What Is a Cap in Soccer? Meaning, Importance & Most Capped Players

By Luís Miguel
Updated on

You’ve probably heard the term “cap” whenever there’s a World Cup or national teams are playing international soccer games.

If you don’t know its meaning or why they use that word, you’re in the right place. Everything related to soccer caps is right here in this post.

A cap in soccer, or more accurately, an international cap, is the term used to describe an international appearance by a player for their country or its total amount. It originated in 1800s England when players earned that actual piece of headwear. Although no longer awarded, the term still lives.

There is more to learn on this topic, like how players win caps, why caps are relevant, who are the most capped footballers, and more. Keep reading!

What Is a Cap in Soccer (Football) Terms?

In men’s and women’s soccer, the term “cap” is short for “international cap”. It can have two meanings.

Cap: refers to a specific international appearance made by a soccer player for their country. (Examples: Cristiano Ronaldo won his 100th cap for Portugal against Northern Ireland on October 16, 2012. CR7 reached his 200th international cap for the Portuguese national team against Iceland on June 20, 2023 in a European Qualifiers match.)

Caps: refers to the total amount of international games a soccer player has participated in for their country. (Example: “Sergio Ramos is Spain’s most capped footballer with 180 caps.”)

There are also two types of soccer caps:

  • Junior international caps: Involving all national teams equal or below Under 23 years of age (including Olympic teams for men).
  • Senior international caps: Involving only the senior national squad — the A team — (and Olympic soccer matches for women).

What Is Considered an Official Cap in Soccer?

For a soccer cap to be officially considered or recognized by FIFA, a soccer player needs to:

  1. Have stepped onto the field in the starting eleven or as a substitute and,
  2. Have been a part of, for any length of time, an international match for their country.

Other Cap-Related Terms and Their Meaning

“Winning a cap” or getting a cap refers back to how the term “cap” or “international cap” was introduced and means that a player has made an international game for their country.

“First cap” in soccer means that the player has participated in an international match for their country for the first time.

“100 caps” means a soccer player has reached 100 international appearances for their country.

How Do Soccer Players/Footballers Get a Cap?

A soccer player gets (or earns) a cap each time they step onto the pitch, as one of the starting eleven or as a substitute, to play for their national team in an international match.

It doesn’t matter how long or short they play or even if they touch the ball. What’s matters is whether or not they were in the game.

(Naturally, if they don’t get up from the bench or watch the match from the stands after being called up to the national team, that won’t count as a cap.)

As long as it is a FIFA-sanctioned international level game, any match counts, regardless of the type of international cap (junior or senior).

That means that footballers get caps in competitive and friendly matches alike.

Here’s a list of types of international soccer matches where players can get international caps:

  • Friendlies between national teams;
  • Qualifying games for continental competitions (like the UEFA European Football Championships);
  • Qualifying matches for intercontinental tournaments (like the FIFA World Cup);
  • Olympic soccer tournament games.
  • UEFA European Football Championship, Copa América, or Golden Cup matches.
  • FIFA World cup games.

What Is Not Considered a Cap?

Let’s turn things around and ask a different question.

What does not count as a cap?

Being a part of, participating in, or making an international appearance refers to actually being in an international game for your country’s national team, whether:

  • You are in the starting eleven at the beginning of the match or come in as a substitute player;
  • You’re on the field for one second or the entire duration of the game;
  • You touch the ball or not.

Anything other than that does not constitute a cap.

Here’s a list of situations that do not count as a cap:

  • A player is called up to the national team.
  • A player stays on the bench during the entire game length of an international match between two countries.
  • A player goes to the stand to watch the game their country is playing — meaning they don’t even get to sit on the bench.

Why Are Caps Important?

If having the national team’s head coach call a player up to the national team is already a big feat to that player, going as far as earning an international cap is incredibly significant to footballers.

Being a part of the national roster, playing for their national team, and becoming an international soccer player is any player’s dream, ultimate career goal, and kind of an act of patriotism.

Soccer caps are of great importance because only the best players in a country are selected to represent their country at soccer’s most prestigious competitions and competitions.

International caps are a statement of a player’s quality and the highest honor they can achieve. It raises their status and prestige and marks the pinnacle of their soccer career.

That becomes even truer if you understand that the head coach is free to call up any player they choose, with no restrictions whatsoever.

National teams don’t have to sign players or pay clubs to use them. They only need to select the national players performing the best in any league or team worldwide.

Furthermore, international games between country teams are not very common. Outside of competitions like the World Cup, international teams usually play one or two games every three months.

That makes the selection pool of soccer players huge and the chances to make an international appearance slim, making it even more difficult for a player to be selected and earn a cap.

Why Is It Called a Cap in Soccer?

The term “cap” or “international cap” comes from the actual physical cap that used to be awarded to soccer players each time they represented their country in an international soccer match. It was a way to celebrate that outstanding feat.

Giving out this piece of headwear is not so common anymore, except for special games or participation in major tournaments such as Euros or World Cups.

While each match still counts as a cap statistically, players only get one physical cap with the names of all the opponents and the name of the event on it. This commemoratory cap is called a Cap of Honor.

The modern English caps have the Three Lions emblem on the front with the word England, the match opponent and the date embroidered on the peak, and a silver tassel on top.

Origins of the Term International Cap: History of Soccer

Although many sports use it and the term evolved to a figurative meaning, its origins lay with association football (soccer).

In the late 1800s England, football was taking its first steps. In these early days, wearing matching kits (shirts, shorts, and stockings) was not part of the rules or even widely embraced.

(This was even before FIFA and matching uniforms were required.) Instead, players wore stocks, scarves, or a style of school cap of a similar color to identify their teammates. Besides telling teams apart, the caps helped protect players’ heads.

That happened on November 30, 1872, the date of the first-ever international soccer match (officially recognized) that put Scotland against England at Hamilton Crescent in Partick, Glasgow.

The Scottish players wore dark blue shirts and red cowls (close-fitting woolen caps), and the English players wore white shirts and various school caps.

Four years later, Nicholas Lane Jackson — an English sports administrator, founder of the London Football Association, and part of the committee of the Football Association — made a proposal that would institutionalize awarding caps in internationals.

Jackson proposed that: «all players taking part for England in future international matches may be presented with a white silk cap with a red rose embroidered on the front; these to be termed International Caps».

His proposal received approval in May 1886, but the caps were in blue velvet and had the match date sewn above the embroidered rose, England’s national flower.

Even then, this was largely symbolic as the adoption of matching kits had already begun.

Other sports like Cricket, Rugby, Australian Rules, Archery, Athletics, Bowls, and Rowing soon borrowed this practice from soccer.

Most Capped Men’s Players

Here is a list of the players with the highest number of international games played in men’s soccer.

Name [Country] Number of Caps Last Cap
Cristiano Ronaldo [Portugal] 205 November 19, 2023
Bader Al-Mutawa [Kuwait] 196 June 14, 2022
Soh Chin Ann [Malaysia] 195 October 18, 1984
Ahmed Hassan [Egypt] 184 May 22, 2012
Ahmed Mubarak [Oman] 183 December 2, 2019
Guy wearing an SL Benfica jersey holding soccer ball over his head

Article by:

Luís Miguel

As a true soccer enthusiast, I’m Soccermodo’s team captain. My job is to make sure the site’s content is top-notch so that you, our reader, can focus solely on improving your game and reach new heights.