Ace Football lists and profiles the five greatest South African defenders throughout football history.
Defenders are essential. No matter where or when. They are the players responsible for keeping the scoreline down, preventing unexpected surprises at the back, and can be the difference.
The good ones are aggressive. They don’t shy away from strong tackles or using their bodies. They’re fearless, able to get in front of shots, attack the ball with their heads, and remain composed.
With these traits in mind, Ace Football lists and profiles the five greatest South African defenders in football history.
5. Neil Tovey
As captain of South Africa’s 1996 Africa Cup of Nations title-winning squad, Neil Tovey will always have a special place in history.
The 52-time capped defender spent his entire senior career in his homeland. He played for Durban City, AmaZulu, and Kaizer Chiefs in the Premier Soccer League for almost two decades.
As a natural leader, Tovey stepped into management after his retirement in 1999. He has coached six clubs, including his former sides Kaizer Chiefs and AmaZulu, and served as technical director of the national team from 2015 until 2020.
4. Bradley Carnell
The head coach of 2023 MLS debutants St. Louis City SC has come a long way.
Bradley Carnell started out as a goalkeeper in his youth, but transitioned into a defender. An impressive senior career followed. After a brief spell in South Africa, he went to Germany in 1998. The Johannesburg-born star spent the next 12 years starring in the Western European nation, playing for clubs like VfB Stuttgart and Borussia Monchengladbach. His crowing moments were at Stuttgart, winning a joint-record of two UEFA Intertoto Cups in 2000 and 2002.
On the international scene, Carnell won 40 caps for the South African national team. The defender represented the Bafana Bafana in the 2002 World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations. He later retired in 2011, following a brief spell at SuperSport United.
3. Mark Fish
Mark Fish is a unique case. He started right from the bottom of the ladder as an amateur, yet went on to become a star in the English Premier League – plus one of the greatest South African defenders!
Originally a striker, Fish converted into a defender early in his career. ‘The Big Fish’ caught the eye of Italian giants Lazio in 1996, after a successful three years at Orlando Pirates. He later joined Bolton and Charlton Athletic, making 124 appearances in the Premier League. A cruciate ligament injury, however, forced him to retire in 2007.
Fish’s true legacy, though, will always be tied to South Africa. The 62-time capped defender was a key part of the 1996 AFCON title-winning squad. He scored in the 2-1 quarter-final win over Algeria and made the Team of the Tournament.
2. Aaron Mokoena
‘The Axe’ played senior club football in Europe for 13 years. He memorably starred in the Premier League for Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth, making 124 league appearances. His versatility as a holding midfielder and center-back, as well as his tough tackling technique, made him a great asset for both clubs.
Aaron Mokoena also had stints in the Netherlands for Ajax and in Belgium at Germinal Beerschot and Genk. He called time on his career in 2013 following a spell at Bidvest Wits.
Most notably, Mokoena has the most caps of any player for the South African national team. He made 107 appearances for the Bafana Bafana, playing in three AFCON tournaments and two World Cups.
1. Lucas Radebe
Topping our list of the greatest South African defenders is Lucas Radebe, the man Nelson Mandela once called his ‘hero’.
The Soweto-born star was a special talent, famed for his diving headers and acrobatic scissor kicks. He was an icon for Leeds United and the South African national team. Years after his retirement, he is still held in high esteem.
Radebe started out at Kaizer Chiefs. He played in goal and midfield before finally settling as a defender. He captained the Amakhosi and helped the club win three titles in the now-defunct National Soccer League. A move to Leeds followed in the summer of 1994.
Despite a slow start to life in England, George Graham’s appointment as manager changed everything. Radebe became a key player, a cult hero, and eventually the club’s captain. His displays made him a man in demand across Europe. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United manager, took note. He once said, “Everyone should be interested in Lucas”.
‘The Chief’ was also part of South Africa’s AFCON title triumph in 1996. The 70-time capped star even represented the Bafana Bafana at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.