What are caps in soccer? A detailed explanation and the significance of the caps in soccer

What are caps in soccer? A detailed explanation and the significance of the caps in soccer

Helix Odhiambo
updated at February 4, 2024 at 7:02 PM
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If you are a soccer fan, you must have heard the word 'cap' from commentators or read it in publications. It is a common term used to analyse players whenever they play for their national football teams. So, what are caps in soccer? How do players earn it?

Portugal and Czech Republic players line up ahead of their UEFA Nations League match at Estadio Jose Alvalade
Portugal players (red) lining up alongside Czech Republic players (white) ahead of their UEFA Nations League match at Estadio Jose Alvalade on 9 June 2022 in Lisbon. Photo: Gualter Fatia
Source: Getty Images

Soccer or football has numerous stats like goals, assists, and caps for gauging a player's achievements. This article defines caps in soccer, their origin, players with the most caps in football, and whether it is possible to register multiple caps with different teams.

What are caps in soccer stats?

The term 'cap' refers to the number of times a footballer has played for their country in an official international match like the World Cup or Olympic soccer. Other official soccer events are friendlies, continental tournaments, and competitions recognised by the World's football governing body, FIFA.

What are caps in World Cup soccer?

Lionel Messi and Dayot Upamecano during the 2022 FIFA World Cup 2022 final at Lusail Stadium
Lionel Messi of Argentina (R) dribbles past Dayot Upamecano of France during the FIFA World Cup 2022 final at Lusail Stadium on 18 December 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. Photo: Simon Bruty
Source: Getty Images

It means the number of games a footballer has played in the World Cup. The global showpiece began in 1930 and happens every four years. The 22nd edition of the men's tournament took place in November and December 2022, while the ninth and latest edition of the women's event went down in July and August 2023.

The most capped male footballer in the World Cup is Argentina's Lionel Messi, who has 26 appearances. Kristine Lilly of the United States is the most-capped female footballer in the tournament, with 30 games. Here is a breakdown of the top five most-capped World Cup stars as of February 2024.

Men's World Cup most caps

Women's World Cup most caps

Lionel Messi (26)

Kristine Lilly (30)

Lothar Matthaus (25)

Formiga (27)

Miroslav Klose (24)

Abby Wambach (25)

Paolo Maldini (23)

Carli Lloyd (25)

Cristiano Ronaldo (22)

Birgit Prinz and Homare Sawa (24)

What is the importance of caps in soccer?

Players often feel proud and privileged when representing their countries in international tournaments. It also proves someone's talent and abilities for a nation to trust them. Excellent players often earn more caps and enjoy an extended national team career.

Can a player have multiple caps with different teams?

Diego Costa played for the Brazilian and Spanish national teams
Diego Costa in action while playing for Brazil (R) and Spain (L). He is among the few footballers to represent two countries. Photo: Ben Radford, Ira Black (modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

Yes. It is possible but rare for players to earn caps for multiple countries. Traditionally, footballers could represent a different country only if they had played an international friendly with their first nation. However, FIFA changed the rules in 2020, meaning it is now complicated to change national squad eligibility.

According to the regulations, a player can switch nationality once if:

  • They have played three games or less with the under-21 for their current national squad.
  • They have not appeared in major tournaments like the World Cup for their first national team.
  • They have provided current and historic nationality to the new member nation.

For instance, former Atletico Madrid and Chelsea striker Diego Costa has multiple caps with Brazil's and Spain's national teams. Costa was born in Brazil and made two appearances for the national team in friendly matches against Italy and Russia in 2013. He later switched his allegiance to Spain and represented them in the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

History of caps in soccer

England players sing their national anthem ahead of their FIFA World Cup R16 match against Senegal
England players sing their national anthem ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup R16 match against Senegal at Al Bayt Stadium on 4 December 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. Photo: Visionhaus
Source: Getty Images

According to sources, the term 'cap' originated in the United Kingdom in the 19th Century, when soccer players received physical caps for playing in international matches. Since then, officials retained the name but abolished the issuance of the physical caps.

Who has the most caps in soccer?

Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo has the most caps in men's football (205). Ronaldo became the first player to reach 200 international games when featuring for his country against Iceland in June 2023. Here is a list of the top 10 men with the most national team appearances as of February 2024.

Player

Country

Caps

Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal

205

Bader Al-Mutawa

Kuwait

196

Soh Chin Ann

Malaysia

195

Ahmed Hassan

Egypt

184

Ahmed Kano

Omar

182

Andrés Guardado

Mexico

181

Maynor Figueroa

Honduras

181

Lionel Messi

Argentina

180

Sergio Ramos

Spain

180

Hossam Hassan

Egypt

178

Women's soccer caps

Many female footballers have enjoyed longevity with their nations more than the most-capped male players. Kristine Lilly leads women's football with 354 caps for the United States, followed by Christine Sinclair of Canada (326).

United States midfielder Kristine Lilly in action during a past game
United States midfielder Kristine Lilly during her time with the national team. She is the most-capped footballer in history. Photo: A. Messerschmidt, Victor Decolongon (modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

We break down the top 10 female footballers with the most appearances for their countries. The United States women's national soccer team (USWNT) dominates the list with seven players.

Player

Country

Caps

Kristine Lilly

USA

354

Christine Sinclair

Canada

326

Carli Lloyd

USA

316

Christie Pearce

USA

311

Mia Hamm

USA

276

Julie Foudy

USA

274

Abby Wambach

USA

255

Joy Fawcett

USA

241

Caroline Seger

Sweden

235

Formiga

Brazil

234

Frequently asked questions

Playing regularly for your country is nowadays challenging because of the increased competition from the ever-growing talents. Age also catches up with the veterans who retire to pave the way for the younger ones. Here are some frequently asked questions about soccer caps.

What are international caps in soccer?

International caps refer to the number of times a player has represented their country in official soccer games. Players earn different caps depending on their experience and contribution to the team.

What does 200 caps mean in football?

Two hundred caps mean a footballer has played 200 games for their national team. Cristiano Ronaldo is the only male soccer star to reach the milestone. Over ten women have also attained the mark.

How many caps does Ronaldo have

Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal runs for the ball during their EURO Qualifier match against Iceland
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal runs for the ball during their EURO Qualifier match against Iceland at the Jose Alvalade Stadium on 19 November 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: David S. Bustamante
Source: Getty Images

The Portuguese skipper has 205 appearances for his country, making him the most capped men's footballer. Ronaldo is also the highest-scorer in international games with 129 goals. His first game came against Kazakhstan in August 2003.

How many caps does Messi have?

Former Barcelona star Lionel Messi has garnered 180 appearances for Argentina since his debut in a friendly match against Hungary on 17 August 2005. Messi's debut turned catastrophic after receiving a red card after just 43 seconds of being subbed on. The Argentine has since scored 108 goals for his country.

Final word

What are caps in soccer? Playing for the national team is almost every player's dream because of the pride and privilege that comes with it. Although caps remain one of the most crucial soccer stats, measuring a player's talent or skill with their national team appearances is not a reliable metric.

READ ALSO: A ranked list of the greatest black female athletes to ever exist

Sports Brief published a list of the most famous black female athletes in history, known for their remarkable skills, tenacity, and accomplishments in different sports.

Black female athletes such as Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Martina Navratilova have established a long legacy that inspires younger generations. Follow the above link to learn more about record-breaking women.

Authors
Helix Odhiambo photo
Helix Odhiambo
Helix Odhiambo is an award-winning Kenyan journalist and content creator with over 6 years of experience. In 2016, he won the Goal Blaze Correspondent Award for young writers.