro 72 was followed by the 1974 World Cup when West Germany beat the 'Total Football' of Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands in the final. In total, Beckenbauer won five Bundesliga titles, four DFB-Pokals, three European Cups, one Cup Winners' Cup and one Intercontinental Cup at club level. Individually, Beckenbauer won a vast array of honors, most notably two Ballon d'Ors, four German footballer of the year awards and he made the World Cup team of the tournament on three separate occasions. Beckenbauer added another World Cup, another Bundesliga and a UEFA Cup to his list of honors when he went into management. 

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