ANALYSIS: In a sport where the coach is responsible for all team decisions, the man chosen to wear the armband must find his own way to influence the side
New Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal recently ended weeks of speculation over his preferred choice for captaincy by naming Wayne Rooney as his skipper. There was a claim for Robin van Persie's candidature given the great working rapport between the two, but in selecting the Englishman the 63-year old indeed made a decision which made the most sense.
In cricket, a captain has the be the most 'intelligent' and 'smart' among his team-mates; merely being the best player in the squad doesn't cut it as he takes all the major decisions while the game is being played. Former Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar – probably the greatest cricketer ever after Donald Bradman - is a prime example of how even a legend in terms of playing prowess wasn't fully comfortable when it came to handling captaincy.
But in a sport like football where the coach or the manager decides everything from tactics to who makes it to the starting XI, how important then is the team captain?
If a team plays well, apart from the players it's the coach - not the captain - who is applauded, for he is responsible for every tactical decision. Similarly, in reverse situations, once again the coach is made to stand up to and explain his team's defeat.
Aside from calling the shots during the toss before kick-off, a football captain, it can be said, holds next to no importance when it comes to the events on the field. But it's a matter of honour for any player to be given the armband and lead his side onto the pitch, the implications of which can be felt off it.
Taking Rooney's case for example, Van Gaal risked stirring a hornet's nest had the England striker not been chosen. For all his nuisances and theatrics over the past few years and despite pushing to force a transfer more than once, it's hard to argue that the 28-year old has been the best Manchester United player since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Real Madrid in the summer of 2009.
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Ever since his arrival at Old Trafford two years ago, Van Persie has become the leader and the preferred choice in attack ahead of Rooney, whose importance has somewhat reduced. But handing over the captaincy to the Netherlands international would have dented it further.
Being skipper will only boost Rooney's confidence ahead of a season where the Red Devils have a lot of ground to cover. Rooney performs best when he is felt valued and Van Gaal knows it.
Milan handed over the armband once worn by the likes of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini last season to Riccardo Montolivo, who was arguably their best player in the 2012-13 season – his first as a Rossonero. A club which has traditionally chosen their captain based on seniority and number of appearances bypassed veteran Christian Abbiati – the most experienced Milan player in the squad – to appoint the Italy international midfielder. It was a signal of change and, with the club in the midst of a period of heavy transition, a message to the former Fiorentina star that in him they saw their future leader.
Across the city, arch rivals Inter considered choosing former Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic - who was signed on a Bosman this summer – as their leader. In a season where the club bid farewell to legends like Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso, Diego Milito and most importantly Javier Zanetti, the Serbian probably held more weight to the image of the club than someone like Andrea Ranocchia, who eventually got the gig.
There have been captains in the past so inspirational on the pitch they raised the tempo of their fellow team-mates by a notch or two. Former United captain Roy Keane instantly comes to mind as one whose energy instantly resonated among his players. But that trait in Keane wasn't because he was named captain. The Irishman was a born leader.
His fierce battles and rants with former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira – another inspirational skipper - back in the day is what defined the two clubs. Both lent a certain amount of steel and ruthlessness to the character of their teams. Having taken over from Tony Adams in 2002, Vieira described the task as "daunting" but one that eventually would help him mature both as a footballer and, more importantly, as a person.
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When Paris Saint-Germain signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2012, he was the frontrunner to take up the captaincy but gave it away in favour of Thiago Silva – the other major signing for the French club that season. That he only has a three year contract and never settles down at a club for too long is what he stated as the reason. According to him, a captain should be the "one for the future".
But when it came to returning back to international football following his premature retirement from the Sweden national team in 2010, Erik Hamren made him the captain as it motivated the striker to perform at his best. It was an honour that the then-Barcelona forward felt proud of, a move that made him more responsible on the field.
When it comes to international football and national teams, leading their country is what every footballer dreams of.
Forced to temporarily relinquish his the armband to Philipp Lahm following an unfortunate injury just prior to the 2010 World Cup, little did Michael Ballack – Germany captain since 2004 - know that he would never lead his country again. The Bayern Munich full-back, having led die Mannschaft to a third-placed finish at the World Cup, made it absolutely clear that he would never give up his role voluntarily even if Ballack thought he was still the captain.
The issue divided opinion in Germany, but goes a long way to show what captaincy means to players.
In a sport where coaches call all the shots, captaincy holds its own space. The fabric of the armband definitely is worth a lot more than it's made out to be.