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Real Madrid's Captaincy: A Hypothetical Discussion

What a captain should and shouldn't be. Real Madrid's seniority policy aside, who would you have wearing the captain's armband?

Jasper Juinen

As you surely know by now, the captaincy at Real Madrid is strictly determined by seniority. Club policy dictates that the player with the most time under his belt at the club wear the captain's armband while the rest fall in line for the position, all based on time with the club. This policy has become a longstanding tradition at the club and is one that is unlikely to change any time soon, but that doesn't mean we can't entertain the hypothetical.

What Makes an Effective Captain?

First off, what makes a good captain? He's a leader obviously. What makes a good leader? Well that's a question best answered by successful authors who manage to make a living writing on the subject, not by a Real Madrid blogger. But to whittle it down for our purposes, let's just regurgitate that old phrase: lead by example. Communicated encouragement is vital as well, but no one follows someone who can't walk the walk into battle. The captain gets stuck in, commits and leaves it all on the pitch and the team will follow. Walking the walk always precedes talking the talk when you're talking about leadership. I haven't exactly read any of those effective leadership books, but that's this blogger's take on it, anyway.

An effective captain's impact on a team is difficult to quantify, but a truly invaluable asset, nonetheless. When we try to measure up what makes a good captain, the first and most important question to ask is how much can he get out of others? The captain should be someone whose mere presence instills a tangible confidence in the teammates around him. Squads should always yearn to attain a high level cohesion and grit. An effective manager can instill a base for this on the training ground, but that only go so far. On gameday when the manager is confined to the bench, an effective captain must take on the responsibility of putting it all into practice on the pitch.

A Captain's Position On the Pitch

It must be noted that former boss, José Mourinho, flirted with the idea of battling Madrid's seniority policy and removing Iker Casillas's armband in July of 2011. At the time, Mourinho claimed he preferred a captain to be a field player rather than a goalkeeper. Mou did not follow through, and we may never know if he really ever meant to. But if we take his words at face value here, we'd have to assume that, for some managers at least, there's specific value in a team captain being "in the action," so to speak.

Speaking in terms of position, can a goalkeeper be visible and involved enough to bring out the best in his team? Remember, ideally your goalkeeper would not even be involved in the flow of a match. To a certain degree, we can extend the same concern to the other end of the pitch. Is a lone striker an ideal captain's position? It seems the nature of the game just suggests that central midfield players be captain. I'd even venture to say that a defensive center-mid or centerback are the positions that lend themselves best to the captaincy. The vast majority of a match is played in front of and in close proximity to these positions, giving them the responsibility of organizing the game in front of them while protecting the last lines of defense in behind.

A quick look at La Liga's 2012/13 Wikipedia page confirms that the majority of Spanish sides listed a defensive midfielder or centerback as captain. The breakdown of captaincies in Spain's 2012/13 top-flight clubs by position are as follows:

  • Centerback: 5
  • Defensive Midfielder: 4
  • Wide Midfielder: 3
  • Fullback: 3
  • Goalkeeper: 3
  • Forward: 2

Espanyol, Sevilla and Real Madrid are the three sides that employed a goalkeeper as captain.

A Captain On and Off the Pitch?

Let's muddle the conversation up a bit. John Terry. Yes, the legend of the internet soccer meme himself. Here's a man whose captain's armband was revoked at the international level following accusations of on-pitch racial abuse and an extramarital affair with a teammate's girlfriend. At the same time, at least at club level, he may be the best example of everything you could ever want out of a captain in footballing terms: he visibly elevates the performances of his teammates. His inclusion in the side, even at his advanced age, instills a formidable defensive confidence that sometimes lacks on Chelsea's back line when he's absent from the pitch. But the John Terrys of the world beg the question, should your field general be one that causes controversy off the pitch even if he's a brilliant captain on it?

No, if you ask me. Wearing the armband should be an honor. It should carry some sense of responsibility to represent the club positively. Or at the very least, in a way that does not embarrass it.

A Few Additional Considerations

I have a few other personal requisites that I like to see met from a captain sitting here from my hypothetical managerial armchair.

1. The captain should not be a liability in the expectation of finishing a match with 11 players. You should never have to incorporate the possibility of trying to finish the battle without your general into your plans. It's the reason I wouldn't be in favor of someone like Pepe donning the armband for my team. I certainly don't think he's still the maniacal madman that tramples all over people's backs, but I've seen enough incidences in which he was lucky not to be ejected (a stomp on Messi's hand comes to mind) since then to instill no confidence in Pepe, for me at least. This consideration also raises some doubts over Sergio Ramos's eligibility for my captaincy, but he is much more easily forgiven in this regard. I mean, I'd run through a brick wall for the Ramos that came to play in the 2nd Dortmund leg last season.

2. I don't necessarily care that my captain be at the club for years to come, I just demand the utmost commitment for the season at hand. In fact, a captain whose career is dwindling down (but can still perform at a high level, of course) can inspire even more out of his teammates. A "let's win this for the old guy because this may be his last chance at winning 'la décima' kind of scenario."

3. Consistency. The guy that's looked up to shouldn't be one who's susceptible to dips in form. Even in rare times of sub-par play, ideally he should still be able to exude confidence.

4. This one is more of a plea to FIFA. Crowding a referee to influence and coax a decision out of him has to be one of my biggest pet peeves with the game. FIFA's Laws of the Game don't lay out any specific responsibilities for captains outside of the administrative "toss a coin with the ref before the match" variety. Could we throw in a restriction of a referee's personal space to captains only?

After All That [Insert Drumroll Here]

Xabi Alonso is my captain. Sergio Ramos is my vice-captain.

Note: All of this could be considered a waste of time. Iker Casillas is Real Madrid's captain. Next in line are the following players:

Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Gonzalo Higuaín (if he were to stay), Pepe. 6 other players that joined Madrid in the summer of 2009/10 fall behind Pepe.

Play manager and let us know who you would appoint captain if Madrid's seniority policy did not exist.

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