What Is a Cap in Soccer? The Meaning and History of the Term

When you begin playing soccer, you hear a lot of strange terminologies. These terms might sound like they have nothing to do with the sport itself but are used often and seem very important.

One term you might have heard but not understood relates to “capped” players. What does it mean when someone says that a player has 5 “caps” or has been “capped” 5 times? This means that they have played the sport internationally 5 times. 

Every time a player plays for their country in an international game, they receive a “cap”. So, when you next hear a team described as having a “combination of 300 caps” this means that you have a pretty experienced team. If they only have, for example, a “combination of 30 caps”, then you have a team that hasn’t played that many international games.

But why is the term “cap” used? Do players actually receive hats when they play international games? And where did this term and tradition come from? Read on for the full explanation and history of the term “cap” in soccer.

Usage of the Term

Although the term is generally used metaphorically, there are still some situations where soccer players receive physical caps.

In England, soccer (or football) players receive a real cap for every international game, unless they play in the World Cup or European Championships. They also receive special commemorative caps once they have played 100 international games. This is unsurprising as the wearing of caps for soccer is said to have started in England.

A player is referred to as receiving a cap for an international game in many countries where English is a common language. The term is also used in other team sports. For example, players who play international games of rugby union, rugby league, cricket, and netball all receive caps. 

It is a great honor for a player of any sport to represent their team and their country internationally. The most well-known players are usually those who play in international games as these are the most-watched games.

A player receives a cap for every international game, no matter what they do or how long they play. Whether they play the entire game or only come on as a substitute in the last 30 seconds, they will receive a cap. 

That said, being on an international team doesn’t automatically mean a player has a cap. Even if it is only for a few seconds, the player must play in the actual game to be considered capped.

This means that a player can be on the international team and never receive a cap. This is unlikely to happen as if you have been picked for the international team, you will definitely be good enough to play. But it is possible.

When a player is described, for example by a commentator as they enter the field or on a soccer card, the number of their caps will be mentioned. This simple number gives the viewer an immediate understanding of how experienced a player is. 

The number of caps an entire team has is also often noted. As mentioned above, if you see a team come onto the field and hear a commentator describe them as having “30 caps” between them, then you will likely be nervous.

Although they will have played a lot of games, they won’t have played many international teams. Depending on the makeup of the team, there may be some playing their first international game.


During the early days of international soccer, players would wear caps to differentiate the teams. This is because teams wearing matching jerseys and uniforms hadn’t yet become popular. So, whenever a player played an international game, they wore a cap. 

The caps themselves are kept in museums as evidence of these games and the players’ uniforms. But one of the most important pieces of evidence for soccer players wearing caps is an illustration from 1872.

This illustration depicts a soccer game between Scotland and England. In the game, the Scottish players are shown to be wearing cowls and the English players are wearing caps. 

This is often considered to be evidence of capping beginning in English soccer. But, this isn’t technically the case. The practice of wearing caps in English soccer games was copied from cricket. The idea was taken by Nicholas “Pa” Jackson in the 1880s. 

Jackson was a legend in English sports, but not as a player. Jackson was a sports administrator and founder of Finchley F.C, Corinthians F.C., and the London Football Association. Although he played soccer and captained Finchley, he soon turned to officiating and was eventually elected to the committee of the Football Association. 

Although no one can be sure of Jackson’s exact reasons (perhaps he just enjoyed the style), the decision was made while he was on the FA committee. The general consensus is that the caps were worn as a way of protecting the players’ heads when they headed the ball. But it also, as mentioned above, worked as a way of identifying English players.

Jackson also determined in 1886 that all English players who played in international matches would be “presented with a white silk cap with red rose embroidered on the front. These to be termed International Caps.”

Modern Usage

So, we know that someone with a cap has played an international game. But do they receive an actual cap? Not necessarily. A player will still be said to have “received a cap” but this is a term that is mostly used metaphorically today. 

In modern soccer, the jersey has overtaken the cap as the most important garment for soccer players. Soccer players usually wear a new jersey for every game, especially if they are playing an international game. 

Jerseys are kept for posterity, sold at charity auctions, or even kept in museums. Soccer is an incredibly important sport across the world.

And the success of the women’s soccer team in the 2018 World Cup has made it even more popular in the US. The jerseys worn at important cultural moments such as these will be incredibly important to the players. But will also be important to the fans who would happily own them or see them on display.

Most soccer players might no longer wear or receive literal caps, the symbolic importance of players’ garments remains. 

Although not all soccer players receive physical caps, the very concept of receiving a cap is a huge honor and has great significance. As mentioned above, playing for your country is a big deal. So receiving even a metaphorical cap is exciting.

Even those who only play international games once (sometimes referred to as one cap wonders) will treasure the fact that they once played.

Most Capped Players

The concept of metaphorically capping is a great way of keeping track of how many international games a player has played.

Professional soccer players will play hundreds, if not thousands, of games in their lifetime. Although all of these games are important, international games often hold more weight for both the players and the fans.

Only the best players are chosen for the international games. So the number of caps a player has is a good indicator of how good a player they are considered to be.

So, who are the most capped soccer players in the USA teams? These are just a few of the USA soccer players on the women’s and men’s teams that have played the most. 

Most Capped US Women’s Players

Although the men’s teams of many sports are considered to be the main teams (but this is definitely changing), the US Women’s Soccer Team has some incredible players.

The player with the highest number of caps is Kristine Lilly. Lilly played from 1987 to 2010 and received a stunning 354 caps. This means that she played 354 international games. But she will have played so many more games at lower levels.

Number of Caps
Kristine Lilly
Christie Pearce
Carli Lloyd
Mia Hamm
Julie Foudy
Abby Wambach
Joy Fawcett
Heather O’Reilly
Tiffeny Milbrett
Hope Solo

Most Capped US Men’s Players

The US Men’s Soccer Team also has some incredible players. Although they do not have quite as many caps compared to the Women’s team, receiving over 100 caps in any game is incredibly impressive.

To receive more than 100 caps is a huge honor but it is also a sign of skill, experience, and expertise. Once a player has received 100 caps, they become legendary and will be considered one of the best players of their era, if not of all time.

Number of Caps
Cobi Jones
Landon Donovan
Michael Bradley
Clint Dempsey
Jess Agoos
Marcelo Balboa
DaMarcus Beasley
Tim Howard
Jozy Altidore
Claudio Reyna


Caps in soccer are, for the most part, a metaphorical way of bestowing an honor on a player.

Although English soccer players receive physical caps, most other countries only refer to caps as a concept. (Which, by looking at some of the numbers above, might be preferable. Finding space for 354 caps would be a little tricky).

The concept of international caps might seem a little strange when you first get into soccer. But, once you understand the importance and the excitement of playing in an international match, you will understand just what an honor it is. 

Even those who are referred to as “one cap wonders” will have a great deal of pride in having once played for their national team. This is true in every sport that awards caps. And every sport that plays internationally.

Caps themselves are simply a callback to the long history of soccer. (Although there is a strong argument that it is much older than we think and actually originated in China, not England).

It is a way of maintaining a connection to the players who made the game so popular all those years ago.

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