There aren’t many sports other than football where a designated captain is named – let alone revealed by the wearing of the captain’s armband. Even at the highest level of the sport, being named as captain remains a tremendous honour, so the wearing of the skipper’s armband is an affectation of the leadership role – as well as identification, which can help a referee if he or she wants to have a word with the captain in a bid to convince them to get their players to behave better on the pitch.
When a captain is substituted, you will often see them hand the armband to a teammate – a ceremonial passing of the torch, if you will. But when did football captains start wearing the armband? And, why?
When Did Football Captains Start Wearing an Armband?
There is nothing in the Laws of the Game document created by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), who oversee the rules of the beautiful game, that says that a captain must wear an armband or be distinguished from their teammates in any way. If you look at photography from classic moments in football, you’ll notice that the likes of Bobby Moore and Carlos Alberto are not wearing an armband when they lift the World Cup trophy in 1966 and 1970, respectively.
Became a Rule in 1949/50
But in club football, some individual countries were starting to embrace the captain’s armband as early as the 1950s. Indeed, the Italian football association made it a rule ahead of the 1949/50 Serie A season that the captain must wear an armband to allow them to be more easily identified by the referee.
Soon, the captain’s armband became a symbol of branding as much as identifying a team’s leader. Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German, was convinced to wear an armband by his sponsor, Adidas, who had made a piece confirming the captaincy but with their own classic ‘three stripes’ design emblazoned upon it. Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, who wore an Adidas armband featuring the flag of the Netherlands, popularised the wearing of the captain’s fashion at the 1974 World Cup.
Popularised by Johan Cruyff
Cruyff was evidently taken with the notion, and by 1976 he was wearing an armband while captaining FC Barcelona – little did he know that the design, which bears the Catalan colours of red and yellow, would last for decades to come and become a symbol of Catalonian independence from the Spanish government. Flags bearing the ‘rebel’ colours had been banned by Spain’s former leader, General Franco, until his death in 1975.
Leeds United also began to use an armband in the 1970s. Their players played ‘on the edge’ under Don Revie, leading to a large number of bookings – many for dissent to the referee. So, Revie decided that his captain, Billy Bremner, would wear an armband and be the only player in Leeds’ team that could approach the match officials. Reavie told the Scot to be as courteous and polite as possible, although referees of the time have since revealed Bremner’s fiery personality would often get the better of him in that regard.
Became Commonplace in the 1980s
However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that British football as a whole caught on to the idea. Although some captains had worn ‘armbands’ in European games – more a strip of tape around the upper arm than an elasticated armband, it wasn’t until this decade that they began to become more commonplace. For FA Cup games, an amendment – 14d – was added to the competition’s rules: ‘The captain of each team shall wear a distinguishing armband provided by the Association to indicate his status.’ Since the eighties, the captain’s armband has been ubiquitous in football – from the Premier League right through to the Sunday local leagues.
Why Do Footballers Wear Black Armbands?
Not to be confused with the captain’s armband is the black armband, which carries a whole other level of significance. The black armband will be worn by all players on the pitch to commemorate the anniversary of a tragic event, or as an act of condolence if a person of particular importance has died.
For instance, all footballers in England wore a black armband when Queen Elizabeth II passed away in 2022, while at other times black armbands are worn by specific teams only – for example, Liverpool players will typically wear the band near to the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy. Black is symbolically the colour of mourning, while the armband is a motif that an be worn without distracting from their kit – even in sombre moments, the rules of football and specifically playing gear must be upheld to ensure the integrity of the game.
What a Captain’s Armband Can & Can’t Say
A captain will, typically, wear their armband on their left arm. This will be a piece of material, usually elastic, that is a different colour to their playing kit, with the word ‘captain’ or ‘C’ written upon it. But in modern times, the design of captain’s armbands has become more elaborate – with the possibility of the garment being used to carry political or offensive slogans.
While IFAB’s rules don’t cover armbands, each governing body and tournament administrator has the power to stop captains from wearing armbands that they consider to be controversial or inflammatory in some way. Of course, that is a subjective matter, as seen with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Without taking a deep dive into the subject, Qatar is a country that has mistreated members of the LGBT community and has teachings that are counter to those we have become accustomed to in more liberal societies.
To draw attention to this, many team captains at the 2022 World Cup planned to adopt a rainbow coloured ‘One Love’ armband – designed to be a message of support and inclusion. But FIFA, fearful of a backlash from their Qatari hosts, prohibited captains from wearing the One Love armband – even telling their match referees to book any players donning the item. That was a major own goal from FIFA, whose lofty words of inclusion and unity often stop short of actually doing something meaningful about it.