Value of an Armband: How important is captaincy in football?

In a sport where the coach is responsible for all team decisions, how important then is the team’s captain?

Since taking over as the manager of Manchester United, Louis Van Gaal finally chose Wayne Rooney ending weeks of speculation over his preferred choice for captaincy. There was a shout out for Robin Van Persie’s candidature given the great working rapport among the two, but in not doing so 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 teammates; 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 eleven, how important then is the team captain?

If a team plays well, apart from the players it’s the coach who is applauded for he is responsible for every tactical decision, not the captain. Similarly, in reverse situations once again the coach is made to stand up to and explain his team’s defeat, not the captain.

Apart 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 field, the implications of which can be felt off it.

Taking Rooney’s case for example, Van Gaal risked steering 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 the club to the brink trying 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.

Eversince his arrival at Old Trafford two years ago, Van Persie no doubt has become the leader and the preferred choice in attack ahead of Rooney whose importance had somewhat reduced over the past two seasons. But handing over the captaincy to the Dutch international would have dented it further.

The heavy pay packet he signed last season which made him the highest paid player in the Premier League along with the captaincy 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 arm band 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 that has traditionally chosen their captain based on seniority and number of appearances, bypassed club veteran Cristian Abbiati – the most capped Milan player in the squad – to appoint the Italy international midfielder. It was a signal of change and with the club amidst a period of heavy transition, a message to the former Fiorentina star that in him they saw their future leader.

There have been captains in the past so inspirational on the pitch, they raised the tempo of their fellow teammates by a notch or two. Former Manchester United captain Roy Keane instantly comes to mind as one such captain whose energy instantly resonated among his players. But that trait in Keane wasn’t because he was 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.

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 post his premature retirement from the Swedish national team in 2010, Erik Hamren made him the captain as it motivated the striker to perform 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 captaincy to Philipp Lahm following an unfortunate injury just prior to the 2010 World Cup, little did Michael Ballack – German captain since 2004 - know that he would never lead his country again. The Bayern Munich full back, having led Die Mannschaft to a third place 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.