From father figure to enforcer, the role of club captain has always held a special place in the hearts of players and fans alike.
In this article, we will delve deeper into just what makes a soccer captain, their role on the field and off, and their responsibilities to their teammates and fans.
A Captains Role In The Team
There are many roles a captain must take on in soccer, both on-field and off, to ensure the club heads in the right direction.
A soccer team may be comprised of 11 players on the field, but just like any business, there has to be a hierarchy, one man (or woman) in charge.
In soccer, that person is the manager, but unlike many businesses, this manager can’t go everywhere, he or she cannot step onto the field with the team, directing and encouraging, and that is where the club captain comes in.
The captain has to be the managers’ eyes and ears on the pitch, an extension of their will, and a shining example to the rest of the team. Over the years there have been some world-class soccer captains, inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, dominating both their team and that of the opposition.
You could argue that keeping a captain onside is almost as important as keeping the manager happy. A soccer captain has the ears of the players, which means make him unhappy, and pretty soon the manager finds the rest of the team has lost a yard of pace too, passes become misplaced, wins become losses.
A happy captain ensures the players stick to the plan on the field, leads by example off it. In European soccer in the 80s and 90s, the captain would be the one organizing the mammoth drinking sessions so prevalent of the era.
While the days of bad food and even worse beer may have gone, the role of team bonding certainly hasn’t. And It is one of the roles required of the team leader to ensure the squad is happy and working well together.
Captains That Lead Through Personality
A prime example of this captain affecting club culture is Manchester United’s Bryan Robson, who, after moving to United in 1981 and going on to become their longest-serving captain, ensured team cohesion through being both a world-class player, with an astounding will to win, and also for building team spirit with the now infamous drinking club.
Incoming manager Sir Alex Ferguson soon put the drinking club to bed, however, as the players were far too interested in a drink to be able to run properly on a Saturday.
Robson took his role seriously, both player, fan, and manager alike all knew without a doubt that he would train harder, run further, and at times carry his team, being the complete captain.
Loyal, and willing to play through the pain barrier, Robson personified the word leader, and his understanding of what it meant to captain a club as big as Manchester meant that he not only took on the role, but became known as the standard bearer for it.
Captains That Lead Through Fear
No article on soccer captains would be complete without mentioning the fearsome Roy Keane, the now TV pundit forged a career at Manchester United, captaining his team as a midfield enforcer the likes of which probably won’t be seen again.
Keanes’ role as captain was simple. Ensure the players won, and kept on winning, or face the wrath of Roy. If he felt a player wasn’t quite pulling his weight in training, the offending teammate would soon get to hear about it. Standards were maintained, or else.
A disciplinarian himself, Sir Alex Ferguson gave Keane free rein to lead from the front, expecting his teammates to give the same level of commitment that he gave every second of the match.
Even as a TV pundit, the sight of Roy Keane trying to wring the neck of his microphone as he glowers down onto the pitch at an offending player who he feels is not up to standard sends shudders down the spine.
Giving the impression he was born wearing the captains’ armband, you still get the feeling that you should be trying to impress the former player, second-rate effort will not do.
Captains That Lead By Example
Another great example of a captain influencing club and player culture through making a role his own is Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, captain of the club from 2003 to 2015.
While not encouraging a drinking culture, and by no means being the most vocal captain ever, Gerrard made the role his own, bringing his desire, his love for the club and fans, and his sheer work rate and skill to the team for over 700 games.
As captain of the famous Anfield club, Gerrard understood the need for leadership, to be the example that the rest of the players would follow, and having followed the club all of his life, Gerrard knew the history of his predecessors, a line of Liverpool captains that had for almost 4 decades been used to winning.
Similar is the great Paolo Maldini of A.C Milan, both Gerrard and Maldini led by example, molding the role to suit their personalities. Leading through willpower and determination, both captains won almost every
trophy available, something that would have been highly unlikely had they not been playing for their respective teams.
It is clear that the role of the modern soccer player has evolved, and so too has that of captain, A Roy Keane would be banned from 75% of modern games if he played like the fate of the world rested on the next tackle.
A Bryan Robson would fare better, although the social aspect of players going out on 12-hour drinking sessions would soon impact team performance. There will always be a place in the modern team for a leader like Steven Gerrard, or the elegance of a Paolo Maldini, reading the game from the back, carrying his club forward.
Can a Captain Become a Great Manager?
Whenever a player needs picking up, or putting in their place, it is the captain who first steps up, the manager needs to keep a relative distance from his players. While ultimate responsibility lies with the one wearing the suit, the captain takes ownership of the players behaviour and motivation.
Many superb players went on to manage football teams after being club captain, and strangely, many fail at the role.
It is not hard to assume that one of the reasons for this is that as a player, they could project their personality on the game, pulling lesser players along through their determination and pursuit of excellence.
As a manager, finding that players don’t have your skill or ambition often leads to confrontation and a breakdown in trust.
Captaining through example and work rate never goes out of fashion, but for all of these players, and for many more that haven’t been mentioned today, there are attributes that they all had in common when going in to management, attributes that make some excel, and others crumble.
Responsibility Weighs Heavy On These Shoulders
While a role or attribute can be to some extent described as a tangible characteristic, “a powerful midfield dynamo, taking a game and his team by the scruff of the neck and leading them to glory” is something you can see, and experience; responsibility is something a little harder to quantify.
While many players try to take responsibility for themselves and their own game, a captain must rise above this, seeing the bigger picture, not just this game, but the season as a whole.
He, or she, must take responsibility for their colleagues mistakes, their attitudes, and their wellbeing.
An excellent example of this type of player was Carlos Puyol, the retired captain of FC Barcelona.
While looking slightly unkempt, with his hair bouncing everywhere, Puyol was both feared and respected by teammate and opposition alike. Taking responsibility for each member of his team, at the first sign of trouble you would often see Puyol racing towards trouble in an effort to calm or protect his players.
Known affectionately to Barcelona fans as “The Wall”, Puyol played for 15 years at Camp Nou, 10 of them as captain, and the driving force behind this player, and his decade long tenure as captain was his ability to take responsibility on the pitch.
From defending his goal from any threats, to demanding excellence from his colleagues, to feeling personally responsible for every game lost, Carlos Puyol exemplifies the need for a team to have someone to carry that immense pressure on their shoulders.
What Attributes Does a Captain Need?
In case you hadn’t thought about it before, can you think of a team, in any sport, that has won, or done the impossible, and didn’t have a leader in there somewhere?
When you think of the great soccer teams, from Manchester, Liverpool, Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona, all had great leaders in the squad. Sometimes it may be a great manager, and there are many examples of a quality manager winning something with a team that was not expected to win.
But the teams that keep winning, all had great captains and all of them had at least some of these attributes:
- Strong personality/Strength of character
Some captains can get away without a few of these attributes, but the very best, the most successful, have them all in abundance.
It is their ability to assume the role,often from an early age, to display these qualities in front of their teammates and crowds, that makes the guy that wears the armband one of the most influential players available to the manager.
Are Soccer Captains Obsolete?
The short answer is no, the long answer is possibly. Setting being captain of your National team aside, players rarely stay at clubs for long enough to become the indomitable leaders of yesteryear.
The One-club-captain is a thing of the past, and with it is the burning desire to, above all else, get your team to win through your own force of will.
Every captain named above had one standout characteristic, they all wore the armband at one club for around a decade, and that sort of loyalty, or indeed club stability, is becoming rare.
There will always be a captain, but too often you will see the armband being passed around like a bag of sweets. When being the leader meant more, you would often have to prise the captaincy from the man in question. Would you want to be the one to tell Roy Keane you were after his job?
It is also telling that the players mentioned are all retired, as the role has changed, so have the players who take up the mantle.
With the possible exception of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool, a captain who leads by example and demands his colleagues give the same, the focus in many teams in the modern game is a creative playmaker, a talisman who lifts the crowd through their goalscoring or their flair.
Whatever the answer, there will always be fans whose fondest memories were of believing in their clubs leader, of their loyalty and desire to above all else, win.