I am sure many folks out there are absolutely scoffing at my selection of Brazilian Nilton Santos for the final starting defensive spot on my World Cup All-Time Best XI roster. In fact, I bet many people thought this article would be about Djalma Santos, who FIFA put on their World Cup Dream XI. But, I like Nilton for the honor, and here’s why:
Nilton was a defender who probably should have been a striker. He revolutionized the left back position by being one of the first defenders to regularly push all the way forward and join the attack. He was on four World Cup squads, and during his last three Cups he amazed audiences with not only his defensive prowess, but also his nose for the net.
In fact, I think Nilton scored perhaps the most impressive goal in World Cup history in 1962, with apologies to Maradona’s miracle run against England in 1986, which FIFA thinks is the “Goal of the Century”. While Maradona only beat five defenders, Nilton juked seven. He took the ball the length of the field and then rocketed it into the goal.
Nilton was absolutely essential to Brazil’s World Cup victories in 1958 and 1962. Unlike Moore and Beckenbauer, he did not end his career in America, but he did make over 1,000 appearances for Botafogo (yes, you read that correctly, he played from when he was 15 until he was 41). He was simply a legend and he belongs on this list.