It takes more than just obscene skill and endless flashy technical ability to lead a side, not least an entire international team.
Leadership at the highest level is a rare asset, but also one that is vital to a strong national team when heading into major tournaments. You can have all the talent in the world, but if there’s no major motivator in the side ready to set the ‘do or die’ tone and rally the troops, then it’s a waste of time.
90min has compiled a list of 30 of the top captains to do it at international level. Some seriously strong CVs in this one.
The world’s smallest nations are often without cutting edge quality, so on the occasion that they get a star come through, it’s vital that they pull their weight.
Goran Pandev debuted for North Macedonia in 2001 and has since carried the side to unthinkable heights, while flying the flag domestically. Pandev’s efforts culminated with the nation qualifying for Euro 2020, with him leading the side out aged 37.
In 2017, Andreas Granqvist became the first player that wasn’t Zlatan Ibrahimovic to win the Swedish Golden Ball since Freddie Ljungberg in 2005.
For the national team, defender Granqvist has been Mr. Reliable in the 2010s, stepping up as captain following Ibrahimovic’s 2016 retirement. Granqvist has thrived in the role, leading them to the last eight at the 2018 World Cup.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And with Edwin van der Sar, the Netherlands are still feeling that.
While Van der Sar played for the Dutch in a quieter time for the side – semi-finals at Euro 2000 and 2004 were as good as it got – his impact was massive. The Dutch have still yet to find a goalkeeper as reliable and high quality as Van der Sar was, whose abilities influenced the side significantly.
After the drama, heartbreak and subsequent witch hunt that followed David Beckham following the 1998 World Cup, appointing him as England captain was key to some seriously good years.
Beckham turned things around completely as Three Lions captain and was key in bringing a feel good factor to an immensely talented side in the early 2000s. Shame they didn’t actually win anything.
Diego Godin’s heroic, throwback defensive performances at club level have also been to the benefit of his country.
Having impressed for Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup as they finished fourth, Godin headed into the next bunch of major tournaments as captain and has been the reliable, experienced head in the side ever since as Uruguay’s most capped player.
Setting the standard and flying the flag for Asian footballers at the height of the European game, Son Heung-min displays his ability for his nation, too.
Son captains the side and represented them at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, but famously led them to gold at the 2018 Asian Games, assisting twice in the final to secure a historic win. Clutch.
Having found a prolific burst to fire his nation to the final of the 2002 World Cup, Michael Ballack was appointed Germany captain in 2004 and thrived in the role.
While Germany didn’t quite go all the way during the 2000s, Ballack was immense as they reached the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup and the Euro 2008 final.
Name a final and it’s likely that Dunga has played in it. The man loves a major tournament, and with a nickname like that, he’s not far off earning a call up from Vince McMahon.
Dunga played in a World Cup final, Olympics final, Confederations Cup final and the Copa America final with Brazil. His finest hour came in 1994, though, when he led the side to World Cup glory in 1994.
Calm down, please. Yes, Paolo Maldini was the captain at domestic level, but things didn’t translate as smoothly when playing for Italy.
Maldini was excellent for Italy and – armband or not – his leadership and brain was indispensable. Despite appearing at seven major tournaments, however, Maldini won none of them, missing out on the 2006 World Cup triumph. He’s still proper cool though, so who’s bothered? Not us.
The Eddie Guerrero of the football world, Diego Maradona’s leadership qualities showed through his endless, dreamy technical ability, his larger than life character and his desire to win at all costs.
A bit of cheating and a lot of magic was his chosen recipe as he captained Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, dancing around sides and strutting his stuff without a care in the world.
Before the elegance of Maradona, there was the tenacity of Daniel Passarella at the heart of Argentina’s defence.
Despite being 5’8, Passarella led the charge at the back for the Argentines, as well as in attack. Passarella came up with goals for his nation when needed and led them to the 1978 World Cup.
33 goals from 61 Germany caps is an incredible feat, but one that goes unnoticed in the incredible career of Fritz Walter.
For a man recognised for his domestic exploits with Kaiserslautern, Walter was impeccable for Die Mannschaft and captained the side to winning the 1954 World Cup.
Wales, golf, Madrid. In that order.
The phrase that has shaped the later stages of Gareth Bale‘s stunning career, the winger has found peace and enjoyment in captaining the national side to new heights away from the constant scrutiny of club football. Euro 2016 is unforgettable.
Germany’s quiet and consistent reliance on Manuel Neuer for the best part of a decade is testament to how key he is to the national team.
Having first impressed at the 2010 World Cup, Neuer’s performances peaked four years later as they lifted the trophy in 2014. He has since become captain in a declining side, which is a difficult role to fill, but Neuer is consistent as ever and does the job justice.
While some captains add in the extra layer of leadership that a talented side is missing, Luka Modric’s technical grace and elite football brain rounds off a tenacious Croatia side.
The midfielder can dictate games on his own and provides the perfect layer of elegance in the middle, with his qualities and achievements serving as the focal point in a side that was good enough to finish runners up at the 2018 World Cup.
At this point, there’s a good chance Gianluigi Buffon will simply never retire.
Can’t blame him, either. 176 caps for Italy is the country’s highest, with his performances for the Azzurri being nothing short of phenomenal. After winning the 2006 World Cup, Buffon became the full-time captain ahead of the 2010 tournament.
It took Hugo Lloris just two years from his senior debut to graduate to captaining the French national team, taking the lead ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
His rapid rise to leading the side tells you all you need to know about his personality and influence over a squad. That leadership, composure and talent peaked in 2018 when combined with a squad of supreme quality to win the World Cup. Le patron.
Cristiano Ronaldo‘s leadership has often come in the form of ‘give me the ball and let me work my magic’.
Who can blame him? He’s not bad at the footy. But his leadership, aura and influence on the Portugal squad was on show at Euro 2016 as the nation won the tournament, with Ronaldo starring on the big stage to cement his legacy as an international captain also, rallying his side from the touchline in the final as he missed out with injury.
Having impressed as Santos captain, Carlos Alberto Torres was appointed Brazil captain ahead of the 1970 World Cup despite not making the final cut in 1966.
The decision proved to be a blinder from Joao Saldanha. Torres – a right back with attacking qualities well ahead of his time – led Brazil all the way and scored in the final against Italy with a thunderous strike.
The first ever FIFA World Player of the Year, Lothar Matthaus could do it all. For club and country.
Having started off the 1980s by winning Euro 80 with the Germany squad, by the 1990 World Cup, Matthaus was leading out the side himself as Die Mannschaft were crowned world champions. 150 caps, five separate World Cup appearances and a fierce leader.
Look at him. Watch him. Who wasn’t inspired to victory by a prime Johan Cruyff?
The man is modern football. Cruyff played his way into a player of the tournament award as he led the Dutch to the final of the 1974 World Cup, and completely embodied the nation’s style of play.
Carles Puyol could motivate any of us at 90min into playing out of our skin in a major tournament final, merely out of pure fear. Look at the man. He is a beast.
Puyol wasn’t Spain’s most elegant or gifted defender, but there was no chance in hell he was accepting anything less than 110% from any of his teammates. Officially, he never captained Spain all that often. But let’s be realistic, he was the man in charge in that XI. Always.
Strength, speed, intelligence, awareness and undying leadership. Marcel Desailly was a diamond for the French national team.
Having impressed as they won the 1998 World Cup, Desailly was the man to take captaincy from Didier Deschamps – no easy feat – yet made it look easy as Les Bleus won Euro 2000.
Considering he remains the only Englishman to captain the nation to a major tournament victory, Bobby Moore deserves even more respect than he’s given.
England’s 1966 team was incredible, but Moore was the key piece in the jigsaw. Marshalling play from the heart of defence, Moore kept things sturdy and calm as England’s attacking stars scored them to victory.
Goalkeeper Dino Zoff remains the only Italian to have won both the World Cup and the European Championship, with a 112 cap career throughout the 70s for the Azzurri highlighting his sublime abilities.
Zoff – aged 40 – closed off the latter stages of his career by captaining his nation to win the 1982 World Cup, keeping his goal empty and his team motivated as Paolo Rossi fired them in at the other end. Legend.
Fabio Cannavaro took the Italian armband following the retirement of Paolo Maldini and immediately proved his worth on an international scale.
Five clean sheets on their way to the 2006 World Cup was enough to earn Cannavaro the nickname of ‘Il Muro di Berlino’ and earn him the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year ward – he remains the only defender to win it.
An astonishing feat, Cafu remains the only player to have appeared in three consecutive World Cup finals. His importance to Brazil cannot be understated.
In a squad full of trademark flair, endless technical ability and Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos blasting balls at the speed of light, Cafu took leadership duties after Dunga and again showed his endless abilities from the back.
Goalkeepers as captains is a hard concept to get behind, but Iker Casillas’ role in Spain’s brightest era as captain is a more than convincing argument for the idea.
While Puyol barked out orders on the pitch, Casillas’ composure and freakish abilities between the sticks served as top level inspiration for the side. His consistent top level performances set a ridiculously high standard that the squad had to reach. Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 suggests they did just that.
There is very little that Didier Deschamps didn’t win as a player.
The defender was at the heart of French success at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 – where he began to fade out leadership duties to Marcel Desailly – and set the tone in a side that had just about everything. Serial winner.
Beckenbauer has to top the list, because who else? He is literally nicknamed ‘Der Kaiser’. It doesn’t get cooler than that.
Elegant yet aggressive, Beckenbauer made defending look like an art form well before it was ever considered to be important and led Germany to a World Cup and a European Championship, before winning a World Cup again as manager.