Successful football captains have the ability to inspire their teammates. And create an impenetrable force with which to outwit their opponents. Captains vary in style according to the teams they captain. But they must be able to remain focused on their goal. Be disciplined and determined. And a true leader of men. Here we take a look at 10 of the most successful football captains.
Football is a team sport, and as such, it takes more than 11 players to be successful. The captain is an important figure on the pitch, so I wondered: who are the most successful football captains? I investigated by looking at their international caps (defined as matches played for their country) alongside their career honors and trophies.
Top 10 Most Successful Football Captains
Good team captains are a necessary part of any football team. In fact, the character of a captain can often mean the difference between an average football team and a winning one. A good captain knows when to be hard on his players and when to let them have fun. A good captain leads by example and encourages his teammates to do the same. He can motivate a team when things seem hopeless and raise the spirits of a losing squad. Thereby, ensuring that they give their best effort into everything they do.
Few can argue which is a better team – the one with a good captain or without. Can we say he’s a player of basic functions that let other players do their job? Yes, but many captains are more than this. We selected the most-successful captains who led their teams to glory, whether national cups or champion titles.
1. Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan is the greatest football captain to ever play the game.
The American midfielder has played for LA Galaxy since 2005, and in that time, has won three MLS Cup titles and one Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield. He also played for Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, and Everton in a career spanning from 1999-to 2014.
He captained the U.S. National Team from 2010-2014, appearing in three World Cups and winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2013 and 2017. He was voted Athlete of the Year by Sporting News after his performance at the 2010 World Cup, where he scored crucial goals against Slovenia and Algeria to help the U.S. advance out of group play into the knockout stage.
After retiring from international football in 2014, Donovan served as general manager of Los Angeles FC before joining San Diego’s USL Championship side San Diego Legion as vice president of soccer operations and strategic advisor for Lincoln City Football Club. However, his legacy as captain of the national team remains strong today, having led by example both on and off the field as a role model to other players.
2. Matthew Upson
Playing football is pretty great, even more so when you’re playing for your favorite club. But sometimes things aren’t always rainbows and butterflies, and that’s okay—sometimes you have to work with what life gives you and just keep going.
Matthew Upson, who played as a center back for West Ham United FC from 2008-to 2012, is my favorite example of someone who did this. His club was struggling at the time—they ended up getting relegated (meaning they went down to the second tier of football in England)—but he always tried to do his best. He wasn’t afraid to work hard and rise to the challenge. He was recognized for this by being named the club’s captain in 2010—he was also named a full international player for England in 2008.
3. Ledley King
Ledley King is a central defender for Tottenham Hotspur. He rose through the ranks from the academy to become one of their longest-serving squad members. And he has great leadership skills on top of his already great football playing ability.
He also battled chronic knee problems throughout his time on the pitch. But he made it work. And he played great anyway. He was a key part of the team for years, and he was even captain for a while (tough gig, that).
It’s not surprising that Ledley was able to play so well with those injuries; he’s one of the greatest defenders in history. He’s tough and smart. And he could totally read an opponent’s intentions in a way that allowed him to anticipate plays before they happened and block them before they hit paydirt. And though it sucks that he can’t play anymore due to injury, it’s still awesome that he’ll be helping out on the coaching side as an assistant first-team coach at Tottenham.
4. Arda Turan
Arda Turan is a world-class footballer and a great leader. Turan’s journey started in the youth ranks of Galatasaray, where he played as a striker before switching to play as a defender. He made his debut for the club’s senior side in 2004 at the age of 17 and quickly became an integral part of the first team. He has since gone on to captain nearly every team he’s played for.
Arda Turan was named captain of Galatasaray when he was just 21 years old, making him one of the youngest captains in the club’s history. His captaincy has earned him frequent praise in Turkey, including being named Turkish Footballer of the Year twice. And winning the Footballer of the Year award from TFF (Turkish Football Federation) in 2011.
5. Luis Suárez
Did you know that striker Luis Suárez is one of the best football captains out there? He shows a real natural talent for leading his team to victory, and he’s also got some great player skills.
He’s been playing in Ajax’s squad since 2007, and he made his debut with the Uruguay national team in 2008. He’s a very versatile striker who can play up top or as a winger. And he’s really good at scoring goals! (Or helping his teammates score.)
One thing that makes him such an incredible captain is how well he knows his players and how well he knows their strengths and weaknesses. He takes advantage of other players’ abilities to help them perform better than they could on their own, which means he has a lot of power over the game and its outcome. This is a great skill to have as a captain because it makes the team more cohesive and lets them perform at their highest level.
Suárez also communicates well with his teammates and opponents, which makes him an ideal leader. He typically plays aggressively and doesn’t shy away from confrontation, which helps him get his point across. In addition, he knows exactly what to say when something needs to be said, which keeps everyone calm during tense moments on the field.
6. Djibril Cissé
Djibril Cissé is one of the most explosive, speedy players ever to play in the English Premier League. He was a striker on the French and English national teams until he was named captain of his current team, Panathinaikos, in Greece.
When he first played for England, he had a reputation for having a flashy haircut and an explosive temper. But over time, he has matured into a leader who stays cool under pressure. And can deliver when the stakes are high.
Cisse has earned the nicknames “The African Express” and “The Dribbling Blur” for his remarkable acceleration, top-speed dribbling ability, and scoring prowess.
7. Phil Neville
When Phil Neville became a team captain for Everton back in 2006, we were all excited to see what he would do. We knew he had it in him to do well, but we didn’t know he’d be this good! In fact, he got better every year since his first season as captain.
The special thing about Phil Neville is that he brought diversity to the game. His aggressiveness on and off the pitch has earned him respect from his teammates and from rival players alike. He’s also very smart: on the pitch, he could jump into wherever the action is going down and made sure everything runs smoothly; off the pitch, however, he knew how to handle himself with the media and fans.
In addition to being an awesome soccer player, Phil Neville is a business owner: he owns Salford City with his brother Gary Neville. And is currently in charge of the head coach position for the MLS team Inter Miami.
8. Fabio Cannavaro
Fabio Cannavaro is one of the greatest Italian football players of all time. And many fans consider him to be the best captain ever. He was born in 1973 in Naples, Italy. He was part of the Italian team that won the 2006 FIFA World Cup, during which he became only the second defender—after Lothar Matthäus—to be named FIFA’s Player of the Year. Cannavaro has also won two Coppa Italia titles, the 1999 Supercoppa Italiana, and the 1999 UEFA Cup for Parma.
With all that in mind, it might make sense for me to start describing this guy as a true legend of the game. Unfortunately for me, he already has way too many people doing that. I’m just going to get right to the point: This guy is one of the best defenders in history. And I’m not just talking about Italian football history. I’m talking world history!
In 2010, Cannavaro became captain of the UAE football club Al-Ahli Dubai. Today, he is captain of several UAE football clubs and coach of UAE’s national team. [now retired]
9. Massimo Ambrosini
Ah, Massimo Ambrosini. One of the most beloved AC Milan players to don the red and black of the Rossoneri.
Massimo, or “Ambro” as he’s affectionately known, was a defensive midfielder for Milan from 2001-2013. He was known for his energetic style, rugged beard, and knack for winning matches.
Ambro’s career began in 1992 when he joined Atalanta BC of the Italian Serie B league. He remained there for only one season before moving on to join SS Lazio in 1993. It was here that Ambro first showed off his aggressive play style and strong leadership skills.
In 1995, Ambro made his move to ACF Fiorentina of the Italian Serie A league, playing there until 2001. Ambro immediately became a key player on the squad and played with them in both UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup competitions. It was during this time that he really stood out as a captain and leader on the field, making several incredible plays that earned him titles such as “Ambrose Resistente” (Italian for “Ambrose-proof”).
10. Cesc Fabregas
So. You guys know who Cesc Fabregas is, right? Of course, you do.
He’s a Spanish professional footballer who plays as a central midfielder for Ligue 1 club Monaco. Did you know that he’s also a top midfielder in the game? We’re not just saying that because he captained Arsenal so well. It’s true!
One of his most remarkable traits is his great captaincy. He’s always been known as an excellent midfielder and has always loved to help his teammates become better players. He loves to share his knowledge of the game, and he’ll always be ready to give out tips and tricks on how to improve.
When they say that football is a team sport, they mean it literally: there would be no one without their teammates. And Cesc definitely knows this—his work ethic, determination, and love for the game have made him one of the most successful captains in the history of football, despite having faced some challenges with his teams throughout his career.
The captain truly is the king of the dressing room, and those that are considered great captains will always be admired for their tactical awareness, mental strengths, and leadership abilities. The above list features the 10 most successful football captains to have been at the helm this century.