Brazil has seldom unearthed great defenders. But between 1989 and 2000, the Seleção was served by a player who was worthy of inclusion in this bracket. Imposing yet elegant, Aldair Santos do Nascimento, or simply Aldair, provided a rock at the heart of their backline, pocketing 81 caps and helping his country win two Copa America crowns, the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1997 and the 1994 FIFA World Cup™.

His performances in USA were crucial to his country's fourth FIFA World Cup conquest. While Romario was a deserved recipient of the adidas Golden Ball and Dunga gained applause for his impelling leadership, Aldair's unwavering command of the backline helped Brazil beat tournament top scorers Sweden 1-0 in the semi-finals and keep another clean sheet against Italy in the final, which the South Americans ultimately won on penalties.

Aldair's success was not limited to international level. He won league titles in his homeland and in Italy, as well as helping Portuguese giants Benfica reach the final of the European Cup, the forerunner to the UEFA Champions League. It is, coincidentally, this same competition that has drawn the now 41-year-old out of a retirement that he has enjoyed the fruits of since 2004. Now, as the legendary stopper prepares to marshal Sanmarinese hopefuls S.S Murata's rearguard in their two-legged preliminary tie against Finnish champions Tampere United, reflects on Aldair's career and looks ahead to his latest challenge.

Giallorossi icon
Aldair's journey to majesty began in 1986 with Flamengo and the following year, despite being tasked with filling Mozer's sizeable void, he excelled as O Mengão claimed the Copa Uniao title. Benfica signed Aldair in 1989, ironically as a replacement for the Marseille-bound Mozer, and in his lone season in Lisbon he performed a crucial function as the Portuguese giants reached the final of the European Cup, where they narrowly lost out to AC Milan.

After warming Brazil's bench during their ill-fated 1990 FIFA World Cup campaign, Adair moved on to Roma, initiating a long and happy marriage between player and club. During 13 seasons in the Italian capital, the Brazilian clocked up more than 400 appearances, endearing himself to the Giallorossi supporters with his impeccably timed tackles, astute stewardship of the defence and never-say-die attitude. At long last, after getting his hands on Italian football's tributary prize - the Coppa Italia - in 1991, Aldair lifted aloft the Serie A trophy in 2001, enhancing his position in Roma's stunning pantheon of legends.

When the time came for the Ilheus native to leave Roma he received offers to remain in the Italian top flight, but the loyal custodian did not even entertain the proposals. "I could not play against Roma," he declared. "This shirt now seems like a second skin to me." His love for the club was reciprocated. Indeed, Roma duly retired the No6 jersey Aldair carried so admirably, a distinction previously reserved for the likes of Luigi Riva, Diego Maradona and Franco Baresi, whose Cagliari No11, Napoli No10 and AC Milan No6 shirts were withdrawn in tribute.

Surprise return
Instead, the 37-year-old joined then Italian Serie B side Genoa and when, following a brief swansong in Liguria, he decided to call time on his career, nobody could begrudge him retirement. So why then, after enjoying his freedom and receiving his footballing fill on the beach soccer circuit, has the veteran elected to dust off his boots and turn out for Murata?

The answer is a continuing desire to play the 11-a-side game - and the persuasive tone of player with whom he crossed paths in the Italian Serie A. That player is Massimo Agostini, who at 43 fired Murata to the league title in San Marino last term, and consequently a place in the preliminary phase of the UEFA Champions League. However, the team's previous foray into continental competition ended in a 7-1 aggregate defeat to Cypriots Apoel Nicosia in the first round of qualifying for the 2006/07 UEFA Cup, an outcome which rendered Agostini determined to convince his pal to join him on the Italian Peninsula.

Aldair may not be able to call on former colleagues such as Zico, Giuseppe Giannini, Romario, Roberto Carlos, Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo and Francesco Totti when Tampere United visit San Marino for the first leg on 17 July, but if he can help Murata reach the next stage of Champions League qualifying, he is sure to be the toast of his new team-mates.