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The pointless obsession with the England captaincy

16 March 2011

Ferdinand and Beckham: two England captains, no World Cup wins. (Flickr: Thirsty Robot)

The suggestion that John Terry will wear the armband for England later this month has led to cries of outrage. Capello has been called “weak” in some corners, “naive” in others.

Rio Ferdinand also appears to have thrown his toys out the pram; the BBC claims he is “very upset” over the entire situation.

The England football captain has always been an iconic figure, and those appointed will always talk of their “pride to lead the Three Lions out”. Why captains have become so iconic is less clear, particularly when only one has ever lifted a major trophy.

Perhaps all captains live in the shadow of Bobby Moore’s achievement. Perhaps it complies with our image of football as a manly, war-like game, and thus the captain represents a Richard the Lionheart figure who leads his army into battle. The captain is therefore the epitome of courage and leadership, a role model for the entire nation.

However, we now live in the 21st Century. There is more to football than “getting stuck in” and “showing passion for the shirt”, issues I have raised on more than one occasion on this blog. In the modern game of sporting directors, fitness coaches and omnipotent managers, the captain is merely a cog in a much larger machine. Yet England fails to recognise this.

I have plenty of sympathy for Fabio Capello following the most recent uproar. Before the World Cup, he spoke of the captaincy role in Italy.

“Usually it is the most experienced player, the oldest one, the most capped. Always the same. In England it is different; here you choose the captain with different motivation.”

And let’s not forget Italy have won four World Cups, finished runner up twice and third once, whilst England has the mere 1966 triumph to its name. England captains are the centre of attention before every tournament; “how will you motivate your teammates?” “How much of an honour will it be to lead England out in the opening match?” Reading Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s The Italian Job, it would be fair to suggest the Italian media would be much more focused on how the national team will set up tactically, and how to stifle their opponents. The players will share this focus.

Of course Spain’s captain in the 2010 World Cup was Iker Casillas, but no one accused that team of lacking leaders. Each player performed their role in the team, without the unnecessary weight of inflated (or deflated, in Terry’s case) egos in the dressing room.

I must stress I think the role of club captain can be very different. There’s no doubt Arsenal require an experienced figure to help some of the younger players in the squad. At international level, however, England possess players who have proven to have the ability and mental toughness to perform in big tournaments.

It’s pointless getting into a debate over captaincy, particularly when no captain will be lifting the World Cup any time soon. I say follow the Italian way and give it to the most experienced player, or even to a dead-certain regular like goalkeeper Joe Hart, and let’s focus on how the team actually performs. Unfortunately, our obsession over the captaincy is unlikely to end, and the team will be worse off for it.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    16 March 2011 11:36 am

    Wholeheartedly agree about the captaincy, it seems that Capello can’t make a decision without being mauled in the tabloids. If you’re going to make it a big issue give it to someone who’s guarenteed their place and is relatively injury free, i.e Terry or Hart, otherwise this kind of thing will keep cropping up.

    If Ferdinand is behind the rumours he should grow up, he hasn’t played for England for a long time and Ferguson’s deision to withdraw from duty shows where MUFC’s priorities lie.

  2. Adam permalink
    21 March 2011 12:58 pm

    I both agree and disagree. Whilst the ‘obsession’ in the media is clearly to excess, I don’t think the role of England captain should be dismissed.

    The point that England have players who are mentally tough enough to deal with the pressure of international football may well be true in theory, but we didn’t see the likes of this in the latest world cup where Rooney, as just one example, seemed to lack confidence from the start.

    The role of captain is much more than just nurturing young talent like at Arsenal. Only a few weeks ago did we hear of Scott Parker’s influential half-time team talk that revitalised west ham not only in the following 45 minutes but in the next few games too. Of course players at the world cup should already be psyched up enough without such a pet-talk, but this isn’t always the case, and so a captain at international level is also important.

    What’s more, for the individuals themselves – Ferdinand, Terry etc – being England captain is a huge priviledge. For them it represents a lot and is important for their morale.

    Whilst I have no real problem with the captaincy being passed around in friendlies, at tournaments it could, potentially, make a difference. Of course, with Spain it didn’t matter who had the armband such was their class (though you never know, perhaps wearing it helped Casillas when he the Spanish media were blaming him for the downfall of Spain etc. after their first round loss against the Swiss), but this doesn’t mean that for every nation it is superfluous.

    I’m by no means saying that the England captaincy is a huge part of the england set-up, clearly there are much more important things to focus on. But this doesn’t mean that it serves no purpose.

    • 21 March 2011 4:04 pm

      Some excellent points Adam, thanks.

      Should that responsibility to motivate be placed upon a single player in major tournaments though? Clearly Capello values both Rio’s and Terry’s ability to do this – should we really worry who’s got the armband on?

      I’m no expert on dressing room morale, but if you give the captaincy to a quieter, or well-liked member of the squad, you’ll free up the ability of your natural leaders to say their piece too. I think the armband acts as a stranglehold on the squad, and in part the mentality of the media/country is to blame for that.

      • Adam permalink
        22 March 2011 10:24 am

        It’s a very interesting view-point that I’d never considered before if I’m honest and an entirely valid one. However, though I of course think their should be various leaders on the pitch in an organisational sense, when it comes to motivation I still feel the captain should be a vocal and experienced club captain.

        Because of the media, there would probably be widespread ‘outrage’ were the next captain to be the likes of lennon or hart, placing (rightly or wrongly) huge amounts of pressure on them. With the goalkeeping mishaps we’ve had in the past few years we don’t want the captaincy to cause a few more.

        Of course Gareth Barry could take the captain’s armband, he has brief experience of it from his time at Aston Villa when Laursen had to give it up due to injury, but there’s the problem of him not being a regular (especially with Wilshire coming through).

        Obviously Capello has made a complete shambles of it and, in a funny way, perhaps the England captaincy won’t hold as much significance because of this incident in the future.

  3. 1 April 2011 9:27 am

    It’s as simple as this – does wearing the captain’s armband make you more of a leader? If it doesn’t, it’s pointless. If it does, you’re clearly not giving it your all when you are not wearing it and need shooting. It’s that, er, simple.

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