Should the captain jump ship?

Posted by Uli Hesse

Hamburg captain Heiko Westermann and manager Thorsten Fink did not see eye-to-eye.GettyImagesHamburg captain Heiko Westermann and manager Thorsten Fink did not see eye-to-eye.

On Monday night, Hamburg sacked coach Thorsten Fink. The decision was made in the wake of the humiliating 6-2 defeat in Dortmund. However, the writing had been on the wall since April. That was when Fink announced that veteran defender Heiko Westermann would no longer be his captain.

That -- messing with an established captain -- is often the kiss of death for a coach. Fink is the second gaffer in only two weeks who disregarded this secret rule and was made to pay for it. The first had been 1860 Munich's Alexander Schmidt.

In early July, on the last day of the club's pre-season training camp in Tyrol, Schmidt called the team together to inform the players that he would take the captain's armband away from veteran striker Benny Lauth.
That was when you knew his days were numbered. It came as no surprise when he was fired before August was over.

Just think of Stale Solbakken, who stripped Lukas Podolski of the captaincy in Cologne in his first month on the job back in 2011. He surely had his reasons, some of them might have been good and sound, but you immediately sensed that the coach was flirting with disaster. He didn't last ten months. A year later, Felix Magath dethroned captain Christian Träsch during the summer – and was sent packing fifteen weeks later.

At Stuttgart, the pattern has become somewhat of a tradition. Ahead of the 2008-09 season, VfB coach Armin Veh declared that Fernando Meira would no longer be his skipper. Barely four months later, Veh was relieved of his duties. In early December 2009, Veh's successor Markus Babbel announced he would strip Meira's successor Thomas Hitzlsperger of the captaincy. Less than a week later, Babbel was handed his marching papers.

Needless to say, this is not a German phenomenon. Fabio Capello's downfall as England manager was closely linked to the He-loves-me-he-loves-me-not saga that was John Terry's captaincy.

What is surprising about all this is not so much that changing captains is often the beginning of the end. Because in many cases the coach had already been struggling, which was precisely why he decided to apply what is considered a drastic measure, demoting the captain. What is surprising is that this measure is widely seen as drastic in the first place.

Many people in football, from players and coaches to fans and the media, ascribe an astonishingly great importance to which player gets to wear the insignia of the captain. Earlier this year, Terry uploaded a photo of his armband collection to Instagram and wrote: "I save all my captain's armbands from every game I play in." Obviously Terry, who sees himself in the tradition of Bobby Moore, the most admired captain in the history of the English national team, attaches great importance to a piece of cloth.

The funny thing is that Bobby Moore never needed it. Think of the many memorable Moore moments captured on film: Him lifting the 1964 FA Cup and the 1965 Cup Winners' Cup as West Ham captain, then as England skipper with the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966 or when he swapped shirts with Pelé at the 1970 World Cup. What you don't see in any of these pictures is... a captain's armband.

"During my England career," Spurs legend Jimmy Greaves said three years ago, "the only armbands we wore were black ones when one of the 90-odd ancient FA councillors had died." That's true. It wasn't until the early 1970s that armbands became de rigueur for captains. In April 1971, Franz Beckenbauer was the first (West) German skipper to wear one, though armbands had been the norm in German club football since the mid-60s.

Greaves was speaking on the occasion of the Terry debate and the point of his argument was not changing fashions but the fact that the role of the captain was, in his opinion, vastly overrated. "After the toss of the coin, it's irrelevant who is wearing the armband," he said.

Technically, he's right. In the entire rulebook, as currently available on FIFA's websites, the captain is mentioned only three times. In fact, the rules explicitly state: "The captain of a team has no special status or privileges under the Laws of the Game." (There follows a "but" and we'll come to it.)

There are sports where this is different. In ice hockey, an oft-cited case, the captain is the only player who is allowed to approach the game officials to discuss the finer points of rule interpretations. But in football, the captain is nowhere near as important as he was at the dawn of the game, when the skippers doubled as officials.

Heurelho Gomes
GettyImagesThe promotion of on-loan Heurelho Gomes is a perfect indication of the roles of captains in the modern game.

In fact, the post has now become so arbitrary that on-loan goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was given the Hoffenheim armband after all of five games with the club. Put differently, the football captain is now a total anachronism, little more than a go-to guy for the referee when the latter wants a warning message to be sent over the tannoy system.

So why don't we simply do away with a post that is just a status symbol which satisfies a player's vanity and gives the coach a target in a power struggle? After all, as Bobby Moore proved beyond doubt, nobody has to wear an armband in order to lead a team. And simply abolishing him altogether would spare us so many controveries, debates and quarrels. Who knows, it could save a future England manager's job.

However, maybe the situation is about to change. Because there is football below the professional game. And here, at the amateur and grassroots level, referees often need go-to guys. While the rules say that the captain has no special status, they add: "But he has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of his team." And sometimes the behaviour of the team can be hostile, even dangerous.

In July, the killing of a referee in Brazil made headlies the world over. But it was certainly not the first time violence erupted at the amateur level. In Almere, in the Netherlands, a linesman was beaten to death by three Under-17 players last December. And in 2011, a Berlin referee was almost killed when a player hit him so hard that he lost consciousness and swallowed his tongue. Of course these are very, very isolated incidents, but they certainly don't encourage young people to take up refereeing.

Instances like these spawned the English FA's "Respect" programme, which hopes to address the dwindling referee numbers by improving behaviour among players and spectators. (UEFA also has a "Respect" campaign, the name of which you may have seen on, yes, captain's armbands.) Part of the programme is a concept called "Captain only", which "encourages the referee to use the captains to help manage the game" and thus "elevates the responsibility of the captain".

One of the stated objectives in the FA's national implementation plan is: "To agree with the professional game, interventions that can be cascaded through the national game e.g. captain only." So, who knows?

Maybe one day the captain will become important again in the professional game, too, and will have a role not unlike his counterpart in ice hockey. Until then, he might as well jump ship. We would hardly notice.


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