What is a Cap in Football? The Story Behind the Stats

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What is a cap in football?

As a football fan, you probably know that earning a cap for your country is a pretty big deal.

But do you know what a cap actually is? And how it’s earned? How did this tradition even get started?!

Read on to learn all about caps in football – what they are, who has the most, and more!

What is a cap in football?

A “cap” or international cap is a term used in football to refer to a player’s appearance in an international match.

While FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, doesn’t keep an official tally, it’s generally agreed upon that a player earns a cap by appearing on the field for at least one minute in an international match.

What is a cap in football? display of international caps, what they look like.

Image source: GanGG Robert C. Genaro jr. Mikethebike70, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s the history of the football cap?

The history of the cap started way back in 1872 as a way for Scottish players in international football games against England to identify who they were playing for.

The Scots wore cowls around their necks and English players wore caps.

In 1886, the honorary secretary of the Football Association, N. Jackson, proposed that all players appearing for England should get an embroidered cap to mark the occasion.

It soon caught on with other national teams adopting the practice and even other sports around the world!

How do you get a cap in football?

If you’re a professional football player, you can earn a cap by playing for your national team in an international match. These include:

  • Matches played in a FIFA World Cup
  • Games played qualifying rounds for a World Cup
  • International competitions and their qualifying games
  • Friendly games between senior national teams
  • Olympic games and qualifying matches

Do players receive a physical cap?

Today, players don’t receive an actual physical cap for playing at international level.

Instead, they get a number added to their career stats page that shows the number of international games they were a part of.

But in some cases, particularly when a player earns their 100th cap, there may be special presentations or speeches made in honor of the special occasion.

For many players, receiving their first cap is a significant milestone. It represents not only their own personal achievement but also their country’s faith in their abilities.

Once a player has earned their first cap, they are usually considered to be part of the national team pool and may be called up for future matches.

do players get a physical football cap infographic

Do friendlies count as caps?

Yes. International friendlies count as caps as they are senior national team matches.

For example, if you’re a professional player and you play for the United States Women’s National Team in a friendly game against Mexico, that would be considered a cap.

Can a substitute earn a cap in football?

In order to earn a cap, you actually have to get out onto the pitch and play in the match.

So if you’re a substitute who gets game time, you’re in luck. As long as you make an appearance on the field – even just for a minute – you can still earn yourself a cap.

If a substitute stays on the bench for the entire game, they won’t earn a cap.

You only get a cap for playing in an international match, not just being part of the squad.

What is a cap in women’s football?

In women’s football, a cap is the same as it is for men. It refers to a player’s appearance in an international match.

So if you’re a professional women’s football player and you play for the United States Women’s National Team in a friendly game against Mexico, that would be considered a cap. Just like the men!

In recent years, there has been a push to get more countries to start playing women’s football at the international level.

This means that there are now more opportunities for female players to earn caps than there were in the past. Yippee!

Who has the most caps in football?

Wikipedia reliably tells us that the all-time leader in senior caps, Kristine Lilly of the United States, had 354 caps and retired from international football on 6 January 2011.

Lilly is also fourth highest goal scorer in international football with 130 goals.

The current active most capped women international football player is Christine Sinclair of Canada with 317 caps.

She is also the leading active goal scorer in women international football with an incredible 190 goals.

FIFA recognises Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait as the men’s all-time record appearance holder with 196 caps.

Christine sinclair most capped womens player canada international
Christine Sinclair, Canada forward and captain

Erica McCaulley, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The final score.

So there you have it! Now you know everything there is to know about caps in football.

Whether you’re a player looking to earn your first one or a fan looking to impress your friends with your knowledge, we hope this article was helpful.

If you’re interested in learning more about the sport of football, be sure to check out our other articles.

From beginner tips to insider tricks, we’ve got everything you need to become a football expert in no time!

This article was written by

  • Anna Adams, Creative Director & Content Lead

    Hi there! I'm Anna Adams, your go-to source for all things women's football. I've been crazy about football for over 20 years, ever since I was kicking a ball around with my brothers as a kid. I've turned my passion into a career where I get to share all the cool stuff about football with you. As a content lead, I've had the awesome opportunity to work with various sports brands and publications. Whether it's the latest gear, pro tips, or just some cool football trivia, I'm all about making f...