Football Objects: The Cap

Hughie Connolly's cap, programme and jersey from Ireland's victory over Germany in 1936.
Hughie Connolly’s cap, programme and jersey from Ireland’s victory over Germany in 1936. Source: internationalcaps.web.com.

It is easy to forget sometimes that football is an old game, and as with many old things, it has its quaint traditions. One of football’s most peculiar old traditions is that of the cap. Although caps are usually only thought of in terms of being a figure of speech these days, usually how often one has been ‘capped’ for one’s country, the cap is not just figurative but it is a real and living football object.

The use of caps in football, though largely restricted not just in meaning but in production to international appearances, were not always so. Before teams had a definite uniform for playing matches in, different players wore different caps. Often in a team, players would wear their old school caps and a captain’s cap was known to sometimes have keepsakes on it to distinguish him from the rest of the players. Of course with the greater uniformity of team kits that was to eventually come in, it was decided to change this practice, so that the cap was awarded for playing in international matches. The interrnational caps naturally reflected many of the symbols/colours of the nation which was being represented. So for instance, England caps were usually white with a red rose (now they tend to be blue/navy in colour) – Scottish ones were navy with thistles and Irish ones were varying shades of green, usually with yellow/gold trimmings and tassles.

Even now though, the practice has changed – not every international match sees actual, physical caps being made anymore. Lamentable though it is, such a change is hardly surprising given the huge range of international fixtures that are now played – indeed people debate whether or not friendly caps really count; we speak after all, of the “competitive debut” as much these days as we do of the debut cap, or international debut at senior level.

Irish Free State International Cap from 1924 which was sold at auction in recent years.
Irish Free State International Cap from 1924 which was sold at auction in recent years.

The use of caps is not unique to the soccer code, of course – with cicket, rugby union and rugby league all also having a caps system (of both physical and figurative kind) and the term has become widespread as denoting international appearances in plenty of other sports. Caps though are rare in every sense – although it can seem like more and more people have international caps (nominally if not physically) – the reality is that to be capped at senior (or even junior level) for your country is some achievement and should be remembered as such. There may be more countries, there may be more players, but really there are less and less caps going around these days. If you’ve got one, hold on to it – its a piece of not only personal history, but it ties you to some of football’s longest running traditions.

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