The 10 greatest soccer sweepers to ever play the game

The 10 greatest soccer sweepers to ever play the game

Kenneth Mwenda
updated at February 11, 2024 at 3:11 PM
In this article:
West Ham United logo
West Ham United
England
27
Bayern Munich logo
Bayern Munich
Germany
34
AC Milan logo
AC Milan
Italy
36
Juventus logo
Juventus
Italy
30
Borussia Dortmund logo
Borussia Dortmund
Germany
37

The football story includes some of the greatest soccer sweepers to ever play. These players were brilliant at stopping attacks and starting their team's play from the back. They are remembered for changing the game, showing that a defender can be as important in setting up goals as they are in stopping them.

Photos of Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer, and Gaetano Scirea
From L-R: Bobby Moore on September 18, 1971, Franz Beckenbauer in 1977, and Gaetano Scirea during a Serie A 1987-88 match in Italy. Photos: Peter Robinson/Bongarts/Alessandro Sabattini
Source: Getty Images

Their stories are a testament to the evolution of football, illustrating how one position can transform the approach to the game. The details about these players come from looking at different sources that talk about football history and the roles players have had.

Top 10 greatest soccer sweepers to ever play the game

The role of soccer sweepers and sweeper keepers has evolved significantly over the years, transitioning from mere defenders to pivotal playmakers who can influence the game from the back. This article explores the best soccer sweepers in the world and the best sweeper keepers of all time, celebrating their contributions to football.

Name

Club

National team

Matthias Sammer

Dynamo Dresden, VfB Stuttgart, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund

Germany

Velibor Vasović

Partizan Belgrade, Ajax

Yugoslavia/Serbia

Daniel Passarella

River Plate, Fiorentina

Argentina

Lev Yashin

Dynamo Moscow

Soviet Union

Fabio Cannavaro

Parma, Juventus, Real Madrid

Italy

Manuel Neuer

Schalke 04, Bayern Munich

Germany

Bobby Moore

West Ham United

England

Franco Baresi

AC Milan

Italy

Gaetano Scirea

Atalanta, Juventus

Italy

Franz Beckenbauer

Bayern Munich, New York Cosmos, Hamburg

West Germany

10. Matthias Sammer

Matthias Sammer at Borussia Dortmund
Matthias Sammer prior to the UEFA Champions League match between Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle United at Signal Iduna Park on November 7, 2023. Photo: Alex Gottschalk
Source: Getty Images

Matthias Sammer, a distinguished figure in football, was known for his remarkable sweeping skills and versatility on the field. During his illustrious career, Sammer played for clubs like Dynamo Dresden, VfB Stuttgart, Inter Milan, and Borussia Dortmund, where he left a significant mark. Notably, his time at Dortmund was highlighted by winning the Ballon d'Or in 1996.

Sammer's contributions were crucial in Germany's 1996 European Championship victory, showcasing his defensive prowess and ability to initiate attacks, embodying the ideal qualities of a sweeper or libero. His legacy in football is celebrated for transforming the role of defenders with his intelligent play and leadership.

9. Velibor Vasović

Velibor Vasović was a distinguished Yugoslav and Serbian footballer remembered for his pioneering role as a sweeper. He had notable tenures at Partizan Belgrade, where he led the team to the 1966 European Cup Final, and at Ajax, where he played a crucial role in transforming the Dutch club into a European powerhouse. He was undoubtedly one of the best – or perhaps, even the best, as he stated:

"When you put on your shirt and lace up your boots, you have to win. Otherwise, you should stay at home and watch television."

Vasović was Ajax's captain during their first European Cup triumph in 1971. He retired from professional football in 1971, leaving behind a legacy marked by his leadership, tactical intelligence, and the introduction of modern defensive strategies.

8. Daniel Passarella

Daniel Passarella during Argentina game
Portrait of Daniel Passarella of Argentina before the World Cup qualifying match against Peru in 1993, in Peru. Photo: David Cannon
Source: Getty Images

Daniel Passarella, a central figure in Argentina's 1978 World Cup victory, was celebrated for his leadership and defensive prowess. Known as "The Fiery Argentine," his remarkable ability to score goals from the back, coupled with his tenacious defending, cements his reputation as one of the finest sweepers in soccer history.

Daniel Passarella was not only a formidable defender with a knack for scoring but also the first Argentine to lift the FIFA World Cup as a captain. His leadership on the field was unparalleled, often inspiring his team to greater heights.

Passarella's career was marked by his strong presence in defence, his aerial ability, and his unexpected goal-scoring capacity, making him a unique threat from set-pieces. Beyond his 1978 World Cup triumph, he enjoyed a successful club career, notably with River Plate and Fiorentina, showcasing his skills in both the Argentine and Italian leagues.

7. Lev Yashin

Lev Yashin at Manchester
Lev Yashin at Manchester Ringway Airport on Wednesday, 28th April 1965. Photo: Brennard
Source: Getty Images

Lev Yashin, known as the Black Spider, remains the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d'Or. His incredible reflexes, shot-stopping ability, and pioneering role as a sweeper keeper have cemented his place among the best sweeper keepers of all time.

Lev Yashin, celebrated across four World Cups from 1958 to 1970, earned a spot on FIFA's Dream Team for his World Cup performances. He was also posthumously honoured with FIFA's World Cup All-Time Team and the World Team of the 20th Century.

Renowned for saving over 150 penalties and maintaining more than 270 clean sheets, his achievements include an Olympic gold in 1956 and victory at the 1960 European Championships. Yashin famously stated:

"The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save."

6. Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro during UEFA Champions League match
Fabio Cannavaro prior to the UEFA Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan at Parc des Princes on October 25, 2023, in Paris, France. Photo: Tnani Badreddine
Source: Getty Images

Fabio Cannavaro, an iconic figure in football, is celebrated for his defensive mastery. Notably, he played a pivotal role in Italy's 2006 World Cup victory, demonstrating exceptional skills in anticipation, tackling, and aerial duels.

Cannavaro's career is distinguished by his leadership on the field solidified his legacy as one of the finest defenders in the sport's history. He was also part of the Italy team which won consecutive UEFA European Under-21 Championships in 1994 and 1996.

His accolades include winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2006 and becoming one of the few defenders to achieve this honour, underscoring his exceptional contributions to football. His anticipation, tackling, and aerial abilities mark him as one of soccer's greatest sweepers.

5. Manuel Neuer

Manuel Neuer at Bayern
Manuel Neuer of Bayern Muenchen looks on during the Bundesliga match against FC Augsburg at WWK-Arena on January 27, 2024, in Augsburg, Germany. Photo: DeFodi
Source: Getty Images

Transitioning to the best sweeper keepers of all time, Manuel Neuer's name is at the forefront. The German international has redefined the role with his ability to play off the line, acting as an eleventh outfield player. His contributions to Bayern Munich and the German national team highlight the evolving role of goalkeepers in modern soccer.

Manuel Neuer is renowned for his "sweeper-keeper" style, marked by his agility and quickness to advance beyond his penalty area to thwart opposing players. Recognized for his outstanding contributions between the posts, he was honoured as the best goalkeeper of the decade by the IFFHS for the years 2011 to 2020.

4. Bobby Moore

Bobby Moore during a West Ham United game
Bobby Moore of West Ham United during a football league Division One match against Manchester United on September 18, 1971. Photo: Peter Robinson
Source: Getty Images

Bobby Moore, the captain of England's 1966 World Cup-winning team, is remembered as one of the most famous sweepers in soccer. His ability to outthink opponents and execute flawless tackles made him a cornerstone of England's defence and a model of the ideal sweeper.

Bobby Moore, celebrated as the most illustrious player in West Ham's history served the club for over 16 years and participated in more than 600 matches. His tenure was highlighted by securing the FA Cup in the 1963-64 season and triumphing in the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup the following year.

Moore's excellence on the field was recognized through awards such as the FWA Footballer of the Year in 1964 and multiple West Ham Player of the Year accolades in 1961, 1963, 1968, and 1970. In a tribute to his legacy, West Ham United honoured him by officially retiring his number 6 shirt in August 2008, a gesture made 15 years posthumously.

3. Franco Baresi

Franco Baresi giving a speech
Franco Baresi during the visit to the Kodokan Sports Centre on November 21, 2023, in Naples, Italy. Photo: Ivan Romano
Source: Getty Images

Franco Baresi's career at AC Milan is a testament to his status as one of the best sweepers in soccer. His leadership, vision, and tactical prowess were instrumental in Milan's domestic and international successes. Baresi was a master at interceptions and tackling, making him a key figure in soccer's defensive history.

Franco Baresi's legacy with the Italian national team is marked by significant achievements and memorable moments. As a key member of the squad, Baresi lifted the 1982 FIFA World Cup, the pinnacle of his international career.

His performance in the 1990 World Cup was outstanding, earning him a place in the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team as Italy secured a third-place finish. In the 1994 World Cup, Baresi's leadership as Italy's captain was instrumental in guiding the team to the final.

Despite the heartbreak of missing a penalty in the shoot-out against Brazil, his contributions throughout the tournament were invaluable. Baresi's international career also saw him representing Italy in two UEFA European Championships (1980 and 1988) and at the 1984 Olympics by reaching the semi-finals in each of these tournaments.

2. Gaetano Scirea

Gaetano Scirea in Juventus during 1987-88 season
Gaetano Scirea of Juventus looks on during a Serie A 1987-88 match in Italy. Photo: Alessandro Sabattini
Source: Getty Images

Gaetano Scirea is another name synonymous with the best libero in the world of football. Playing for Juventus and Italy, Scirea was known for his calmness, fair play, and incredible skill set that allowed him to both defend and attack with grace.

His legacy as one of the famous sweepers in soccer is undeniable. Scirea is part of an elite group, numbering just ten, who have won all three premier UEFA club trophies, an accolade he achieved during his tenure at Juventus—the squad he represented for the lion's share of his career, bar a brief spell at Atalanta.

On the global stage, representing the Italy national team for over ten years, he was a staple in the defensive machinery, effectively sidelining Franco Baresi from the national setup for four years, up until his retirement in 1986. Inter Milan legend Giuseppe Bergomi, despite their on-field rivalry, described Scirea as "loyal, intelligent and a man of values," highlighting his exceptional character even in competition.

1. Franz Beckenbauer

Franz Beckenbauer in action for New York Cosmos
German footballer Franz Beckenbauer in action for New York Cosmos, match, circa 1977. Photo: Bongarts
Source: Getty Images

Widely regarded as the best libero in football, Franz Beckenbauer transformed the role into an art form. His ability to read the game and initiate attacks from defensive positions earned him a place among soccer's greatest sweepers. Beckenbauer's elegance on the ball and tactical intelligence set the benchmark for future generations.

Franz Beckenbauer, a two-time recipient of the European Footballer of the Year award, earned 103 caps for West Germany, featuring in three World Cups and two UEFA European Championships. Beckenbauer was the first captain to secure both the World Cup and the European Championship at the international arena, as well as the European Cup at the club level.

He stands among an elite trio, including Mário Zagallo of Brazil and France's Didier Deschamps, to have clinched the World Cup both as a player and as a manager. He achieved this as team captain in 1974 and again as manager in 1990.

The greatest soccer sweepers have forever changed the game, demonstrating the power of defensive play and strategic foresight on the football field. Their legacy endures, inspiring future generations to value the art of defence as much as the thrill of scoring.

READ ALSO: The top 20 greatest goalkeepers of all time in football history

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They produced a range of different saves and catapulted their teams to multiple victories. Who are they? Click on the above link to find out!

Authors
Kenneth Mwenda photo
Kenneth Mwenda
Kenneth Mwenda is a business and sports writer with over five years of experience. At Sportsbrief, he contributes to writing biographies and listicles.