What Are Caps In Soccer?

With all the confusing and technical terms that exist in the world of soccer, it can be beneficial to do some research about what they all mean so you don’t end up looking like a fool in front of your friends!

In this article, we’re taking a look at one of those confusing terms: caps. So what exactly is a cap in soccer?

Earning a cap is one of the greatest achievements in the world of professional soccer and all the best players in the world will spend their whole careers trying to accumulate as many of them as possible.

What Are Caps In Soccer

No, it doesn’t refer to any kind of head-related clothing. A cap in soccer is actually an appearance made by a player for their national team.

The term can be used interchangeably with the word ‘appearance’ because it literally just refers to how many games a player has played while representing their country.

As you can imagine, only the highest level players in the world will get to represent their nation at the professional level so even earning one cap is a huge achievement for most players.

Of course, for some nations, earning a cap is much easier as there aren’t as many other professional players to compete with. However, for countries like Brazil, France, or England, it takes a lot of hard work to earn the prestigious title.

Why is it called a cap?

Plenty of non-soccer fans might think a cap has something to do with an item of clothing and they wouldn’t be too far off with a guess like that.

The history of the term starts way back in 1886 when the secretary of the English Football Association (FA) decided that every player who represented England in an international soccer match should be rewarded with an embroidered cap to wear.

At the time, a player was only given one cap for their first appearance for England, otherwise, the FA would have ended up with a pretty big bill from their tailor!

Eventually, this trend spread across the world, and soon enough pretty much every nation was awarded a commemorative cap to players who represented them on the soccer field.

In the modern-day, this term has changed somewhat in its meaning and significance and we now use the term ‘cap’ to refer to any time a player represents their national team. For example, someone who has played 10 games for their country has 10 caps. Simple!

Can soccer players earn caps for their club?

Unfortunately for some players, earning a cap isn’t as easy as making any kind of professional soccer appearance.

No, the term ‘cap’ exclusively refers to international matches between international teams. This is because soccer at an international level doesn’t happen as frequently as it does at club level.

For example, a player in the 5th division of English soccer will likely play as many games of club soccer every year as a player in the top division, but the latter is far more likely to earn a cap.

How hard is it to earn a cap in soccer?

Like we said before, there’s a pretty significant inequality among teams over how many caps a player is likely to earn and it largely comes down to a lot of luck.

The main contributing factor in how likely it is a player will earn a cap is how many other elite-level players there are in that country.

A nation like France, the World Cup champions in 2018, has thousands of aspiring and current professional soccer players, all fighting each other for a prestigious spot in the national team.

Alternatively, countries like Albania have very few players who compete in the top European soccer leagues, meaning players don’t have to be as good to earn themselves a cap.

For this reason, you’ll see that some of the greatest players in the world will end up with the same number of caps over their career as some pretty mediocre players.

Does a friendly count as a cap?

When it comes to the international game of soccer, teams will often compete in competitions like the World Cup or in friendly matches which are often played for coaches to test out tactics and new players.

When it comes to counting a player’s international caps, these friendly matches do not count towards their total.

Do soccer players get paid for caps?

When representing their nation in a competitive match, most players will be paid a fee per game by their respective body for soccer.

For example, it was reported that Kylian Mbappe was paid around $23,000 for every game he played in the 2018 World Cup but he donated all of his earnings to charity.

In fact, at the elite level, players will earn much more money from representing their clubs throughout the season than their national teams so many will opt for a charitable donation of their earnings.

The amounts that each nation will pay their players change dramatically from country to country and some may choose not to pay their players at all.

In the international game, earning a cap is something players do more for the honor it comes with than for any kind of financial gain.

Can soccer players earn caps for more than one nation?

Bizarrely, soccer players can actually represent more than one nation throughout their playing career and earn caps for both.

One high-profile example of this is Diego Costa, who represented Brazil at international level until 2014 when he changed his nationality to Spanish.

There are a number of political factors that can determine whether a player is eligible to switch nationalities and these factors will change from nation to nation.

However, in most cases, if a player has a parent who was born in a different country to themself, the player will be eligible to represent either of the two nations.

The same is also true in some cases where a player is born in one country but spends many years living and playing in another.

Male soccer players with the most caps

Now that we understand what a cap in soccer is and how significant it is, let’s take a look at some of the most capped male players of all time:

Currently, the highest-capped male player is Soh Chin Ann who represented Malaysia for the 219th and final time in 1984.

What’s remarkable about Soh Chin Ann’s cap achievement is that his international career lasted less than 15 years, which is significantly less than most of the other players in the top 50!

Another honorable mention is Ahmed Hassan, an Egyptian soccer player who represented his nation a total of 184 times. This makes him the most-capped African player of all time and it doesn’t look like anyone will overtake him soon.

However, at the time of writing this article, the third-place spot for international caps is tied between Ahmed Hassan and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Considered by many to be the best soccer player of all time, Ronaldo shares the same number of international caps as Hassan but is likely to overtake him before the end of his career.

Female soccer players with the most caps

Interestingly, when it comes to the international game of soccer, female players massively outrank the men when it comes to caps.

The all-time highest cap total is held by Kristine Lilly, who has represented the United States an incredible 354 times!

She’s also one of the oldest players in the top 50 list, having started her career way back in 1987 when the women’s international game was far less established than it is today.

American players are a key theme in women’s all-time caps as 8 of the top 10 represented the United States across their careers. Carli Lloyd comes second on the list.

Having earned 316 caps for the United States and won’t earn any more as she decided to hang up her boots in 2021. Many believed Carli Lloyd would overtake Kristine Lilly to take the number 1 spot but sadly for her, it wasn’t to be.

The highest-ranking non-American on the list is still a North American. Christine Sinclair sits 4th on the all-time list, having represented Canada 308 times over her career.

However, Sinclair also holds the prestigious title of being the world’s highest scorer at international level across both male and female games.

She has currently scored 188 goals for Canada but hasn’t retired at the time of writing so could go on to score even more.

Why do female soccer players have more caps than male soccer players?

The answer to this question lies mainly in the sexist history of organized sport. Like any sport, women were not permitted to play professional soccer until long after men had begun to do so.

For this reason, women’s club-level soccer has only had a chance to develop its competitiveness in recent decades.

Because there were so few women’s teams at the club level, there weren’t as many games to be played, leaving more space on the calendar for international competitions instead.

The result of this is that the top-level female soccer players end up playing more games at the international level than their male counterparts and fewer games for their clubs.

Alternatively, because male club-level soccer at the professional level has such a busy schedule in the modern-day, there isn’t as much time for male players to represent their nation.

Most will only earn caps when qualifying for or competing in the World Cup or their respective continental competitions, without any room for friendlies.


What we’ve established in this article is that it’s basically a pretty significant achievement for any player to earn a cap for representing their country in a game of soccer.

Whilst the history behind the awarding of a physical cap might have changed since the concept began in the 19th century, the importance of the achievement is just as strong today.

Most players will say they’ll never forget their first cap as a young player, even if they’ve since earned hundreds.

Hopefully, you’re now a bit more clued up about what caps are and what they represent so you can impress all your friends with your in-depth soccer knowledge!