These days, it’s hard to refer to any one player “underrated,” never mind an entire position. You can barely turn over a rock or accidentally click on a Twitter link without uncovering an in-depth analytical essay on why Noskill McShitsTheBed is secretly the best player in his position. But even in this era defined by the oversaturation of sports coverage, there is still one position that doesn’t get the love it deserves: the fullback.
As a kid, being made to play left or right back meant that you had no discernible skill other than “can run a lot.” Put the fat/tall fucker in goal, put the one good kid up front, the fast one on the wing, and at full back, that’s where you put Johnny TryHard. It leads to an appreciation of professional full backs that dams with faint praise. We like the right back because he “works hard,” and the left back because he “never puts a foot wrong,” as if the standard was trying one’s best and not fucking up too much rather than actually being good.
In the olden days of the 1990s, when the world was still in standard definition, having a “proper footballer” playing at fullback was a rare thing. We had Brazil’s all-time great duo of Cafu (right) and Roberto Carlos, and … that was about it. Their attacking prowess and technical ability, not to mention their boundless energy, was attributed without thought to their nationality. Those crazy Brazilians with their emphasis on skill and ball control. It’ll never catch on.
Well, catch on it did. As fewer teams at the highest level play with a bank of four players in midfield, the role of the fullback is more important than ever. The defensive responsibilities remain the same (either the winger or the ball can get past you, but not both), but there is now an increased role for fullbacks in attacking play. In the modern game, fullbacks are tasked with creating overlaps with the attacker ahead of them in order to outnumber opposing defenders while still minding their duties. They are essentially asked to play two positions, and play them equally well. Elite fullbacks are expected to possess all the physicality of central defenders, the speed and trickery of wingers, and the stamina of box-to-box midfielders.
Even a quick glance at some of the top teams of recent years provides evidence for the evolution of the fullback. No longer is it acceptable for fullbacks to be just “solid.” Philipp Lahm (above, header), not content with being one of the best right backs of his generation (and almost as good at left back, for the record), moved to defensive midfield for Bayern Munich last season. And just for shits and giggles, he decided to be world class in that position as well; a testament to his football intelligence and technical ability.
Dani Alves (below, right) may be a bit past his prime these days, but in the greatest club side of all time – 2009-2011 FC Barcelona – he was every bit as important as any other key player, Messi included. Alves was not just a ball of energy; he was a genuine attacking threat, both on the flanks and in the middle, and was savvy enough to almost never be caught out of position. He had a first touch and range of passing to rival any number 10, and was still almost impassable in defense.
When Manchester United’s backline was breaking records at the turn of the last decade, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić soaked up all the plaudits, but it was Patrice Evra who was arguably the team’s most consistent defender. For United fans used to a standard of left back that maxed out somewhere between “serviceable” and “decent,” Evra was a breath of fresh air. Hardly missing a game for about six years, the Frenchman was consistently, almost inexplicably excellent.
Ask a Madridista who their second best attacker is, and you’ll get a fair few that name Marcelo without thinking twice. Poll Chelsea fans about their best player for the big occasions, and see how often Branislav Ivanović pops up.
Most players step on to a pitch with some specific mandate: score goals, keep goals out, move the ball, etc. The mandate for a fullback is “go out there and do everything.” Fullbacks are never the highest earners on any team, they never win any individual awards, and they’ll never sell the most jerseys. They may be loved by match-going fans, but the most they can hope for is cult-hero status. They might be the fittest, strongest, fastest, most reliable, and most adaptable players on any given team, but they’ll never get the appreciation they deserve.