It used to be the very pinnacle of football. Whether at Sunday League or Premier League, wearing the captain’s armband was a sign that the manager knew a player had all the ability and leadership qualities needed to help his team succeed. This was exemplified tenfold on the international stage, with a chance to lead out the national team a very proud moment. However, does it really mean the same as it used to?
The best way to explain whether the armband means anything anymore is by looking at the current situation at Manchester United. Wayne Rooney, England and United’s record goalscorer, has struggled hugely this year with injury and an ageing body hampering his ability to play regularly, which has seen him make a space on the bench at Old Trafford his own.
— What’s on the Social (@wotstoday) February 26, 2017
The striker, once one of the most feared forwards in the Premier League, is losing his ability to impact matches in the same way as he used to. Just picture Rooney’s stunning volley against Newcastle back in 2005. Before that, the striker had been arguing with the referee about a decision before leathering a sublime volley into the back of the net, he then promptly started his argument with the ref again. These days, Rooney can be seen arguing with the referee before the official runs away to catch up with play, leaving Rooney in his wake, out of breath and behind the ball.
1- Rooney’s volley vs Newcastle pic.twitter.com/g4YuwX3B5K
— Mourinho FC (@TarekTamo) August 3, 2016
The plethora of attacking talent Manchester United have up front in the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have rendered Rooney largely redundant. When Jose Mourinho came to Manchester United, he very publicly displayed that Rooney would remain the captain. However, the forward was linked with China in January and his ability and influence on the team is diminishing. Therefore, it seems as though he is only close to the team because he is the captain.
It seems then, that the role of captain is more a symbolic one than one based on being the club’s most influential player, with Ibrahimovic being the obvious choice when it comes to influence at United.
It used to be such an important role in the game, with the captain the pulse of intelligence in the team. In rugby, the captain is the only player allowed to talk to the referee, while in football, talking to the referee is like watching the lions fed at the zoo, with teams surrounding the officials, voicing their displeasure.
Interestingly, has the fact that players don’t have to wear the armband mean that they can shirk responsibility. A captain is still a man that is seen calming his teammates down and trying to defuse situations, while it is too easy for other players to shirk responsibility, either performance or discipline wise. Would Ibrahimovic have thought twice about elbowing Tyrone Mings a few weeks ago if he were captain? Some may say yes, but a strong case against this can be made, with John Terry, Chelsea’s club captain, showing that poor decisions aren’t eradicated just because they are the captain, seen when Terry acquainted his knee with Alexis Sanchez’s back back in 2012.
— Andrew Mcghie (@mon_the_gers) March 5, 2017
Is the club captain now a player that is installed purely because they have the most caps? Or because they used to be a truly ferocious force for the club? The likes of Sergio Ramos and Lionel Messi lead their clubs from the front with match-winning performances, while Rooney and Terry both warm the bench or treatment room. In Italy, when the captain is withdrawn, the armband often goes to the player with the most caps, instead of the man that perhaps deserves it most. It seems as though is is less a statement of who is leading the team than it used to be, and perhaps that is what it should become. Unless the captain is made the only man able to talk to the referee on the pitch, the armband will become more of a symbolic gesture, and less of one of power and influence.
Whether or not Zlatan should hold his hand up and take the armband is up for debate, but how have him and others kept going for so long at the top level?