Having recently entered my thirties, I’ve come to terms with the fact my prime years as a footballer are behind me. That is, if such a thing as ‘my prime’ ever existed. My pace is not what it once was and my stamina certainly has room for improvement. Nevertheless, I’ve rediscovered my love for playing the beautiful game.
I spent years toying with the idea of playing again and after some persuasion, I gathered a group of friends and enlisted us all in a local 6-a-side league. As ringleader and the man responsible for signing us up, it dawned on me that I’d inadvertently positioned myself as the de facto leader of our team.
Undoubtedly, there is enormous appeal in being the captain of your football team. The responsibility, embracing the leadership role, being the talisman of the club. Captains get all the perks. They get that all-important central seat in the squad photo next to the gaffer, they get their weekly thoughts in every programme. Perhaps best of all, they get to lift the trophies before anyone else.
Call me material, but the biggest appeal of the captaincy has always been the armband. It’s the symbol of authority, on display for all to see, wound tight around the left bicep (why almost always the left arm?)
For me, the beauty of the captain’s armband is in its variety. Apart from their boots, it’s the only item in a player’s kit that is truly customisable. Unfortunately, modern football is committed to ending this practice in favour of uniformity. The Premier League (among others) have standardised their armband design as a monochromatic template that’s barely changed in two decades. However, in Europe and the rest of the world, the armband designs have been allowed to truly flourish.
Take for example Roberto Baggio, icon of Italian football and Il Divin Codino (The Divine Ponytail). That unmistakable haircut will be remembered forever, along with his historic penalty against Brazil at USA 94, but I will always recall Baggio for his distinctive choice of armband.
Baggio’s design comprised of three solid stripes – blue, yellow and red, representative of Baggio’s Buddhist faith, specifically the colours of the Buddhist school of Soka Gakkai. Inscribed on the band were Japanese characters reading, ‘We must win, we must win.’ Regardless of whether he was wearing the blue of the Azzurri and Brescia, or the stripes of Juventus, that beautiful armband shone for all to see. A man enormously dedicated to his faith, Baggio was quoted saying: ”Buddhism allows me to feel well, tranquil and very happy inside, this is good not only for football but for my life in general.”
As leaders of their team, captains have a profound effect. Sometimes this influence can even transcend the sport. In a 2016 Copa America quarter-final between the United States and Ecuador, USA captain Michael Bradley chose the occasion to debut a brave design that would attract attention from around the globe and far beyond the world of football.
Bradley took to the field that night with the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ community on his sleeve. It was an inspired and courageous gesture to honour the victims of the tragic mass shooting outside an Orlando, Florida nightclub, that occurred just days before the game. The rainbow flag was not quite as prevalent in the world of football as it is today. Fans in the UK are now accustomed to seeing the rainbow armband, laces and corner flags every December thanks to Stonewall’s annual Rainbow Laces campaign. But when Bradley boldly opted for his rainbow tribute, he did so as a pioneer. Inscribed with the words ‘One Nation’ in the centre of the band, Bradley led his team to a 2-1 victory and helped set a precedent that has been followed ever since. Aesthetically, those armbands look incredible too.
Speaking of remarkable designs, one man has taken the art of captaincy to another level entirely: Alejandro Gómez, known as Papu Gómez to the Atalanta faithful. The Argentinian forward regularly featured unique and interesting armbands, often playing with a new design every game. It’s such a shame Serie A have committed their clubs to a league-wide design these days. We now find ourselves deprived of Gómez’s flair for captaincy creativity but we can reminisce over his back catalogue at least.
Gómez’s designs covered a range of topics, from his tribute to beloved Japanese anime sensation Captain Tsubasa, to honouring the Chapecoense plane crash victims in 2016. To the delight of his Disney-loving daughter, he celebrated her birthday with a Frozen inspired armband. She’s right there, next to Elsa and Olaf on his sleeve. Gómez’s ideas appeared to be never-ending. The pick of his portfolio came in an away game against AC Milan: this armband featured a Playstation and Pro Evolution Soccer collaboration, with the original Master League formation emblazoned on his bicep. If you consider yourself a PES Master League aficionado then the names of Castolo, Dodo, Valeny, Espimas and the rest of the gang will be very familiar to you. The nostalgia from this design hit me hard and helped bring back many cherished PES memories: within the game you even have the opportunity to edit the design and colours of your club’s captain’s armband (something to which I dedicated far too much time as a sad teenager.)
The 2006/07 season saw one armband, in particular, make headlines across Europe. It belonged to the Spanish striking sensation Fernando Torres. The man from Madrid created quite a stir on the shores of the Mersey when Torres was spotted with the famous words ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ stitched into his Atleti armband. A gift from his friends at home, it helped Torres secure the adoration of the Kop before he even set foot in Liverpool. When he did eventually sign for the Reds the following summer, destiny fulfilled, the Anfield faithful had everything they needed to immortalise him in song: “His Armband proved he was a red, Torres! Torres! You’ll Never Walk Alone it said, Torres! Torres! We bought the lad from sunny Spain, He gets the ball he scores again, Fernando Torres! Liverpool’s number 9!” El Nino had already cemented his legendary status before taking the Premier League by storm (before he left for Chelsea anyway…)
As I have grown older, my appetite to seek out original and unique captain’s armbands around the footballing world has not diminished. And my friends have noticed. An early Christmas gift has seen me become the proud owner of my very first captain’s armband. Finally, I have one to call my own.
Is it completely ridiculous to wear it to 6-a-side football? Yes.
Will I be frowned upon, considered a laughing stock on the pitch? Probably.
But I don’t care.
Move over Tom Hanks. I am the captain now.