What is a Cap in Soccer? – Explained by Soccer Coach

If you’ve ever watched a soccer game, you’ve probably heard the term “cap” thrown around in conversations or during live game commentary, but what does it mean? What is a cap in soccer

The first time a soccer player plays on an international stage is called a cap. Even though this tells you what the word means or refers to, it doesn’t tell you why a soccer player’s appearance is called a ‘cap’ or where the word originated.

This article aims to answer that question by going deeper. We’ll explore what a cap means in soccer, the criteria for earning one, and even the term’s historical roots.

What is a Cap in Soccer?

In soccer, the term “cap” holds special significance. A soccer player’s appearance on an international stage is known as a cap. This term is not used for domestic league matches; it’s strictly for international games. For example, if a player is chosen for the U.S. national team against another country, that counts as a cap. In contrast, playing for a club like Manchester United or LA Galaxy doesn’t earn a player a cap.

The concept of a cap is deeply rooted in the sport’s international framework. It serves as a measure of a player’s experience at the highest level of competition. Hearing that a player has “50 caps” means they have represented their country in 50 international matches.

This is a significant milestone and often a point of pride for players. Caps are a way to compare the international experience of different players, making it easier to gauge their suitability for national team selection.

How Does a Player Earn a Cap? 

Playing on the International Stage

Earning a cap in soccer is a big deal. It’s like a badge of honor that says you’ve played for your country in an international match. But how does a player earn one? It’s not just about being on the team; you must get on the field and play. You earn a cap even if it’s for a short time, like the last 10 minutes or even 30 seconds.

Substitutes and Reserves: Making a Mark

You might be thinking, “What about substitutes or reserves?” Good question! Substitutes who get to play, even for a minute, earn a cap. But if you’re a reserve and sit on the bench the whole game, no cap for you. It’s that simple.

Participation Matters Most

There’s no time limit, either. You get a cap whether you play almost the whole game or just a few minutes. This makes every second on the field valuable. Players cherish these moments because playing for your country is a big source of pride. It’s often a dream come true, something they’ve aimed for since they were kids kicking a ball in the backyard.

So, to earn a cap, you have to play in an international match. Just being on the team isn’t enough; you have to participate.

Do You Get a Cap if You Are on the Bench? 

So, you’re on the bench for an international soccer match. You’re wearing the team jersey and warming up, but you don’t get to play. Do you earn a cap? The simple answer is no. Being on the bench for the entire game doesn’t qualify you for a cap. You must step onto the field as a substitute to earn one.

This might seem unfair, especially if you’ve trained hard and are part of the national team. But the rules are clear: you must participate in the game to get a cap. Even if you come on for just a minute or two at the end, that counts. But sitting on the bench the whole time? Sorry, no cap for you.

This rule ensures that only players contributing to the game are honored with a cap. It’s a way to keep the value of a cap high. After all, representing your country in an international match is a big deal. It’s not just about being selected; it’s about playing and contributing to the team’s performance.

So, if you’re a player or a fan, now you know: being on the bench doesn’t earn you a cap. You have to play to get one.

Can a Player Earn a Cap for Multiple Teams? 

You might wonder if a soccer player can earn caps for more than one country. The answer is yes, but it’s a unique situation. According to FIFA’s rules, updated in 2020, a player can switch national teams once under specific conditions. 

  1. First, they must have played three games or fewer for their first national team under the age of 21. 
  2. Second, they should have appeared in something other than major tournaments like the World Cup for their first team. 
  3. Lastly, they must have a provable current and historic nationality in the new member nation.

This rule allows players with dual citizenship or strong ties to another country to represent that nation. However, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. Switching national teams is a big step and often involves a lot of paperwork and approval from soccer’s governing bodies.

So, while it’s possible to earn caps for multiple teams, the rules are strict to ensure that players stay in the same country just to get more caps. It’s all about maintaining the sport’s integrity and ensuring that a player represents a country for the right reasons.

Why is It Called a Cap? History of Term in Soccer

Ever wondered why it’s called a “cap” when a soccer player plays in an international game? The term has a rich history that dates back to England in the late 19th century. In 1886, N.L. Jackson, the first honorary secretary of the Football Association in England, proposed that players representing England should be awarded an embroidered cap. This proposal was accepted, and from then on, players received a physical cap to mark their international appearance.

The practice of giving a physical cap spread globally as soccer gained popularity. It even influenced other sports to adopt the practice. 

As soccer spread from England to the rest of the world, so did the practice of giving a cap to every player who played for his or her country. It even made its way to other sports, which also started giving caps to their stars.

Do Players Still Get a Physical Cap?

In soccer’s early days, players received a physical cap as a memento for representing their country in an international match. This tradition started in England in 1886 and spread worldwide as soccer gained popularity. But do players still get a physical cap today? The answer varies from country to country.

In England, the tradition continues. Players receive an embroidered cap for each international game, except during tournaments, where one cap is given for the entire event. However, in many other countries, the practice has become less common. Players might receive a physical cap for significant milestones, like reaching 50 or 100 international appearances, but it’s not guaranteed.

So, while the term “cap” is still widely used to signify an international appearance, the tradition of giving an actual, physical cap has waned. Each country’s national soccer association decides whether to continue this practice. Some do, and some don’t. But whether or not a player receives a physical cap, the term remains a significant part of soccer culture and history.

what is a cap in soccer

How Important Are Caps in Soccer? 

In soccer, earning a cap is not just a number; it’s a testament to a player’s skill, dedication, and contribution to their national team. Caps are highly valued in the soccer community and are often used as a metric to evaluate a player’s career. When a player has a lot of caps, it means they’ve consistently performed well enough to be selected for their national team over a period of time.

Caps are especially important for players who aim to leave a legacy in the sport. They are often considered when selecting players for prestigious tournaments like the World Cup or the Olympics. Many caps can also increase a player’s market value and attract attention from top clubs worldwide.

Moreover, caps can be a source of personal pride for players. Reaching milestones like 50 or 100 caps is often celebrated and can motivate younger players looking to make their mark in international soccer.

Also Read: What is a Brace in Soccer? – Explained by Soccer Coach

Which Soccer Player Has the Most Caps? 

Cristiano Ronaldo holds the record for the most caps in men’s soccer. He has represented Portugal in 200 international matches. This milestone was achieved in June 2023, surpassing the previous record-holder, Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait, who had 196 caps.

Soh Chin Ann of Malaysia held the record before Ronaldo and Al-Mutawa with 195 caps. Interestingly, despite playing his final game for Malaysia in 1984, FIFA only recognized Soh Chin Ann’s record in August 2021. FIFA doesn’t recognize some matches, like those in the Olympic Games, so there’s a discrepancy in the number of caps for some players.

Having the most caps is a big deal because it shows a player’s longevity, skill, and contribution to their national team. It’s not just about talent; it’s about consistently performing at the highest level for many years. Ronaldo’s achievement is remarkable given modern soccer’s intense physical and mental demands.

So, if you’re wondering who the king of caps is in men’s soccer, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal.

Soccer Players with the Most Caps

RankPlayer NameNationConfederationCapsDebut Date
1Cristiano RonaldoPortugalUEFA20020 Aug 2003
2Bader Al-MutawaKuwaitAFC1964 Sep 2003
3Soh Chin AnnMalaysiaAFC19519 Nov 1969
4Ahmed HassanEgyptCAF18429 Dec 1995
5Ahmed MubarakOmanAFC18325 Sep 2003
6Sergio RamosSpainUEFA18026 Mar 2005
7Andrés GuardadoMexicoCONCACAF17914 Dec 2005
8Claudio SuárezMexicoCONCACAF17726 Jul 1992
9Gianluigi BuffonItalyUEFA17629 Oct 1997
10Maynor FigueroaHondurasCONCACAF17531 Jan 2003

Who Has the Most Caps in Women’s Soccer? 

The player with the most caps in the history of women’s soccer is Kristine Lilly from the United States, who has 354 caps. She retired from international football on November 5, 2010. The most-capped active player is Christine Sinclair from Canada, with 326 caps.

Three American players, Kristine Lilly, Carli Lloyd, Christie Pearce, and Christine Sinclair from Canada, have 300 or more caps. In total, 26 players from various countries have 200 or more caps.

Top 5 Most-Capped Women’s Soccer Players

RankPlayerNationCapsFirst Cap
1Kristine LillyUnited States354August 3, 1987
2Christine SinclairCanada326March 12, 2000
3Carli LloydUnited States316July 10, 2005
4Christie PearceUnited States311February 28, 1997
5Mia HammUnited States276August 3, 1987

Also Read: How Long is a Soccer Game – Answered by a Soccer Coach

Who Has the Most Caps in Usmnt History?

In the world of U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT), the player with the most caps is Cobi Jones. He played 164 matches for the United States between 1992 and 2004. Landon Donovan, with 157 caps, and Michael Bradley, with 151 caps, follow him. These players have shown exceptional skill and dedication, representing the U.S. in numerous international competitions.

Table of Top 5 Most Capped USMNT Players

1Cobi Jones164
2Landon Donovan157
3Michael Bradley151
4Clint Dempsey141
5Jeff Agoos134

Which Current USMNT Player Has the Most Caps?

Currently, the USMNT player with the most caps is right-back DeAndre Yedlin, who has 77 caps. This information reflects the youth-based approach the USMNT has taken in recent years, especially after missing out on the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Yedlin’s cap count ranks him 31st in the team’s history. Following him are Gyasi Zardes with 67 caps, Christian Pulisic with 56 caps, Kellyn Acosta with 55 caps, and Jordan Morris with 51 caps.

Yedlin has participated in various international competitions, including World Cup qualifiers and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, showcasing his versatility and adaptability in different match situations.

Current USMNT Player With the Most Caps

DeAndre Yedlin77
Gyasi Zardes67
Christian Pulisic56
Kellyn Acosta55
Jordan Morris51

What Types of Games Count as a Cap? 

Not every game counts when it comes to earning a cap in soccer. According to FIFA’s regulations, caps are only awarded in International “A” games. So, what are these “A” games? They include World Cup games, World Cup qualifiers, continental competitions like the UEFA European Championship or the Copa America, and their respective qualifying games. As do Olympic games and their qualifiers, friendly games between senior national teams also count.

A games include:

  • World Cup games
  • World Cup qualifiers
  • Continental competitions such as the UEFA European Championship or the Copa America
  • Qualifying matches for these continental competitions
  • Olympic games and their qualifiers
  • Friendly matches between senior national teams

This means that a player can’t earn a cap by playing in a club match or in youth-level international games. The match must be a senior-level international contest that FIFA recognizes.

Also Read: What to Eat Before a Soccer Game? – Answered by Soccer Coach

What is a Cap in International Soccer

In soccer, a “cap” means a player’s appearance in an international game. The term comes from the United Kingdom, where players in international rugby and soccer matches were awarded a cap.

In the past, teams didn’t have matching shirts, so they wore specific types of caps to distinguish themselves. Nowadays, a player is said to have “won a cap” for each international game they play. Some teams still give physical caps, especially for milestones like a player’s 100th cap.

Summing Up on What is a Cap in Soccer

In soccer, a cap is more than just a number; it’s a badge of honor representing a player’s contributions to their national team. From European legend Cristiano Ronaldo with 200 caps for Portugal to Cobi Jones in the USMNT and Kristine Lilly in women’s soccer, caps tell a story of dedication, skill, and love for the game.

They are earned in specific types of international matches, making each cap a significant achievement. Whether you’re a player aspiring to represent your country or a fan cheering from the stands, understanding what a cap is and how it’s earned adds a deeper layer of appreciation to the beautiful game.

Faqs on What is a Cap in Soccer

Can Players Who Enter the Game as a Substitute Earn a Cap?

Yes, players who enter the game as substitutes can earn a cap. Whether a player starts the game or comes in as a substitute, even for the last few seconds, they will earn a cap. This is because a cap is awarded for participation in an international game, not the duration of play. For instance, Cristiano Ronaldo earned a cap when he became a substitute for Portugal in their World Cup quarter-final against Morocco.

What Does 300 Caps Mean in Soccer?

Having 300 caps in soccer is a monumental achievement that signifies a player’s extensive experience at the international level. When a player has 300 caps, it means they have represented their country in 300 international matches. This is a rare feat and a testament to the player’s skill, longevity, and importance to their national team. Teams with 300 caps are considered highly experienced, which can be a significant advantage in international competitions.

How Many Caps Has Ronaldo Got?

Ronaldo’s international career started on August 20, 2003. Cristiano Ronaldo holds the record for men’s football’s most official international appearances. He has earned 200 international caps for Portugal. Ronaldo surpassed the previous record of 196 international caps Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait held in March 2023.


  • First to 200 Caps: Cristiano Ronaldo is the first player to reach 200 FIFA-recognized international caps.
  • Breaking Records: With 196 caps, Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait previously held the record.

What Does First Cap Mean in Soccer?

“First cap” refers to a player’s first international appearance for their country. When a player is “capped” for the first time, it marks a significant milestone in their career. It means they have reached a level of skill and recognition that warrants representing their country in an international match. Unlike being on the bench, a player must appear on the field during the game to earn their first cap.

About the author


Hi I"m Aryan a pro soccer player, coach, and visionary in the world of soccer. With an impressive journey that began at the tender age of five, I have dedicated my life to the beautiful game.

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