Explaining England’s obsession over its national team captain

Wayne-Rooney

England's Wayne Rooney, left. (Claude Paris/AP)

He would never admit as much, but it’s clear Jordan Henderson has fancied himself as something of a Steven Gerrard 2.0 for quite some time now.

The charging about, tough tackling, thunderous shooting and puffing out of his chest were all to emulate the captain he played under for both club and country. On Tuesday the midfielder was handed the armband to complete his imitation.

The passing of the England captaincy from the dropped Wayne Rooney to Henderson received predictable attention, with Gareth Southgate’s press conference ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Slovenia dominated by the subject. It was as symbolic a moment in the demise of Rooney as it was the rise of Henderson.

But why does the English game place so much emphasis on the captaincy of its national team? After all, the captain’s armband has scant significance in the modern game. It has become something of an out-dated concept. So why all the commotion over Southgate’s largely inconsequential decision this week?

In this individual case, the attention paid to the passing of the captain’s armband was probably a result of the storyline concerning Rooney at the moment. His demise has dominated the agenda in English soccer so far this season and so his loss of the England captaincy, as the country’s highest ever goalscorer and leading light for the best part of a decade, was significant as a watershed moment. This was the moment Rooney was once and for all written off at the top level.

However, while there are other factors to be considered when assessing the fuss over Rooney’s loss of the England captaincy, the passing of the armband has long attracted undue attention. Eras of the England national team have come to be defined by those who served as captain at such a time—there was the Alan Shearer era, then the David Beckham era, then the John Terry era, then the Gerrard era followed finally by the Rooney era. No country glorifies its captains quite like England does.

Perhaps English soccer’s obsession over who wears the captain’s armband comes from a yearning for a truly world-class talent. It is a quirk of the country’s “soccerscape” that for all its history and heritage in the game it has never produced a legendary figure to sit alongside the sport’s greats—nobody that can be placed on the top shelf with Pele, Diego Maradona and the likes.

That’s not to say England hasn’t produced some exceptional players, because of course it has, with Rooney being one of them despite his recent struggles. But the sense of underlying hurt at the lack of legendary talent to match the country’s historic standing in the game as the self-proclaimed home of soccer persists. It could explain why England captains are so high profile, almost subconsciously elevating them to a level they otherwise wouldn’t reach.

Until England finally produces a player of such an ilk the emphasis on the national team’s captaincy is only likely to intensify further. Other countries don’t glorify the responsibility in the same way, with most managers on the continent simply handing the armband to the most experienced player in the squad. Leaders will be leaders regardless of whether they have the official title or not. Was Sergio Ramos, for instance, any less vocal when Spain won the World Cup because Iker Casillas wore the armband instead?

Great captains are only great captains because they are great characters. Take Gianluigi Buffon, for example. The goalkeeper has been the face of the Italian national team for a decade, at least, but not because he has is the Azzurri’s captain, but because he is a commanding figure, a dressing room leader and the most passionate singer of a national anthem soccer has ever seen.

In truth the official title of captain matters little, if anything at all. Modern soccer has outgrown it, with much of the responsibility once held by captains now absorbed by managers, who have become the sport’s predominant figures in recent times. But it’s somewhat fitting for a country in desperate need of modernization that England should still glorify its captain’s armband and those who wear it.

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