What Is A Cap In Football? The Definition & Explanation

What Is A Cap In Football? The Definition & Explanation

Football (or soccer) has been around for quite some time, and while the sport has made huge strides, it has retained certain terms and phrases used to refer to certain achievements in the game– like a cap– that are as old as the sport itself.

So, what is a cap in football, how did the term come into the world of football, and who holds the record for most caps in the world?

Let’s dive in.

What Is A Cap in Football?

In football, a cap refers to a player’s appearance on an international level.

When a commentator says that some particular player has 80 caps, that means that the player has played 80 international games.

The term is also used in other sports as an indicator of the number of appearances a player has represented a national team. 

Players in football are also awarded caps when they represent their country on the pitch.

For example, in 2021, England’s Euro 2020 squad was given special red ‘Legacy Caps’ to mark their unique place on the national team.

Related: What is a brace in football?

Caps Meaning in Football: Why Is It Called a Cap? 

The term cap dates back to the practice of teams using specific caps instead of matching strips to distinguish between teams

The concept of matching strips and kits came around the time when league structure began to emerge in the late nineteenth century, but before that, players (at least in the UK) wore specific caps. 

The earliest example is the first game between England and Scotland in 1872. Illustrations of that match show the Scottish players wearing cowls and the English wearing school caps. 

Then, later in 1886, English sports administrator and author N. Lane Jackson suggested all England players that make an appearance for the country should be awarded an embroidered cap. His suggestion was improved and continues to this day. 

However, nowadays, the practice of awarding players caps is not as common as it was back then. But, players are ceremoniously given caps (or a custom kit) when they reach a milestone, like the 50th or 100th time they play for the national team.

Related: What is a foul throw-in in football?

How Do You Earn a Cap in Football?

The  Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world’s governing body for soccer, only recognises certain international games where a player can be awarded a cap, including:

  • Matches played in a FIFA World Cup
  • Matches played in the qualifying competitions for a World Cup
  • Continental competitions and their qualifying games
  • Friendly games between national teams
  • Olympic qualifying matches and final

This means a player can play 100 games for their club but never earn a single cap since they haven’t made an international appearance.

Worth noting: If a player is selected for an international squad but doesn’t appear on the pitch, they will not earn a cap. Players have to make an appearance on the field to receive a cap.

Who Has The Most Caps In Football?

The world record for most caps in soccer is currently held by retired American female player Kristine Lilly, who has a total of 354 caps.

She played for the United States women’s national team for 23 years and is the most capped football player in the history of football in both the women’s and men’s categories

In the men’s category, the player who has earned the most caps is Soh Chin Ann from Malaysia, who’s also retired from the sport. 

However, it seems it’s inevitable that Cristiano Ronaldo will become the most capped player in football history.

Male players with the most caps

  1. Soh Chin Ann – 195 caps (Malaysia)
  2. Bader Al-Mutawa – 193 caps (Kuwait)
  3. Cristiano Ronaldo – 187 caps (Portugal)
  4. Ahmed Hassan – 184 caps (Egypt)
  5. Sergio Ramos – 181 caps (Spain)
  6. Ahmed Mubarak – 180 caps (Oman)
  7. Maynor Figueroa – 180 caps (Honduras)
  8. Claudio Suarez – 176 caps (Mexico)
  9. Hossam Hassan – 176 caps (Egypt)
  10. Gianluigi Buffon – 175 caps (Italy)

Female players with the most caps

  1. Kristine Lilly – 354 caps (USA)
  2. Carli Lloyd – 316 caps (USA)
  3. Christie Pearse – 311 caps (USA)
  4. Christine Sinclair – 310 caps (Canada)
  5. Mia Hamm – 276 caps (USA)
  6. Julie Foudy – 274 caps (USA)
  7. Abby Wambach – 255 caps (USA)
  8. Joy Fawcett – 241 caps (USA)
  9. Formiga – 234 caps (Brazil)
  10. Heather O’Rilley – 231 caps (USA)

Football Caps Meaning: Bottom Line

In football (or soccer), the term cap is used to describe how many international matches a player has taken part in.

Caps are awarded to all players that have made an international appearance, a tradition that dates back to at least 1872, when strips weren’t the norm and players wore caps to distinguish themselves.


Why do footballers get caps?

Players in football (and sometimes other sports) receive caps for their international appearances. 

Can you earn caps for multiple countries?

Football allows players to earn caps from different international teams. After the rule change in 2020, which no longer ties players to one international team based on a single appearance when they were younger, players can earn caps from different organisations.

Do players still get a physical cap?

Nowadays, players rarely get awarded an actual cap for international appearances. In modern football, players usually receive custom jerseys to celebrate milestone caps, but some organisations have preserved the practice of awarding physical caps to players.

What is a cap in football?

A cap in football is a term that refers to the number of times a player has made an international appearance.

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