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’m going to explain what the meaning of the word cap is.

In soccer, a cap is a term used to show how many times a player has appeared for their national team. A player is awarded a cap for every international game they take part in. For example, if a player has played in 10 games, they have 10 caps, and if they have played in 100 games, they have 100 caps.

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 as well as revealing 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 in relation to 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 one’s 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 make an appearance 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”, but 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 player has to actually make an appearance for the team on the soccer field during a game.

Each player who takes part 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 whether they come on as a substitute in the last 30 seconds of the game, 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, but 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 who 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 509 male soccer players who have earnt 100 or more caps for their international team.[source]

However, the top 3 soccer players who have earned more caps than another player are:

1. Ahmed Hassan – 184 caps

Egyptian soccer player Ahmed Hassan holds the record for the most caps held by an international soccer player. Spending the majority of his career playing as an attacking midfielder, he earnt those caps over 16 years and 145 days between 1995 and 2012.

2. Mohamed Al-Deaye – 178 caps

In second place, only 6 caps behind Ahmed Hassan is Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deaye who retired on 178 caps for his country.

Playing between April 1993 and May 2006 Mohamed Al-Deaye earned his caps over 13 years and 32 days.

3. Claudio Suárez – 177 caps

Claudio Suárez comes in at third place on the list of most-capped soccer players.

Playing as a defender for Mexico between July 1992 and June 2006 Claudio Suárez earned his caps over a period of 13 years, 310 days.

Most caps in women’s soccer

In women soccer, there are 342 soccer players who have earnt 100 or more caps for their country.

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

1.Kristine Lilly – 354 caps

The most-capped women’s soccer player of all time is Kristine Lilly.

Playing for the United States between August 1987 and November 2010 she earned her 354 caps over 23 years and 2 months.

2. Christie Pearce – 311 caps

In second place on the list of the most-capped women’s soccer player is Christie Pearce.

Playing mostly as a defender for the United States she earned her 311 caps between February 1997 and September 2015.

3. Christine Sinclair – 296 caps

Canadian soccer player Christine Sinclair is the third most-capped women’s soccer player in history earning her 296 caps between March 2000 and 10 March 2020.

Conclusion and Recommendations

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

If you are interested in more information about “caps” in soccer click here to go to 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, click here to go to my comprehensive glossary of all the terms used in soccer and check out even more of the meanings of words in soccer.

Ben

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. Sign up to the yoursoccerhome.com newsletter here or check out more about me here - Ben Clayfield

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