What Is a Cap in Soccer?

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Soccer is a passionate sport with millions of avid followers around the globe. Whether you are a newly anointed fan or an old one, you may not know all the terminologies used in the game. One of the most perplexing terminologies is that the players earn a “cap” for games they take part in. What makes it so confusing is that the soccer uniform does not even have a cap.

So, what is a cap in soccer?

What Is a Cap In Soccer?

The term cap in soccer is used to describe the number of international games a soccer player has played. A player earns a cap whenever they represent their respective country on the field, regardless of how well they played or how many minutes they played in a game.

While players no longer receive a physical cap for participating in international matches, the term “cap” is still used for describing this.

Players reaching for soccer ball on the field

The concept may seem simple i.e. you play a match you earn a cap. However, you may be wondering, how did the term originate? Do players get actual caps? What happens when a player plays for multiple countries? Who has the most number of caps? To find out the answer to all these questions and more, keep reading!

How Does a Soccer Player Earn a Cap?

To earn a cap, the player has to play in an international match. That being said, not every soccer game is regarded as an international “A” game. Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world governing body for soccer, identifies only certain international games where a player can earn a cap. These include:

  • Games of FIFA World Cup
  • Qualifying games for a World Cup
  • Continental competitions and their qualifying games
  • Olympics final and qualifying games
  • Friendly games between senior national teams

Being selected for your country’s national team is one the biggest milestones for a soccer player. However, just because you get a chance to be a part of your country’s national team, does not mean you receive a cap. You have to make an appearance on the field at some point throughout the duration of the match, even if it is for a short while.

Thus, every substitute who plays a match in addition to the original 11 players earns a cap.

Do the Soccer Players Receive Actual Caps?

The simple answer to the often asked question is no, the players do not get actual caps, except for English players. In England, the players still get a physical cap for every international match or a single cap for the entire tournament.

At the start of every game, or whenever a substitute enters the field, you may have heard the announcers mentioning the number of caps earned by that player. The term “received a cap” largely uses metaphorically today to signify a player’s experience in the game.

A player can give an actual embroidered cap to commemorate their significant milestones. These can include caps awarded for 50 or 100 appearances for the country’s national team. However, there are no official rules about giving caps to the players and the practice does not take place in every country with a soccer team.

It is up to the national federations to make the decision of awarding a commemorative cap.

Teams playing soccer ball on field

History of the Term “Cap” in Soccer?

The term “cap” to define a player’s appearance in an international match originated from the fact that players were initially given physical caps for every game they took part in. These caps had the team’s name, date, score, etc. embroidered on them, so that the players can have a keepsake from a momentous occasion of their careers.

According to David Barber, from the Football Association (FA), the idea for awarding players with caps was proposed by N. Lane Jackson, also known as “Pa” Jackson, in the 1880s. It is said that he poached the idea from Cricket. In May 1886, the ideas was approved and it stated that all English players taking part in the future international matches would be presented with a white silk cap, embroidered with a red rose on the front. As soccer grew in popularity around the world, other countries also adopted this custom.

Did Soccer Players Ever Wear Caps?

In the early soccer days, the teams did not wear matching jerseys, as is the custom today. Instead, they wore caps to distinguish themselves from the other team. The evidence of the first international match where the players wore caps is an illustration depicting a soccer match played in 1872.

The illustration shows a match between the old playing rivals, England and Scotland. The English players wore various school caps, while their Scottish opponents wore cowls.

The practice of wearing caps in the early years was not particularly strange. The earlier soccer balls were stitched from leather, so they could retain their shape, and were particularly heavy, so heading the ball was not very common.

Can a Soccer Player Earn Caps for Multiple Countries?

Technically, the players can earn caps for more than one country. The initial rules stated, in simple terms, that if a player has represented a country in an official capacity, they could not play for a representative team of another association. However, the changing global landscape forced FIFA to introduce rules that made it possible for players to play for another country.

One example where FIFA had to come up with a contingency plan was when players from the disbanded USSR wanted to represent the newly formed country of their heritage. The other scenario included players who moved to another country and became permanent residents of that country. This phenomenon has grown in the past few years, where players file a “one-time switch” to be able to play for another federation.

However, the players cannot switch back to the original team regardless of any circumstances.

Which Soccer Player Has the Most Caps?

The majority of soccer players who top the list of most-capped players started their careers young. In addition, all of these players have phenomenal capabilities that allowed them to earn this honor.

Player reaching for soccer ball on game

Amongst male soccer players, FIFA presently recognizes 584 players who have earned 100 or more caps for their teams. The top three players of this list are:

  1. Soh Chin Ann (195 caps): Soh Chin Ann is a Malaysian player who has earned the most caps over the period of almost 15 years between 1969 and 1984.
  2. Bader Al-Motawaa (188 caps): Bader Al-Motawaa represents Kuwait’s national team. He began his international career in 2003 when he earned his first cap and the last game he played was on 15th of November 2021. His career is still ongoing.
  3. Ahmed Hassan (184): Ahmed Hassan is an Egyptian player who began his career in 1995 and earned his last cap in 2012. He had a career span of more than 16 years.

Amongst female soccer players, FIFA presently recognizes 361 players who have earned 100 or more caps for their teams. The top three players of this list are all from the United States:

  1. Kristine Lilly (354 caps): Kristine Lilly earned her first cap in 1987 and last cap in 2010. She is also the oldest female soccer player to score a goal in the World Cup.
  2. Carli Lloyd (316 caps): Carli Lloyd appeared in her first international match in 2005 and earned her last cap in 2021. The game was also her last game ever as she announced her retirement from the sport after a 16 years career.
  3. Christie Pierce (311 caps): Christie Pierce received her caps between 1997 and 2015, with a prolific career span of more than 18 years.

The Importance of the Jersey in Soccer Modern Usage

The most important piece of paraphernalia or garment in modern soccer is the player’s jersey. Soccer players mostly wear a new jersey for every game, especially in international matches.

They also occasionally keep in museums.

Related Questions

What Does 100 Caps Mean for Soccer?

As I discussed above, the term caps refer to the number of times a player appeared on the field for an international match. Thus, 100 caps mean that a player played 100 international games for their team. Receiving 100 caps is one of the biggest honors for any soccer player.

How Many Caps Has Ronaldo Got?

Cristiano Ronaldo has an impressive 184 caps, since he began his career for Portugal in 2003 at the age of 18. He is currently the most-capped player for Portugal, after overtaking Luis Figo’s record of 127 caps in June 2016.  He is currently the third most capped player, tied with Ahmed Hassan of Egypt.

Conclusion

Caps are awarded to soccer players when they appear in an international game. It is a metaphorical way of honoring the player’s abilities in the sport, apart from in England where the players receive actual caps. The concept of given players caps was coined in the 1880s and it was officially approved in 1886.

However, the practice faded while the term is still used.

Tim Frechette is an avid athlete, having played sports like soccer and basketball his entire life. He brings a wealth of athletic knowledge to his writing.