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The Paradox of the England Captaincy, And Does Anyone Care?

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There’s always much debate in the English media about who is to be England captain. It seems as though Capello is sticking with Ferdinand, after Gerrard’s successful stint with the arm band. Is Rio a good captain? Who knows? How would he prove he was or wasn’t?

The role of Captain is an odd one. It’s always had tremendous status in the English game but I’ve never really been sure why. In Italy, the player with the most caps tends to do the honours and it’s not seen as such a big deal. In England there seems to be a tendency to want to see the captain as a fine upstanding gent, a role model and a spiffing fellow who is somehow a symbol of the nation. Presumably this is why Terry was stripped of it – because he had somehow proven to be morally not upright enough for the honor. That’s a bit odd really but shows how seriously English football takes the job.

But in reality all he’s required to do is call the coin toss, exchange a pennant and do a few press conferences. The media side of things is a bigger deal than in any previous era and the captain needs to be more articulate than most, which often sounds like a struggle for some of the less loquacious. But it’s not an especially unique skill.

There’s no typical type of man that becomes captain. The shouty ones tend to be the alpha males who take it upon themselves to act as some sort of inspirational figure, though in reality this largely just means clapping your hands together loudly in the tunnel and shouting “C’mon lads!”

Those who are less keen on shouting out a lot, are often said to be leading by example on the pitch. This was often said of David Beckham. Indeed in the 21st century, Beckham was the ideal captain. He could charm the media, look lovely on TV and knock in a few exquisite crosses. As a totem for the brand of Team England he was a marketing man’s dream. Occasionally he would also drag England through a game almost single-handedly, not because he was captain, but because he was that sort of player. It also meant so much to him which, even to someone who finds such accolades rather trivial, felt uplifting and righteous somehow. His belief in the role seemed to elevate the role itself.

In modern football, the captain is really not a general leading his troops into battle, he doesn’t have any unique wisdom nor any properly defined role beyond the ceremonial ones, and yet it remains one of the biggest honors in the game – to captain your country – and even though I can find no reason why it should be so special, even I feel that it would somehow be the pinnacle of your career and something to be mightily proud of. A strange paradox indeed.

Editor’s Note: Johnny’s new book: “We Ate All The Pies: How Football Swallowed Britain Whole” has received the massive honour of being listed as one of William Hill’s Sports Book Of The Year 2010 – the biggest, most prestigious sports books prize in UK.

Buy it here via Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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  1. SantaClaus

    October 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    At international level the captaincy is mostly ceremonial. Who the captain is does not affect the performance of the team. Do what Spain does which is give the captaincy to the player who has played the most international games.

  2. Kip

    October 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    As far as I know nobody remotely cares in England who the captain is. It’s a media-fuelled ‘story’ consumed only by the media.

    Captains are important in cricket and rugby union, not football.

  3. David

    October 11, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    Capello’s handling of the captaincy is a perfect example of why he can’t command the respect of his players. To wait until 24 hours before the match before announcing it is downright stupid and shows appalling man-management skills. His English has hardly improved and he can’t understand the nuances and banter taking place between his charges. Compare that with Ancelotti whose skills in English were fairly rudimentary when he started, but he applied himself rigorously to improving it and he now commands total loyalty from his players. Terry’s off-field antics are hardly exemplary, but he’s still THE leader. Ferguson appointed Vidic over Ferdinand, and Gerrard isn’t a galvanizing personality, good footballer though he is. The sooner Capello leaves, the better.

  4. Dave C

    October 11, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    Agreed with most of the people above who have pointed out that Beckham NEVER single handedly dragged England to victory. The only time any one could ever claim he did such a thing (vs Greece) was essentially an act of massive revisionism by people who don’t really watch (or know anything about) football. He played with zero tactical discipline in that game – chasing ALL over the field like a headless chicken. To people who don’t understand sport, they thought he was the hardest working man on the field, and therefore some great hero. The fact he scored the vital freekick cemented their view. People who are actually football fans generally realized (at the time, and afterwards), that he was playing pretty badly, and was just fortunate to score a free kick (at the 4th, 5th attempt?) to gloss over his performance.

    As for Gerrard, I think the guy looks like he’s gonna poop his pants every time he leads the team out. I agree the role is (or at least should be) entirely ceremonial, but if the role means ANYTHING, then it can’t be a role best filled by a guy who looks like he’s about to wet himself. I don’t believe the great Gerrard myth.

    • Up the Chels!

      October 11, 2010 at 9:10 pm

      The great Gerrard myth is based on a few good games about 5 years ago for Gerrard. From then on he’s been just another playing living on his past glories. But then again, I’m biased as to the best English central midfielder.

      • Kyle

        October 12, 2010 at 1:36 am

        I have to disagree his England preformances as of late have been better than anyone else on form alone he should be captain. On form outside of Rooney he is the only player capable of winning a match on his own. Fact. Hungary in August was a example of that.

        • Up the Chels!

          October 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

          I never said that Gerrard wasn’t the best player on the pitch for England since the world cup, with the possible exception of Ashley Cole. I do strongly disagree with your assessment of Gerrard’s form being capable of winning a match single-handed. On his current form, Gerrard is the best of a bunch of mediocre players, because that’s what the vast majority of players on the England National Team have been playing like, mediocre.

          If you want to go on form ALONE, then Ashley Cole should be captain. He is far and away the best player on the English National Team. However, he’s also the villain of this generation of players so he will never be captain.

      • UpTheBlues

        October 12, 2010 at 8:27 am

        Sure you’re biased. . . he’s still the best 😉

      • Dave C

        October 12, 2010 at 6:08 pm

        Exactly – he’s been living off his performance in Istanbul for 4-5 yrs now…

  5. UpTheBlues

    October 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    No one cares if Ferdinand has the armband because truly there is only one England captain. . . you know who he is.

  6. Iain Foulds

    October 11, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I’m going to second Phoenix73 on the Beckham issue. I go along with the idea that the captain should be someone who leads by example and is an upstanding gent all round, so I have no qualms over Terry being removed from the position as a result, and also means I’ve a bit peeved that Cattermole continues to be Sunderland captain… Anyways, after France ’98, Beckham should never have been given the captain’s armband. I’m all for giving people second chances – no problem with Beckham playing another 8 years for the national team, just not as captain. He was a good footballer, but really it was limited to flashes of it with the odd cross or free-kick that was bang-on. Beyond that, eh, he was okay, nothing more. Being pretty might help to spread football to new countries, such as how Man U expanded so heavily in the Far East, but I don’t want the England captain or any England player setting the example to kids of being one that seeks media coverage with a third-rate pop singer to boost his own ego rather than focusing on his profession that he gets paid a few quid for. Footballers are judged by results, and honestly, there were other outstanding footballers on the teams Beckham played on that ended up winning a number of his medals for him 😉

  7. Phoenix73

    October 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Have to disgree with you on one point about David Beckham. I don’t believe he has ever dragged England to victory. People go on about the game against Greece and how he scored the goal that got us through. I see it as him not playing in the position he was supposed to and so unbalancing the side. He got lucky by scoring the goal. I have never got this Beckham worship. He is a reasonably talented player that was highly determined, who made his name in a good Man Utd side. However, he is not the type of player that can drag a team forward. Gerrard is and has shown it many times.

  8. Duke

    October 11, 2010 at 11:19 am

    I think team captains are pretty ceremonial in all sports anymore. In American football the captain communicates with the referee on whether or not to accept a penalty (which decision is actually communicated to the captain from the sideline), but that’s about it to my knowledge. I really don’t see why this matters.

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