What Is A Cap In Soccer? Soccer Terms Explained

If you spend time watching professional soccer you’ll hear a commentator remark on a player’s caps. Your first instinct might be to assume that the announcer is referring to the number of times the player has captained the team. This is a common misconception, but an understandable mistake to make. In soccer what is a cap has a totally different meaning than you would probably expect.

So, What Is a Cap in Soccer?

In soccer, a player earns a cap whenever they play for their national team in an international game.

Yes, they actually have to play in the game. Substitutes or reserves that do not see the field do not earn a cap. 

There are no minimums or maximums for time either. The player who plays 80 minutes before being substituted off and the player who is substituted on to play the last 10 minutes (plus stoppage time) both earn a cap for the match. Even if a player plays 2 minutes, or the last 30 seconds of the match, they earn a cap.

What Is a Cap in International Soccer?

It’s the same thing: a player that represents the national team in an international soccer match. In fact, players can only earn a cap for playing international soccer. Professional players do not earn caps for their Bundesliga, Premier League, MLS, or La Liga match appearances.

Why Call Them Caps?

Historically players used to receive an actual physical cap for their international appearance. These hats were given to players to commemorate the event of playing for their national side. The practice of giving caps has died down in popularity, although some teams still do it. Instead of giving a cap for each game, often teams will give out caps to players for their participation in tournaments like the World Cup or Euros.

How Important Are Caps in Soccer?

The opportunity to represent their national squad it’s a tremendous source of pride for most players. The national team often represents a player’s earliest soccer dreams before being concerned with professional contracts.

That being said, are the players with the most caps the best in the world? 

Well, not necessarily. In fact, some of the all-time highest caps earners are names even diehard soccer fans may not be familiar with. Currently, the most capped FIFA player of all time is from Kuwait.

Don’t get us wrong, they’re excellent soccer players, but there are situations where certain players are simply at a level that’s much higher than the rest of the talent from their country. They’re the metaphorical big fish in a small pond. This leads to them having an extended national team career and earning an inflated number of caps that even legendary players from countries like England, or Germany are going to struggle to match. 

Can a Player Earn a Cap for Multiple Teams in Soccer?

Yes, but it’s a fairly special situation, and the rules have changed as recently as 2020. Traditionally, players could only earn a cap for a different international team if they only ever played in an international friendly with their first team.

Here is how FIFA’s 2020 ruling changed national squad eligibility:

  • Players can now switch one time, as long as:
    • They’ve played 3 games or less while under 21 for their current National squad.
    • No appearance in any major tournaments like the World Cup for their first national team.
    • They have provable current and historic nationality to the new member nation.

There are certain circumstances where FIFA will even allow a reverse or a player to switch back from their second national team to their first. But those are the only national team changes that are possible. For more information, watch this brief video outlining the new rules and FIFA’s principles behind them.

That’s That on Soccer Caps

In short, caps are important to players but they’re not necessarily a reliable metric for skill or talent. Players should always cherish the opportunity to play for their national team, but when comparing statistics between players it’s important to remember that number of caps isn’t the best comparison point for determining the best player.

Other pressing Soccer Questions Answered

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Bryan Coe

Bryan is the founder of The Soccer Handbook. He has been playing soccer since he was 8 years old, continues to play, and has also done his share of volunteer coaching over the years. Bryan’s mission is to help coaches coach better and help people enjoy the beautiful game throughout their lives.


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