What Is a Cap in Soccer? The Meaning and History of the Term

what is a cap in soccer - text over image

When you start getting involved in soccer, you hear all sorts of terminology thrown around. One of the more common words you may hear players or spectators use is the word “cap” or a phrase like “player x has multiple caps.” But many people don’t understand what a cap means in soccer.

In this article, I will explain the meaning of the term “cap.”

In soccer, a cap is a term used to describe how many international games a player has participated in. The term originated in England, where players were given a physical cap to commemorate their involvement in an international game. Players no longer receive a physical cap, but the term is still used.

Although this explains what the term means or refers to, it doesn’t explain why a player’s appearance in a soccer game is called a cap or where the term originated.

Well, keep reading, and we’ll find out the answer to those questions and reveal which soccer players have gained the most caps for their respective countries.

International soccer ball cap

How Does a Soccer Player Earn a Cap?

The term “cap” is only used concerning a player’s appearances for their national team at an international level.

The world governing body for soccer, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), only recognizes certain international games as ones where a player can be awarded a cap. These games are regarded as International “A” games.

The list of games where a player can earn a cap includes:

  • Games played within a FIFA World Cup
  • Games played in the qualifying competitions for a World Cup
  • Continental competitions and their qualifying games
  • Friendly games between senior national teams
  • Olympic final and qualifying matches

This means that one soccer player could play 500 games for their club team but never appear in an international game and, therefore, never earn a cap.

Likewise, a player could only play 200 times for their local soccer club but make 50 appearances at an international level and, therefore, earn 50 caps.

Although it is worth saying that there are occasions where you will hear someone refer to the number of times a player has appeared for their club team as “caps,” this is rare and not how the term is commonly used in soccer.

When a soccer player is selected to appear for their national team, it is considered one of the highest honors in the game.

The selection says to the player, and everyone else, that this player is one of the best soccer players in the country and they are good enough to go and represent their country in an international soccer game.

They will then join up with the rest of the squad of players and prepare to play against another international team.

However, this selection in itself is not enough to earn a player a cap.

Just because they have been selected for the squad doesn’t automatically mean they receive a cap.

To receive a cap, a soccer player must make an appearance for their team on the soccer field during a game.

Each player who participates in the game at some point throughout the regulation 90-minute period will receive a cap to mark their appearance.

Not only the 11 players who start the game but every player who comes on as a substitute at some point throughout the game as well.

Regardless of whether a player plays every minute of a game from start to finish or comes on as a substitute in the last 30 seconds, that player will be awarded a cap for their appearance. [source]

soccer history

Why Is It Called a Cap? History of Term in Soccer

You may or may not be surprised to learn that the reason a soccer player’s appearance in an international game is referred to as a cap is that historically, players were given a physical cap for each international game they played in.

Find out more about the origins of the game of soccer by going to my article on how soccer was invented.

Because playing for your national team is considered such an honor and statement of a player’s abilities, it was decided that the player should have something to show for the occasion, and it was decided that that “something” should be a cap.

In England, in 1886, the first honorary secretary of the Football(soccer) Association, N.L. Jackson proposed that “all players appearing for England should be awarded an embroidered cap” [source]

This proposal was accepted, and from then on, all players who played an international game for England received a cap to mark their appearance.

As soccer spread around the world from England, this practice of awarding a cap to all players who played for their national teams spread with it. It even spread to other sports that also adopted the practice of awarding caps to their players.

Do Players Still Get a Physical Cap?

The practice of actually awarding a physical cap to each player is now not as popular as it once was.

A player may receive an embroidered cap for a significant milestone in their appearances, such as at 50 or 100 appearances for their national team. Still, otherwise, it is rare for a player to be given an actual cap.

However, there are no specific rules about this in soccer, and it is up to each country’s national soccer association to decide what they want to do.

You will find some countries that don’t give their players any caps and some that do.

In England, for example, the practice of giving a cap for every international game still takes place, except for in a tournament where one cap is given to commemorate the entire tournament.

most capped soccer player

Which Soccer Player Has the Most Caps

Most caps in men’s soccer

FIFA (the international governing body for soccer) currently recognizes over 500 male soccer players who have earned 100 or more caps for their international team.[source]

However, the top 3 men’s soccer players who have earned more caps than any other player are:

1. Cristiano Ronaldo – 198 caps

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most well-known soccer players in the world and is often regarded as one of the best ever to play the game.

Ronaldo earned his international soccer caps between August 2003 and March 2023, playing for Portugal.

2. Bader Al-Mutawa – 196 caps

In second place, only two caps behind Cristiano Ronaldo, is striker Bader Ahmed al-Mutawa.

Playing for Kuwait between September 2003 and June 2022, Bader Ahmed al-Mutawa earned his caps over 18 years and 10 months.

3. SOH Chin Ann – 195 caps

SOH Chin Ann comes in third place on the list of most-capped soccer players.

Playing as a defender for Malaysia between November 1969 and October 1984, SOH Chin Ann earned his caps over a period of 14 years and 11 months.

Most caps in women’s soccer

In women’s soccer, 342 players have earned 100 or more caps for their country.

The top 3 most-capped women’s soccer players are:

1. Kristine Lilly – 354 caps

Former United States player Kristine Lilly is the most-capped women’s soccer player of all time.

Playing for the United States between August 1987 and November 2010, she earned 354 caps over 23 years and two months.

2. Christine Sinclair – 323 caps

Canadian soccer player Christine Sinclair is history’s second most-capped women’s soccer player, earning 323 caps between March 2000 and April 2023.

3. Carli Lloyd – 316 caps

Former United States player Carli Lloyd is the third most-capped women’s soccer player of all time.

Carli Lloyd earned her caps for the United States between July 2005 and October 2021, playing as a forward for the team.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Hopefully, you now feel you understand what a cap means in soccer and where and how this term originated.

If you want more information about “caps” in soccer, check out my article about whether or not soccer has a salary cap.

If you’re interested in improving your own game and one day earning a soccer cap yourself, you may be interested in my step-by-step article on some of the easiest soccer tricks and skills to learn.

Alternatively, you may also find it helpful to look at my comprehensive glossary of all the terms used in soccer and check out even more of the meanings of words in soccer.

Ben Clayfield

Hi! My name's Ben. I've played, watched, read about, and enjoyed soccer throughout my life. I really enjoy finding out more about the game I love and sharing it with you all. Find out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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