What does it mean to be a captain at the World Cup?

The whites of his eyes glow like headlights on full beam. Trickles of blood snake down his face through a soaked bandage, forming droplets that fall from his chin. The shirt, once a brilliant white, looks as if it’s been used to mop an abattoir, and the Three Lions adorning its front are saturated by the wounds of war. A blood-soaked captain’s armband grips his left bicep.

This is, of course, the iconic image of Terry Butcher, leaving the Rasunda Stadium pitch in September, 1989 after captaining England to a 0-0 draw with Sweden. The point secured England’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup. Eight years later, England captain Paul Ince left Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in a similarly bloody mess, again following a goalless draw that also secured a World Cup place.

These two scenes embody many people’s perceptions of inspired leadership. The captains of that era were big characters and so-called “hard men,” operating in the centre of the pitch and responsible for bone-crunching tackles as well as spine-tingling speeches to their teammates. But when England take on Iran at Khalifa International Stadium on Nov. 21, leading the team out for their opening game of the 2022 World Cup will be Harry Kane.

The soft-spoken Tottenham striker isn’t known for his rousing oratory; he will, however, have been the proverbial “first out on the training pitch” and the first tucked up in bed with a protein shake for a nightcap. Kane is a force of professionalism, not personality.

Recognising that burden of responsibility, England manager Gareth Southgate created a “leadership group” to support Kane, and together they set the team’s culture and values for a generation that places greater social expectations on its heroes. And it’s worked. A nation reconnected with its team, and England reached the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020.

When Kane pulls on the OneLove armband at the World Cup in Qatar, he will be supporting the LGBTQ+ community. This is what is expected of the modern captain far more than shouting, pointing and putting your head where it hurts. The armband-wearer is now a standard-bearer.

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Cast your mind back to 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Galvanised by his iconic blue armband, Diego Maradona wrote his name into World Cup history as he inspired a limited Argentina side to ultimate glory, restoring pride to a nation recovering from the Falklands War.

All of which raises a number of pertinent questions ahead of the tournament: Do people care what you stand for when you stand to lose a vital game? When the fans are booing and the team needs someone to step up, how can the captain deliver on the pitch? Just how important can one player be?

What a captain does

Hold a captain’s armband. It’s little more than a lightweight piece of elasticated cloth that, according to the English FA rulebook, indicates the wearer’s “status” so they can “offer support in the management of the on-field discipline of their teammates.” Oh, and they call heads or tails before kickoff.

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However, it also weighs much heavier. “The media and fans just see the captain tossing the coin, but it’s a lot more important than that,” explains former Everton skipper, Don Hutchison. “There are a million things a captain has to do before you even get on the pitch — anything from organising hospital visits to making sure everyone has enough complimentary tickets for friends and family.

“Most importantly, it’s about providing the link between the manager and the players. At Everton, I would listen to what the lads were saying in the dressing room, which might be ‘we aren’t training hard enough,’ and then, without naming names, I’d go and see the gaffer, Walter Smith, and say ‘the lads want to do a bit more training.’ And he’d take that on board.”

Mutual respect and trust are fundamental to an effective manager-captain relationship. The captain must buy into the ethos, set the standards and act as a conduit between staff and players.

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Researchers from Northumbria University asked 15 managers, including Premier League bosses, what they wanted from their captains. The results identified a number of leadership skills including the ability to motivate, communicate, perform consistently, understand the game and make good decisions — all skills that also make a good manager. Their captain is an extension of themselves, on the pitch, around the training ground and in the WhatsApp group.

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Hutchison reveals that Smith would test his players in a bid to uncover the leaders. “After one bad game,” Hutchison recalls, “he came for me in the dressing room, giving me loads of verbal abuse. Eventually I snapped and had a right good go at him. He got me by the throat and had me up against the wall, screaming, ‘you’ll never play for this football club again.’ On Monday morning he asked me, ‘Do you think Duncan Ferguson is a hard man?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you think Dave Watson’s a hard man?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And Dave Unsworth?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Where were those three when I had you up against the wall?’

“He was testing the group to see if we’d all stick together, or if individuals would look after themselves. He said, ‘You stood up for yourself. You will be the new captain. I’m taking the armband off Duncan Ferguson.’ That was interesting because I sat next to Duncan in the dressing room. It was torture.”

The human touch

Challenging the manager requires heart, but also brains. After all, players can have tactical acumen, too.

“We were preparing for a big game and I sensed that the whole team didn’t feel ready with the tactics we had chosen,” recalls Magda Eriksson, captain of Chelsea women. “I went to [manager] Emma Hayes and told her what the group was feeling. It was really uncomfortable, but I felt I had to. Thankfully we had a good conversation, because she’s good at listening, and we ended up winning that game.”

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The manager-captain relationship is “absolutely vital,” reckons Shrewsbury Town boss, Steve Cotterill. Reflecting on a managerial career spanning 27 years and 10 teams in the English Football League, Cotterill names Aaron Wilbraham (now his assistant) as his most trusted on-pitch lieutenant. “We worked together at Bristol City and he had awareness of the environment,” Cotterill recalls. “He knew who was short on confidence and when to keep top players grounded with a bit of banter, if they started to believe everything that was being written about them.”

The Shrews boss seeks captains with emotional intelligence, not just aggression. “In the modern game, captains need empathy,” he explains. “That’s where the role has changed a little. Years ago, a captain might say to someone, “You OK?” and they’d say, “Yeah, I’m OK” and that’d be it. People are more willing to open up these days, and a good captain will help them. It’s about trust, and trust is built over time. You need a captain who gives to the group and isn’t worried about getting the credit.”

For Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong, captaincy is also a constant role. “Access to players has changed,” says the Watford defender. “Media coverage now is 24/7 with social media, so you can’t take off that captaincy hat. More access means more responsibility.”

Those responsibilities also stretch much further now. Former Burnley skipper Ben Mee spoke passionately of his shame and anger upon seeing a banner proclaiming “White Lives Matter — Burnley” being flown above the Etihad Stadium when his team faced Manchester City in 2020. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was awarded an MBE for services to charity during the COVID-19 pandemic as the driving force behind the Players Together initiative that encouraged professional footballers to donate to the NHS. England captain Kane has said he wants to “shine a light” on human rights issues in Qatar as campaigners have been urging captains to do more at the World Cup. Troost-Ekong, whose Nigeria side narrowly failed to qualify, understands the sense of duty.

“We have to remind ourselves how irrelevant football is sometimes,” he says. “It will be a shame if people don’t use their platforms to highlight those issues. The whole world is watching, and coaches and captains can speak for people who don’t have a voice. It’s a responsibility.”

The 29-year-old is an ambassador for Juan Mata‘s Common Goal charity, which encourages footballers to donate earnings to good causes, and he also challenges racism and brings attention to diseases affecting parts of Africa.

“As Nigeria captain, everything I do is consumed by millions,” Troost-Ekong explains. “Sometimes I’m in a room with world leaders, or people who can have an influence on the lives of my countrymen. Having two children reset my moral compass. I want to do something they can be proud of, and not just look back at playing statistics and achievements.”

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Eriksson, a Sweden international who’s in a relationship with Chelsea teammate Pernille Harder, feels the same way. “I want to be a role model,” the Blues captain told ESPN. “We must try to use our platforms to change things in society. Leadership is no longer about shouting and aggression: that just makes everything worse. It’s now about communicating.”

Philipp Lahm concurs. Since retiring in 2017, the former Bayern Munich and Germany captain has used his podium to confront a number of social and sporting controversies, including FIFA’s decision to award this year’s World Cup to Qatar. It was also Lahm’s calm but assured leadership that led Die Mannschaft to victory in 2014, challenging Germany’s notions of what a Fuhrungsspieler (“leader”) should be.

“I don’t like the term [Fuhrungsspieler],” he said. “For me there is not a clear definition of the term. Why was [Stefan] Effenberg a leader: was it because he was outspoken, or because he had a certain presence on the pitch? When that’s the criteria, OK, then maybe I have a different definition of what a leader is. Was Effenberg a leader because he projected presence, or because he had a presence? There is a difference.

“Today there aren’t any players that single-handedly lead their teams. Today you share this responsibility. Every single player has to take responsibility for what they do. Look at the Manchester United team that won the Champions League in 2008: they didn’t have a ‘leader’ like Roy Keane anymore.”

A shared responsibility

English football differs from many other countries, and sports, in the status it gives a team captain — something that Eriksson recognized when she joined Chelsea. “It’s a lot bigger here,” she says. “I didn’t like that in the beginning because I don’t like to be the centre of attention and I had to get used to being in front of the camera. I’m more settled now.

“With Sweden, our current captain, Caroline Seger, is injured and we haven’t really appointed a new one. We’ve just been rotating it between good leaders.”

Maurizio Sarri was nonplussed when he became Chelsea men’s manager in 2018 and found himself relentlessly quizzed by English media about who would take the vacant club captaincy. “I understand that in England it is important; for me it is not so important,” the Italian shrugged, before eventually giving the armband to Gary Cahill four months into the season. Sarri said Cahill was “very important on the pitch, but also off the pitch” and had the support of his teammates.

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Chelsea’s London rivals, Arsenal, have since adopted a multi-captain setup inspired by the NFL, in which a manager can appoint up to six team captains, each with a ‘C’ proudly embroidered on their jersey. In August, Mikel Arteta named a three-man leadership team headed by Martin Odegaard, with Gabriel Jesus and Granit Xhaka sharing responsibilities in his absence. It’s an approach that incorporates a spectrum of personalities and leadership traits.

Odegaard is a technical leader, exuding bravery and confidence on the ball, with a tactical awareness to rival most coaches. Brazilian striker Jesus is a vibrant character who can lead Arsenal’s six-man Portuguese-speaking contingent, and whose trophy cabinet strains under the weight of winners’ medals. Then there’s Xhaka, whose competitive, demanding and very vocal nature demonstrates more traditional leadership traits.

The research from Northumbria University also stated that managers believe there are two types of captain: “either aggressive, or a technically skilled leader who inspires others through their own performance”. The Odegaard, Jesus and Xhaka triumvirate checks each box.

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Having a team of leaders is every manager’s dream, and successful sides from Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have referred to such a dressing-room dynamic.

Group captaincy is an approach Paul McVeigh, the former Tottenham and Norwich City forward, learned from rugby after hanging up his football boots and becoming a performance psychologist. “My business partner, Leon Lloyd, played rugby for England and won two European Cups and six Premiership titles with Leicester Tigers under Dean Richards, captained by Martin Johnson. This incredible team included Lewis Moody, Neil Back and other World Cup winners, and Leon said the players policed themselves. The manager and coach didn’t have to do it.

“When you’ve done something wrong, you have to own it. We didn’t have that accountability in football.”

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There are no firm rules for selecting a captain or captains, but there are common themes — and some surprising discoveries. Not one of our interviewees mentioned physical presence, position or even ability in their profile of an effective leader. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“The best captain I had was Adam Drury, when we [Norwich] won promotion to the Premier League [2003-04],” says McVeigh. “He wasn’t the team’s best player — most people won’t even know who he is — but he was the best leader I’ve played with because no matter what we were asked to do, he was first to do it. He never complained and his level of performance was consistently high.”

Setting standards is also important for Eriksson. “We [Sweden] have a really good captain in Caroline Seger,” she says. “She’s extremely experienced, but she captains in her own way. She’s authentic and true to herself. She inspired me to be myself, rather than change to fit the mold of a stereotypical captain who is always screaming.”

Troost-Ekong, meanwhile, believes a strong captain must be “selfless and brave” and ready to face “difficult questions” even if — especially if — that means “taking a stance on something they really believe in, which might not always be liked.”

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This isn’t a strength you would necessarily associate with the more quiet, introverted Lionel Messi, for example, but it’s one he has had to summon as captain of Argentina. Messi has often been made a scapegoat by the Argentinian media for the team’s failures in four major finals. In 2016, he’d had enough. Messi told a room full of reporters the players were boycotting the media following “grave” allegations and criticism about the team and their recent form.

Heading into his last World Cup this winter — his final chance to match Maradona’s achievements and cement his legacy as the greatest player of all time — he’ll be all too aware of the questions asked of him on and off the pitch.

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The defining qualities

Authenticity, courage and accountability: studies both support and challenge these observations when it comes to leadership. Research published in academic journal “Frontiers in Psychology” asked 450 coaches and 198 players from football and volleyball to evaluate how they selected, and then responded to, their team captain. Those chosen for having strong motivational and social skills were seen as the strongest leaders, while captains selected on superior athletic skill and their position in the centre of the pitch didn’t garner the same level of investment from teammates.

However, a study in the Asian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology asked players from Premier League academies the same questions and received differing opinions. Participants understood the importance of having “multiple athlete leaders within the team,” but only in supporting the chosen captain, while position and skill level weren’t considered key credentials for players in the leadership group even though they were seen as important when picking a player to wear the armband.

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Captaincy matters; that much is certain. The symbolic power bestowed upon the wearer energise the armband beyond the actual fabric.

“It makes me smile just thinking about it,” says Troost-Ekong. “I feel immense pride every time I walk into the changing room to see my shirt alongside the captain’s armband and the flag of Nigeria. The other players looking to me, which makes me want to run through a brick wall.”

At the World Cup in Qatar, captains of some 30 competing nations will feel the pressure to criticise the host nation’s stance on same-sex relationships and its human rights record, while also giving everything on the pitch. It’s their duty to galvanise disheartened teammates and revitalise tired legs, and to be the pipeline for communication between the manager and players but also fans, officials, the media and more, as they face constant scrutiny for their performances and responses to ideological battles.

Asking a footballer such as Kane to be a world-class striker and an impassioned yet savvy activist highlights the increasing weight of the armband. It’s all part of the job.

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