What are the responsibilities of a captain?

Following last week’s column about soccer’s ongoing battle with player dissent and abuse of referees, reader Ted Powers wrote to me with the following suggestion:

“I have played and watched soccer for many decades, and it certainly seems like the surrounding of referees and disrespect has gotten worse. Wanted to throw out an idea to you: follow the example from rugby and only allow the captain to speak to the referee. This would invest the captain with more responsibility and authority. However, the key would be that when any other player violates the rule and complains to the referee, the card (yellow for dissent, red for physical contact) would be shown to the captain! Players would be extremely reluctant to risk a card for their captain no matter their level of annoyance with the ref. This would provide a powerful incentive to return to a more respectful approach.”

The principal idea here, that only the captain may talk to the referee, has been discussed before. The new element suggested by Mr. Powers is that the captain himself would take any punishment meted out to his teammates. It seems harsh on the poor captain, but the idea’s not without merit. Soccer introduced a similar rule a few years ago stipulating that if dissent came from the team bench, and the perpetrator could not be identified, then the head coach would take the yellow card.

That is, it’s the job of the coach to maintain discipline on the bench. If their assistant or one of the substitutes has failed to do this, then the coach must take the rap. In the same way, as Mr. Powers sees it, a captain should be able to command the respect of all his teammates. If the captain has failed to bring the whole team on board, then they are the ones to suffer the sanction.

My problem with this solution, as I wrote back to my correspondent, is that captains on soccer teams are rarely models of good behavior. In my own experience, their conduct has often been worse than that of their teammates. They frequently think that they have special rights as a captain, and that these special rights consist exclusively in being allowed to moan at the referee. When you show them a yellow card for dissent, they disclaim, “But I’m the captain!” Exactly.

There is a sentence in the "Laws of the Game," as I’m sure that most of you are aware, which states: “The team captain has no special status or privileges but has a degree of responsibility for the behavior of the team” (Law 3, Clause 10, Team captain). Not only does the captain have no right to moan, but they should in fact be the individual preventing other players from approaching the referee.

Now, at amateur level I have sometimes encountered captains who have done just that, but it’s a rarity. In youth teams, the captain is usually just the best player, and is still lacking the confidence to lead a team, or the training to do so. The main quality to being captain on an adult team seems to be the capacity to shout inane encouragement at a very loud volume. Or to chew out players who’ve just made mistakes, or bellow at refs using their non-existent special rights. Watching professionals, that “degree of responsibility for the behavior of the team” seems to be largely absent too, at least on the field of play. (Good captaincy involves positive interaction with your teammates before and after the game as well.)

FIFA’s captaincy ‘law,’ such as it is, does the game no favors at all. This ‘degree of responsibility’ can be interpreted on a scale of a hundred different units, from freezing to boiling point. I’ve been a captain too in the past, and I know that I was far from having control over my whole team, especially the three or four hotheads that seem to be the statutory part of any roster. When you’re dealing with grown men playing for fun, and whom you only see once or twice a week, it’s a challenge to command everyone’s respect and keep things calm on the field. I would occasionally suspend the worst offenders, but only if it wouldn’t leave the team short of a player or two the following weekend.

Still, let’s try and quantify that ‘degree of responsibility.' Here’s what a captain can say to their team before the game, and approximates to what I tell my players as a youth coach:

Do not speak to the referee at all. If there is a genuine problem on the field that you think needs to be addressed, talk to me, and I will talk to the referee.

Do not show any kind of exasperation or frustration with the decisions of the referee, either by word or action. Focus on your game, and nothing else. If you would like a particular decision to be explained, request me to approach the referee at halftime or full-time and I will courteously ask on your behalf.

Do not engage in any kind of agitated verbal exchange with any of your teammates, or with any players on the opposition team. That also applies to anyone on the opposition bench, or any spectators. If you feel like you are being deliberately provoked, please come and tell me, and I will approach the referee on your behalf. 

At the end of the game, always shake hands with the referee(s) and thank them for their work. Please shake hands with all the opposition players and congratulate them if they won. If any opposition player is seeking a confrontation with you, either during or after the game, raise your hands, turn your back on them, and walk away.

Show nothing but respect for your fellow players, your opponents, and the referees.

By this time, you’re probably on the floor laughing, wondering if I’m some posh-voiced Brit transported through time from the chivalrous Victorian era, which in any case was only chivalrous when it suited the ruling classes (in sport, but nowhere else). If we’re to change soccer’s culture, though, educating captains to command the respect of their teams, and to have the means to control them, is one of the key steps forward. We could re-write Law 3, Clause 10, as follows:

Team captain
The team captain is responsible for the behavior of the team. Only the team captain is permitted to talk to the referees and will do so only in a courteous, respectful manner. Any player besides the captain who addresses the referees to take issue with their management of the game will be cautioned or dismissed from the field of play, depending on the degree of disrespect shown. The referee may also choose to caution the captain if it is felt that the captain is not taking appropriate action to control the conduct of their team.

So, I’d be meeting Mr. Powers halfway there with his idea of penalizing the captain. My thanks to him for highlighting yet another area of FIFA’s rules that calls for clarity. Keep the suggestions coming in, either in the comments below or by email to: Let’s keep exploring ways to purge soccer of the plague of dissent. #dissentoff

2 comments about "What are the responsibilities of a captain?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, January 12, 2023 at 11:56 p.m.

    I started playing in the 1960s so my views could be outdated. While the LOTG don't mention captains, there are customs regarding captains. Customarily, captains are allowed to ask the referee questions and customarily the official answers them. Captains represent the team at the coin toss before each half and make the choices. If a team has too many players on the field during play, the captain by custom receives the caution. Traditionally the captain also gave technical direction during the match. Coaches seem to surpress this after the 1993 changes to the game, wanting total control over the tactics of the match. Play has greatly suffered as a result, becoming much more conservative and uncreative.

  2. Mike Lynch, January 13, 2023 at 8:30 a.m.

    Amen! Not old fashioned but rather good sense, good for the game. The current state of affairs and I hold referees' partially responsible due to their lack of action to punish dissent, does not help the game being played nor the long term trajectory of our game. Reasserting the Captain responsibilities and authority is a simple, effective start. 

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