Chris McGrath: England's obsession with the captaincy is hard to fathom

Talking Point
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Other equally puerile minds have doubtless spotted one of the crowning glories of our maritime history in the ranking of junior admirals, as rear or vice respectively. Unfortunately, when it comes to their own attempts to rule the waves, certain of our footballers have tended to go in for rather too much vice and not enough captaincy.

For a genuine scandal, though, you need only observe the way the nation agonises over the captaincy of the England football team. Everyone knows the role to be almost entirely ceremonial, but it has devoured the newsprint equivalent of the Bialowieza Forest since Fabio Capello became manager.

First there was the tedious saga over his initial choice, during which he tested different candidates before settling on John Terry. Then Terry's dirty washing started flapping from the same mast as the flag of St George, and we had to endure not just a tsunami of sanctimony, but a fresh debate over his successor. And now, with Rio Ferdinand recovered from injury, we find ourselves wringing our hands over whether or not he should retrieve the armband from Steven Gerrard.

Capello must have found this obsession one of the more bafflingly troglodyte aspects of our football culture, but has dealt with the latest situation very artfully – making Ferdinand sweat on even a place in the starting XI.

In cricket, clearly, the captain is the cornerstone. Mike Brearley finished his Test career with an average of barely 23 but his tactical intuitions made it worthwhile, in effect, playing a batsman light. The captain decides who should bowl, sets the field, often has a key say in selection. Little wonder if the cares of office tend to erode his own performance. But to imply any kind of equivalent risk in football, as some did when Cesc Fabregas was appointed captain of Arsenal at 21, is simply risible.

The only leadership that means anything on the football field is available to all 11 players. It is a matter of example and inspiration – which, as it happens, is just what Fabregas offers a squad perceived to lack backbone. But the armband is neither here nor there. It is only by investing the role with so much pomp and circumstance that we ourselves end up inflating self-regard and jealousy among the players – neither commodity, you would think, being in such short supply that it requires artificial stimulation.

In Capello's homeland, the captaincy is often reserved simply for the player with most caps. When Paolo Maldini retired, there were suggestions that Gennaro Gattuso might prove a better focus for Milan than Massimo Ambrosini. In the end, however, everybody simply shrugged, and went with the senior player. It was not as if Gattuso needed something to rev him up. (There are exceptions, naturally. Totti was made captain of Roma simply to anticipate the day when his statue replaces that of Romulus and Remus in every square.)

The real substance of an appointment is what it tells you about the coach himself. Capello, for instance, may well conclude that Gerrard has set a dignified and effective tone since the World Cup – whether on the field, or in front of the microphones.

Terry, in contrast, had proved desperate to claim an undiminished role in South Africa as de facto leader. In the process, he notoriously misjudged his relationship with both Capello and his own peers. In fact, you knew the game was up for England precisely at the moment they had clawed their way back from the brink, at the final whistle against Slovenia. Because that was when Terry, ostensibly proposing solidarity, instead betrayed his egotistical agenda with a wild attempt to summon a huddle before embarrassed team-mates had even addressed the prior obligation of shaking hands with their opponents – an automatic civility to anyone pretending to the few basic qualities actually required of a captain. (It looked suspiciously pre-meditated, this huddle. And Gerrard reportedly saw it, like Terry's press conference before the game, as a challenge.)

Perhaps deceived by his standing at Stamford Bridge, Terry had imagined himself one of those players of unmanageable natural authority. Sometimes these are offered the captaincy as a sop, to integrate within the coach's regime the potential focus of any mutiny. Capello's compatriot, Roberto Mancini, is frequently caricatured as another Italian martinet, but his half-time spat with Carlos Tevez last week certainly implied that this iron reign has yet to extend to his skipper.

In the ebb and flow of ego through a dressing room, it is the manager who must always be the real captain of the ship. If he is good at bringing the right people together then it will not matter a jot who happens to wear an armband. As they say in the navy: any port in a storm.