Have you ever seen or heard soccer commentators, reporters or even players talking about ‘caps’, ‘being capped’, ‘first cap’? You might have been puzzled about what a cap actually means. We are most definitely not talking about a cap being worn on the field of play, as is often done by goalkeepers to protect their eyes from the sun.
Instead, the caps which those phrases relate to are an international appearance by a soccer player. There are many sports that use the word ‘cap’ to refer to international appearances. To explain this further we are going to look at the origins of the word cap being used in this way, and also examine some remarkable history and records relating to them.
Let’s start with the main question about what a cap is, and more specifically where the term originated from. We mentioned in the introduction that a cap is a word used to refer to an international appearance for their country by a soccer player. When they play their first international game, it is called their first cap or being capped for the first time. Each additional appearance adds to the number of caps a player has.
To discover how cap came to be the word used to indicate an international appearance, we have to go back to the earliest years of the sport being organized.
It was on November 30th, 1872, that the first-ever international soccer match took place between Scotland and England.
While playing in the match both Scottish and English players wore headgear, which was normal at the time. Scotland’s players wore a cowl, which is a type of hooded top, and the England players wore school caps from various schools. However, at this point, the awarding of caps for an international appearance had not yet been established.
The practice of presenting a player with a cap first occurred in 1876 when the Football Association in England agreed to a proposal from one of its members at the time. They suggested that each time a player played for England that they be given a white silk cap with an embroidered rose, which is the national flower of England. Since then, all players who play soccer for England are given a cap. In modern times its design has changed to dark blue, with gold colored braiding.
The term ‘being capped’ has been used ever since, when a player plays for their country. However, the practice of those players receiving a cap is not very widespread. Some countries present a cap each year for the games a player has played. Others operate a roll of honor for players who play a certain number of matches. However, the tradition that England continues to follow is not replicated in many countries.
Given that international soccer matches are much rarer than matches played in club soccer, the appearance opportunities are obviously less too. Whereas a player might play between 40 to 60 matches a season for their club depending on how far their team progress in competitions, that same player may be limited to just 10 to 15 international matches.
As a result of this, it is seen as quite a feat for a player to reach certain appearance landmarks during their career. You also have to consider that they are competing with every other professional player from their country for a place on the team, as well as the potential for injuries or suspensions which may curtail the opportunity to play an international match.
Since that first international match back in 1872, the progression of appearance records and landmarks has steadily moved along in the proceeding decades.
The first player to reach double figures was Scottish player Henry McNeil, in 1881. It wasn’t until a full 13 years later when that record was doubled when Olphert Stanfield played his 20th match for England. We must bear in mind that in those days there were very few international games played so opportunities to increase the number of caps were very limited.
In 1916, Imre Schlosser had the distinction of being the first soccer player to reach 50 caps. If we move all the way forward to 1959, the first centurion was England Billy Wright. He won his 100th cap, fittingly playing against Scotland.
In 1996, Adnan Al Talyani earned cap number 150 playing for the United Arab Emirates, but at the time of writing, no male soccer player has yet reached 200 caps, with the current record being 184 caps for Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan.
We say male soccer player because, in women’s soccer, the records relating to international caps are astonishing. At the time of writing, 275 female soccer players have achieved 100 caps. At least 20 players have over 200 caps, and there are two players who have made over 300 appearances for their country.
Both are American with Christie Rapone having 311 caps to her name when she retired in 2015. Kristine Lilly holds the record for any international soccer player with 354 caps. The amazing thing about this record is there are some current players who could potentially better that figure in the next few years.