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Does captaincy matter?

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It's just a bit of cloth, right?

This guy's a captain
This guy's a captain
Stu Forster/Getty Images

It's summer, the time when most people's soccer gaze turns longingly towards the door marked SHINY NEW TOYS and wondering what's behind that door, Monty Hall style. It's also a time when we try to find things to write about when those deals aren't being made, and apparently it's also a time when we struggle to write interesting opening paragraphs.

I was reading through the comments earlier, and I stumbled across this one, which, as all good comments do, made me think. The thought I thought was, why does it matter who the captain is?  And of course, me being me, I had to overthink that question quite a bit, and now I'll share that overthinking process with you. You're welcome!

The captain of anything, as we all know, is generally the day-to-day boss of a thing (except in the military, of course, where there are several ranks above captain). Captain of industry, captain of a ship, captain of an airplane - in most contexts, the word "captain" connotes responsibility and a sense of agency over the thing being captained.

In sports, of course, the meaning of "captain" shifts a bit - in most sports, the captain of the team is a person who, via either tenure with the team, skill level relative to his/her peers, or both, is the designated field leader during a game. The captain is the one who calls heads or tails, and who teammates look to for in-game direction and leadership and, in some sports, who calls the plays.

In most sports, captaincy is a huge honor,  and soccer is no different; there are always debates among fans and pundits about who is captain and whether that person should be captain or not, and those debates tend to evolve into a discussion of what a captain is, or what traits a captain should have.

My question is: do those things really add up to a skillset that requires something "ordinary" players don't possess, or are all those tasks and roles something anybody on the team can do, thus rendering the captaincy obsolete? Let's take a look at what a captain's typical roles are in soccer:

1. Pre game coin toss. Literally anyone can do this. There's no skill in calling heads or tails and you don't get better at it the more you do it. Let one of the kid mascots do it, which would actually be awesome.

2. In-game leadership. In a game like soccer, during the normal run of play, there are no called plays, like there are in basketball; it's not like the team all gets to the half way line and runs a couple screens and a clearout and lets the star drive to the goal. It's all very fluid, very reactive, and very situational. So there's really no need for a focal point to drive the offense, as there is in other sports, because there's no single linchpin around which a team exclusively plays.

3. Talking to the referee. We all know the old rule (is it a rule? Or is it just a guideline?) that "only the captain may talk to the referee". We also know that has gone the way of rotary dial phones and summer blockbuster movies that only open in one theater and play there all summer (ask your parents, kids!). Mobbing the referee has become standard behavior these days, as annoying as that is, so this feature of being a captain has also been rendered irrelevant.

So where does that leave a captain's role? As much as I hate doing this, it's time to talk about intangibles. If the role of captain has no unique function on the pitch, I can only speculate that it has a function off the pitch. Everything we always hear about sports teams is that they're like families; they're rigidly hierarchical, they're meritocracies, and they're ruthlessly stratified by any number of factors.

In that sort of environment, then, it probably (and this is where things get fuzzy because I'm not privy to the inner workings of a team's culture) helps to have a person to look to to be the arbiter of day to day conflicts, and to set the cultural and emotional direction of the team - like who sits where on the bus, what music gets played in the changing room, all that non-playing-but-still-important stuff - who is respected by everyone on the team.

So, back to the original question - is captaincy important? My gut reaction when I started thinking about this was "no, of course not", but over the course of this exercise I've come to shift my opinion a bit. I still don't believe the captain's role is important in any actual, concrete, related-to-gameplay way, but it seems like any group of people trying to unite and move towards a shared goal definitely benefit from having a leader who is not a manager, a person on their level who is charged with herding the cats and making sure they're all happy, as it were.

In ways that don't really matter to us on the outside, then, being captain doesn't matter nearly as much - it's a mildly interesting talking point, I guess, but the things we think would make a good captain might not be important to the people for whom the captaincy actually means something.