Even for the most experienced soccer fan, international soccer can seem strange. Different rules apply, there is a unique hierarchy and there is new terminology. This phenomenon is illustrated by the fact that players can earn “caps”, which are points for playing certain games.

What is a cap in soccer?

When a soccer player represents their country in an international match, they earn a “cap”. A soccer player who has played 50 games for their country will have 50 caps. A player who has a lot of caps is a sign of their abilities. Sometimes physical caps are awarded to players who reach milestones.

Although the concept of earning a cap might seem simple, once you add players who can play for multiple nations, it can become complicated. We’ll be covering the topic in depth in this article.

What is a cap in soccer?

The term “cap” in soccer refers the practice of giving players a cap (or hat), for each appearance they make for their national team.

Although soccer players don’t receive a cap for every appearance, it is quite common for those who reach significant milestones to get one.

Why not a cap? It seemed strange to me that a cap could be used to commemorate an event.

The Guardian interviewed David Barber (of Football Association) in 2000. They reported that the idea came from Cricket, and that P. A. Jackson was the one who suggested it.

Heading the ball at the time was more common due to the weight of the leather ball, so a cap wasn’t too unusual. These caps were then embroided with the dates, scores, and other information to mark the occasion and were given to the players as a souvenir.

In 1872, the first international match took place in Scotland. It saw the Scottish play old rivals England. Paul Mitchell, British Broadcasting Company (BBC) stated that approximately 4,000 people attended the match to witness a 0-0 draw.

This match was the first to be considered an international match, and therefore the first chance for players to win a cap in soccer.

Although the tradition of receiving physical caps has ceased, a federation might award a commemorative cap to a player who reaches an important milestone in soccer.

To commemorate their international debut, players may be awarded caps.

How do you earn a cap in soccer?

It’s easy. You just need to be the best soccer player in your country, attract attention from your country, keep good form, avoid injury, and perform well at your national team camps. Then you will be selected for the national pool as one of 11 best soccer players.

It’s funny, but it’s very impressive!

It is a process that involves being identified as a potential player in your country’s soccer pool at a young age. You will then need to play against real opponents for your club, not just practices and scrimmages.

Your performance should then be noticed by the coaching and scouting personnel of the national team.

Once they have noticed you, you need to keep impressing them and earn a call-up to the youth national team camps. You can also represent your country at youth level.

You will be called up to the senior national team camp as long as your abilities continue to improve.

After you get there, you must prove that you are the best player at your position and deserve to be a starter. Once you are able to break into the starting team and start a match, you have earned a cap.

As hard as it sounds, the truth is more difficult than you think. Soccer players are not only vulnerable in scouting, but also have to cope with situations beyond their control.

Some players were in peak form when they suffered a catastrophic injury or two that prevented them from breaking into the national team.

Some of them clashed with their coach and were not selected. (See Benny Feilhaber in the USMNT for an example).

Others, however, were just not the best at their positions. Imagine yourself as a skilled winger or midfielder in a country such as Brazil.

While you may be more qualified than 90% of people on the planet, there are 2-3 men in your country who are just slightly better, more versatile, or more consistent than you. That is enough to make you a starter.

There are some truly exceptional players who were at the top of the game but have no international caps. Many players, including Mikel Arteta and Steve Bruce, have never played for their country.

To have a chance, you must be the best player in your country. The next question is, “Why don’t I just play for a less stacked nation?”

Are you able to earn caps for multiple countries?

It is technically true, but it is complicated. It is possible to be “cap-tied”, which means you have played for your country in a meaningful match (i.e. Not a friendly.

The International Federation of Association Football is the governing body of soccer. In their rules of play (sections 5-8), you will find details about eligibility.

Section 5.2 of The Association Football Rulebook states that “…anyone who has participated in an official competition for any type or category of football for one organization may not participate in an international match for another team.

As they do often, things changed around the world and FIFA introduced new ways for players to play for other countries.

One example is the shift in the geopolitical environment of the world. The Soviet Union (USSR), its holdings, and Yugoslavia were disintegrated before my time. Kosovo was then recognized by FIFA, and this all happened within the past 50-60 years.

FIFA needed to create a contingency to allow players who were once part of a country such as the USSR, but wanted to continue playing for their country of heritage after the disbandment.

Another example is the international soccer player, who was born in one place but has since moved to another country where he resides.

This was evident in the recent case of Jonathan Gonzalez, a young Mexican midfielder. Gonzalez, who had played for the USA in youth-level national teams, was strongly leaning towards the United States for senior consideration.

His parents were Mexican and he could play for them as he had never represented the USA at the senior-level.

He made a “one-time change” and became eligible for Mexico, meaning that he was not in any way eligible for a US call-up.

The emergence of dual nationals, players who can be eligible for multiple countries through their family ancestry, has accelerated this phenomenon. Yunus Musah, a young starlet, is an example.

Musah is eligible to play in the United States, England, Italy, and Ghana. Musah has played in a senior match for the USA, but that was a friendly. To make the jump from the US pool to the other pools, Musah would need to file a “one time switch”.

A soccer player can’t switch after he has filed for a one-time change, regardless of the circumstances.

Who has the most caps in soccer?

It is an incredible honor to represent your country on the international stage. However, it is even more impressive to do this for many years and through many contests.

A country’s most notable appearances are often topped by exceptional talents who began young and continued to play well into their later years.

These players are often goalkeepers and defenders, who continue to be selected despite their physical limitations. However, they have the leadership skills and experience to compensate.

All these players have one thing in common, regardless of their position: consistency. They have proven their worth to the national team through many ups and downs.

These people have gone through many coaches, schemes and philosophies, but they still proved that they are worthy of being called in and allowed to play on the field.

These are the Top 5 Most Caps in Men’s Soccer:

  1. Ahmed Hassan, Eqypt, with 184 international caps
  2. Ahmed Mubarak, Oman, with 180 international caps
  3. Bader Al-Mutawa, Kuwait with 180 international caps
  4. Mohamed Al-Deayea, Saudi Arabia, with 178 international caps
  5. Sergio Ramos, Spain, with 178 international caps

These lists can help you learn more about international chess. If you zoom in a little more, you will see many players from Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt and Oman.


This is a return to the hierarchy that we discussed earlier. These countries are less well-known in international competition and have fewer “world-class talent” competing for the same positions.

The truly great players are able to stay longer in their country than they would have in a less competitive one.

Sergio Ramos, who still plays and plays for one the most prestigious national teams in the world, is a standout. The Spanish national team won twice the European Championship and the World Cup during his time there.

His talent and endurance are testaments to his ability to continue to be chosen, even as he gets older.

These are the Top 5 Most Caps in Women’s Soccer:

  1. Kristine Lilly, USA, with 354
  2. Christie Pearce, USA with 311
  3. Christine Sinclair, Canada with 296
  4. Carli Lloyd, USA with 296
  5. Mia Hamm from the USA with 276

You will see more Americans on the Women’s side and far more international caps per head than you would find on the Men’s side. This is because the Women’s game has been less established in recent years.

Since FIFA sanctioned the Women’s Game in 2002, the US has been the dominant side.

A lot of the women who play are also paid from the federation, rather than their club sides. This makes them more committed to the game than the men.

Over the years, women have participated in more international matches than their male counterparts. Women have also been more likely to qualify for the Olympic Games and have performed better in that competition than their male counterparts.

Invitational competitions are also held with other countries, such as the She Believes Cup. In 2018, the USMNT and USWNT both played 12 games, respectively.

Although international soccer has many differences to its club counterpart, I hope this article helps you understand. Cap for your country is an incredible honor that very few players will ever experience.