Best Football Captains: Club and National Team Leaders

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 20. prosinca 2023.

Not to sound like nostalgic old naggers, but the captain’s armband used to mean a lot more. Due to more frequent transfers, diminishing loyalty in football (from both clubs and players), less patience, and fewer club-grown players in top clubs. With the latest dilutions coming with the frequent decisions to have multiple club captains, not just a captain, and a vice-captain. But there are some who remain, the few best football captains still elicit respect from the manager, their teammates, the officials, the opponents, and even the opponents’ fans. Sometimes.

Here, we will list out the best football captains in club football, but also the best national team football captains.

This is one of the trickiest articles to write, as there are no clear statistics you can lean on to make your case. Nor a rule book by which captains are ranked.

But there are unwritten yet agreed-upon traits that make a great armband-wearer.

The captain’s armband is usually given out only after a player has served the club, or the national side, for a long time. As others in the organisation had sufficient proof to determine whether he has the character for the duty.

It’s no secret that the often best, but surely the most beloved captains are home-grown. For clubs, of course.

The second-best thing is to have the captain at least be from the country the club is from. Which has benefits in communication.

Furthermore, having a spot in the record books is always a benefit.

Also, using the captain’s privilege of lifting the trophy first!

A cherry on top of the cake is the captain representing the club, or the nation, demonstrates the traits the fans proud of themselves on the team having. Be it technical skills for Barcelona, team spirit for Liverpool, or work rate for Boca Juniors.

Best Football Captains in Club Football

Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)

Manuel Neuer

It’s almost impossible to imagine Manuel Neuer with his mouth closed. Or with his hands not beside his face to focus his yelling. Even though he is a shot stopper. That how vocal the German goalkeeper is. Oh, and we would’ve included Neuer in the top 10 best football captains in international football, yet we feel that despite the convincing World Cup win, his generation should’ve done more. Furthermore, when Neuer was the captain, Germany had one solid Euro, one disappointing one, and two devastatingly bad World Cups.

For Bayern, well it’s hard to imagine better than what they did with Neuer in charge.

Another credit to his leadership abilities: Neuer was wearing the Schalke armband in his last season with the Gelsenkirchen club. Then becoming captain for Bayern after Phillip Lahm's retirement in 2017.

Although at a disadvantage when it comes to talking to the ref due to his position at one end of the pitch, Neuer is the most authoritative figure in modern German football. By a big margin. Despite his long-term injuries, he has 701 games in club football and 117 for the NT.

As a captain for FCB he lifted seven Bundesliga trophies, one Champions League big-eared trophy, two German cups, and five German Supercups. All while keeping his class and being a massive figure in the dressing room and on the pitch, ensuring security in the lines in front of him. Additionally, Neuer never left his team down by getting a red card.

Seamus Coleman (Everton)

Seamus Coleman

Maybe not the flashiest of names on this list, yet the servitude of Seamus Coleman to Everton cannot be understated and should be celebrated outside Goodison Park. The Irishman joined EFC in 2009, becoming the club's captain 10 years later and with 410 games played for the club. The 35-year-old is nearing the top 10 rankings for appearances in one of the oldest clubs in the Premier League. Not the loudest, but a certified leader, Coleman has the armband honour of his country as well.

Koke (Atletico Madrid)

Koke

It's hard to list a top European team with more character than Atletico Madrid. Besides the manager, the captain plays a massive role in establishing that. Koke might be the perfect captain in modern football, as he is one of the few who actually came up in the club he's representing. The only club of his career! Koke is now Atletico Madrid's player with the most appearances - 606! Wearing the armband since 2019, meaning he lifted the trophy after the surprising 2020/2021 La Liga triumph! One of two leagues he won with the club, alongside two Europa League titles, two European SUpercups, one Spanish, and one Spanish cup.

Ciro Immobile (Lazio)

Ciro Immobile

The best player on the team? Check. Loyal? Check. Domestic player? Check. Record-holder? Check. Won trophies? Check. Performs better for the club than for the national team? Erh, check. Although Ciro would want to change that last one, there is no doubt that he and Lazio are a match made in heaven.

Ciro is in Lazio's top 10 for appearances made with 315 games, but he is also first for goals scored with 203! Even though he arrived only in the summer of 2016! Ciro started picking up the armband in 2018 but made it his own in 2020. Lazio didn't have many trophies to celebrate, but with Ciro in charge, they won the 2019 Italian Cup, and two Italian Supercups. While having the European Golden Boot winner is also a point of pride for the sky-blue Romans.

Iker Munian (Athletic Bilbao)

Iker Munian

In his early 20s, while Spanish football was reigning supreme, Iker Munian was one of its most promising players. Bound to leave for Liverpool, Barca, Arsenal and the likes. Yet the winger remained with the special club that is known for loyalty. He stayed and played for so long that he is now a bearded leader ranked second in the club's list for most appearances all time with 548 games! Only 66 matches are separating him from being the most loyal player of the most loyalty-valuing club! That alone should be enough for the man who started getting the captain's armband in 2016 but solidified himself as the leader in 2018. Winning two Spanish Super Cups with the club, lifting the second as a captain.

Best Football Captains in International Football

Simon Kjaer (Denmark)

Simon Kjaer

We will loud here the accolades of these best football captains, but all of them pale in comparison to the challenge and the effort Simon Kjaer made at the 2020 Euros. In a dire moment of need that surpasses football, when his teammate Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest, Kjaer rushed in quickly and placed the unconscious teammate in the correct recovery position. Then, he made his teammates to lock hands and create a wall to give the medical team some privacy to do their jobs. Afterwards, on the pitch, he consoled Christian's wife. Him and the medical team were therefore recipients of UEFA's President’s Awards for the act. More importantly, Eriksen singled out "his captain" Simon for helping alongside the medical team.

But Kjaer would've earned his spot here even without that event. Simon has represented his country 130 times and is a record-holder for his nation! The 34-year-old became the captain in 2016 and since Denmark has been at every possible tournament, reaching the semis in 2020. All without the team having a massive star besides Eriksen, but pushing on with togetherness.

Luka Modric (Croatia)

Luka Modric

If the job of the leader is to do anything, it’s to elevate the squad. With Luka Modric in their centre, Croatia, a country of 3.9 million people reached the finals of the World Cup in 2018, and then won third place in 2022. Teamwork did mark this Croatia team, but it cannot exist without a proper captain to nurture it. Especially in two different tournaments. While Croatia does have and did have world-class players in these teams, notably they were lacking in the backline. But with the secure Luka in the middle, the team had the self-belief like no other.

Not long before these successes did Luka took the armband for the first time, in 2016.

While Luka has a calmer demeanour in general, he has shown a bark and a bite playing for Real Madrid, especially in those fiery El Clasico matches. There, his mentality was honed to be used for the Croatian NT. Now, he is the country's most-capped player by a big margin, with 172 games played! And he's still going strong, probably to retire after the 2024 Euros.

Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Lionel Messi

Three years ago, this would've been unimaginable. If anything, Leo Messi was criticized for his lack of leadership. At least of a vocal one. Certainly one outside of the pitch, game day or otherwise. Yet, in 2019, Leo started voicing his opinions for Barcelona, even going to the media with harsh responses to the sporting director Eric Abidal. What ensued is the full blossoming of Messi into a captain. Not just a captain, though, an Argentinian captain.

Messi first wore the armband in 2011, in a game against Venezuela, and has rarely had it off since. But only with the Copa America triumph did he get to do what captains enjoy the most - lifting trophies. Internationally, that is, of course. Although Messi hasn't been a captain at Barca for long.

It was in Copa America 2021 where Messi displayed improved leadership, notably against Colombia in the semis when the penalty shootout decided the finalist. But Messi earned the spot on this list with his World Cup 2022 exploits. Not just by winning the tournament, but by scoring seven times in the process, assisting three games. Also showing his teeth, getting a viral moment after the battle (18 yellow cards!) in the quarter-finals with The Netherlands. With Wout Weghorst on the other end of Messi's "what are you looking at, fool?". A different country might've not enjoyed their captain doing that, but for Argentinians, and from Messi, it was a sure sign they were going to win the whole thing.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Cristiano Ronaldo

We are bombarded digitally every day with wannabe business people offering courses on how to be leaders, while there is a short clip of Cristiano Ronaldo online that perfectly illustrates it. In the quarter-finals of the 2016 Euros, Poland took the Portuguese to a penalty shootout and the favourites got nervous. The manager Jorge Santos had a difficult time getting the players to sign up for taking them in the huddle. But then the captain stepped in. Calling on Joao Moutinho, he said to the midfielder "come on, kick. You take them well" several times, raising his teammate's confidence. Then, alleviating the pressure by saying "if we lose, then f**k it" and later on a bit classier "It's in God's hands now."

Cristiano took the first penalty as a leader should, further lowering the pressure on his teammates. Then, when Moutinho's turn came, he also converted the shot! Portugal went on to win the shootout and later the tournament. Even though CR7 left the pitch in the final due to an injury, he was an additional manager on the side on crutches. Ecstatic with the final whistle.

CR7 first wore Portugal's armband in 2007 but started getting it regularly a year later. Of course, he is the country's (and international football's) most prolific goalscorer and the man with the most caps.

Virgil van Dijk (The Netherlands)

Virgil van Dijk

From recently captaining Liverpool LFC as well, Virgil van Dijk has been wearing the Netherland's armband since 2018. While he is not the typical Dutch player, a technical attacking maestro, VVD has been the anchor in the Oranje trying to find their way back to European greatness after missing World Cup 2018. Providing stability and leadership from the back. A young team has a veteran who has won to lean back on, a proven world-class player who has faced personal adversity and bounced back. Giving his all, as in his 64 caps, he has contributed seven goals.



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