Of Captaincy and Football

In a game of cricket, when the ball goes past the fence; the camera begins focusing on the expressions of the skipper, which clearly register worry and agitation. As soon as the game draws to a close, the presentation ceremony always consists of a chat involving the skipper of both the sides, well before the Man of the Match accolade is presented. The skipper sets the field, switches bowlers, advises the bowler as to which areas he must bowl in and even decides when to take up power plays as the games wear on. All in all, everything that happens on the field revolves around the skipper of the side, directly or indirectly. It is the leader who is credited for everything the side he captains, does.

When it comes to football, the cameras are always on the lookout for the leading goal scorer or a player as prominent as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney; Players that we associate with the glitz and glamour of the game. Although, all these players, as per the status quo captain their respective sides, world-renowned stars such as Neymar, Arjen Robben and Eden Hazard always tend to steal spotlights, where ever they play. But, have we ever seen football captains stealing as many credits as the cricket captains, barring the situations when they have scored crucial goals?

In football, players who grab ever crucial goals, with the help of which their sides go on to win games always turn a lot of heads. The mere definition of a skipper has been blurred, despite the fact that they always play a colossal role in propelling the team in doing and achieving things that they actually end up doing. His role often goes unnoticed in football but there are occasions when he tends to make a big difference. An average mid-table side can well assume the form of a top club, thanks to the leadership abilities of the skipper. Everything seemingly is dictated by the old man, who stands by the touchline, screaming orders at the top of his voice, wearing a suit. But what captain does, in the truest sense of the word, is act as the link between the manager and the team. Whatever the manager says, the skipper amplifies with his own style, speech, and swagger.

The peculiar thing which most captains possess is that they aren’t the best player on the pitch by any means, nor are they a player whose flair exceeds that of all others, but that never say die spirit which always has a bearing on whatever they do, making a difference. Not just individually, but for the whole team. They wear their heart on their sleeve, put teammates into their respective positions and ooze commitment towards the badge on their chest.

The likes of Oliver Kahn, Carles Puyol, Roy Keane and Patrick Viera are prime examples of skippers who lead the team by an example. Their tendency to always keep the team on their toes, and acting as buccaneering forces of propulsion is heralded all across the world.

But, apart from Kahn, were these players extremely adept at actually playing football? No. What separated them from the other fellow team members was their sheer commitment and iron-willed determination.

It would be fair to say that many fail to realize how tough a job it is to don the armband of a football club before they actually end up donning one. Not everyone can do it.

What does a captain of a football team do?

Although it’s the managers’ job to nail down a certain formation that the side is supposed to adhere to, the captain’s role comes in when the side isn’t getting along well enough and isn’t doing the expected on the pitch. Even if the players struggle to fit into a particular formation, the captain’s faith and his desire to win the game, which claims a place in the mentality of the players, helps them achieve things they couldn’t have achieved in his absence.

Not everyone in this world can be a strong personality and can impose his influence on the others as well as skippers in football actually do. If the morale of a side hits rock bottom, the onus falls on the captain to cheer them on and boost their spirits. And this isn’t child’s play by any means. There are players on the side, who have a lot of swagger about their personality or those who get disheartened easily than the others. And the captain has to bring them on the same page, such that they work together to achieve the goal.

Not just this, but skippers also act as mediums between the players and the match officials during a game. Some years ago, we used to witness the whole team swarm around the referee to influence a decision, but in modern day football, the referee approaches the captain if he wants to convey anything to his side. And there are occasions when a player gets wind up for one reason or another and the captain is the one who helps that player in keeping a cool head, such that things may not blow over.

In the absence of a strong-willed leader, a side lacks the resolve to recover from bad situations. Arsenal have been lacking a skipper with a Patrick Viera-esque resolve ever since the Frenchman left for Inter Milan. Even Manchester United are deficient in having an imposing personality such as someone like Nemanja Vidic at back, or someone who organizes the defense, puts junior players into their respective positions. These players had excellent communication skills and had a very vocal approach towards speaking something out to the side, which is very important for any captain in the game.

To outsiders, captaining in football seems quite an easy job, which includes the tag of being a nominal leader stapled to your name. But from the inside, after donning the skipper’s armband, many players can cripple under its pressure and its demands of leading the side out in everything that the side does.

A lot of skippers in football show little signs of giving up, often typifying the spirit of the team and acting as a person the others can look up to for inspiration. One famous example happens to be Keane himself. He had the inimitable ability to pick up his teammates when they were down and out to lift them right above the opposition and sometimes, out of sheer desire to not give up, lead the side to a win.

Keane had that fire about him that separated him from a lot of the other skippers in football. He was seen by Sir Alex Ferguson as a man who can replicate his ferocity on the pitch and inculcate that into the players. While the Irishman’s stay became more controversial than pleasant towards the end of his time at Old Trafford, there is one part from a documentary involving Keane and Patrick Vieira that encapsulates what the former United skipper was.

The interviewer picks up a line about Keane from Sir Alex’s statement about the then skipper’s performance against Juventus in the European Cup semi-final second leg game. Sir Alex, who seems to struggle to find more lofty words to describe that performance and Keane’s grit, says:

“Pounding every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt as if it were an honor to be associated with this player.”

When asked his opinion about the statement, Keane straightens up. And shows little signs of being impressed by his former manager’s attempts to put his attitude in words, either out of animosity or out of sheer grit. Any other skipper or footballer would have felt flattered and you could’ve clearly sensed a glint of joy in their voice, if not the expression. But Keane has hardly been a part of that bandwagon. In a grave voice, he says:

“Stuff like that almost insults me. What am I supposed to do? Give up? Not cover every blade of grass? Not do my best for my teammates? Not do the best for my club?”

And one would genuinely struggle to find examples of men like these, not just in football but in sports in general. Men who every so-called ‘leader’ should look up to; should aspire to be. This man from a municipality called Cork in south-western Ireland carried two things with him: the inability of knowing what giving up means and a chip on his tenacious shoulder for whoever kept him away from losing. And that made him great. And made him one of the most fearsome characters in football.

The very reason why no one has come close to being the ferocious character that Keane is largely because of how tough it is to come very close to being a leader in the truest sense of the word. Not to say that Keane achieved perfection but the man stood for everything that falls under the checklist for being a captain.

And there’s no one better to use as an example for it than Roy Keane.

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