Although strikers get much of the glory in soccer, the fullbacks who play anonymously behind them assure that the strikers’ goals are not negated by defensive lapses. In the elite women’s game, for example, players such as Kate Markgraf may be less known than Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, but she helped anchor the U.S. women’s national team in 201 international games of stingy defense. She worked for 11 years seamlessly with her teammates, demonstrating the role of a fullback as the team collected medals in the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the Olympics.
In American football, the fullback is an offensive player, usually an especially big and muscular athlete who lines up behind the quarterback, at the greatest distance from the line of scrimmage. He primarily blocks for the halfback or tries to gain a first down in short-yardage situations. In soccer, a fullback similarly lines up at the greatest distance behind the midfield line during kickoffs. But she focuses on defense, and this is in a sense more analogous to a cornerback or safety in American football terms.
In a typical 4-4-2 formation, four fullbacks line up in front of the goalkeeper and behind four midfielders and two forwards. Even if a team tries to have a beefier midfield by adding another midfielder to play in the 4-5-1, the number of fullbacks stays constant. A team with an overwhelming advantage over another team might consider a three-fullback lineup, but such a formation is considered dated given the offensive strengths of most teams in the modern era.
In the four-fullback formation, two center fullbacks stand nearest the middle of the field. One may cheat somewhat forward and act as a stopper, trying to steal the ball from any forwards rampaging down the center of the field. The other center fullback may stand slightly behind the stopper, acting as a sweeper -- the player who acts as the last line of defense before the goalkeeper. Sweepers also play a leadership role within the defense, calling out teammates by name and instructing them to pick up attacking players on the other team.
The right and left fullbacks, also called wing backs, stand toward the edges of the field. They try to keep attacking players out on the wings, unable to dribble into the center or cross the ball in toward the penalty area for a possible shot on the goal. The wing backs may create instant offense if they succeed in creating a turnover. They can dribble forward with the ball, pass it to the wing midfielder playing in front of them, to the center midfielder or all the way up to one of the forwards.