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Girls and boys around the world dream of pulling on the shirt for their country. Classic international matches make up some of the greatest moments in sporting history. They create icons and enemies alike. Think of England vs. Greece in 2002. England needs a draw or win in order to qualify for the World cup. Into extra time England is down 2-1 and the dream of football coming home for England fans is drifting away. In the dying embers of the match, Greece foul England 30 yards out from goal. Enter David Beckham and his enigmatic right foot. Beckham was renown for his prowess from set pieces but despite being the key member of a treble-winning side with Manchester United in ‘99 he had far from earned a spot in the hearts of England fans. Six steps later he was forever immortalized in English footballing history. The top of the net bulged and England was through to the World Cup. This is the magic of the international cap.
The cap began in Rugby, England at Rugby School. Originally called “following up” caps they represent not only the beginnings of the international cap but sporting uniforms as a whole in England. Introduced in the 1830s and ‘40s, the caps were made of velvet and braid with tinselled peak and heavy tassel and seeing them today you would probably think they’re a bit fancy to be playing rugby in. They did, however, offer a significantly cheaper alternative to the popular top hats of the day which often were crushed, especially in Rugby football. In 1939 Queen Adelaide paid a visit to Rugby School and was greeted by students of the house “School” wearing following up caps made of the royal colors crimson and gold. Later that day the Queen watched School House play a match against the rest of Rugby school, School House still donning their crimson and gold caps for the match. Surprisingly, it was relatively unconsidered before this point that some sort of distinguishing uniform would allow the distinct advantage of being able to tell who was on your team. At the time there were no restrictions on how many players could be on the field for each team at once. Some reports even show the match between School House and School with Queen Adelaide in attendance was 75 vs. 225, respectively.
Sides were seemingly content with the confusion and chaos a rugby match with blurred lines typically caused. School House showed a clear advantage with their uniforms however and in the years to come the rest of the houses at Rugby School would adopt their own following up caps. Rugby would be the center of following up cap production, just as it was for rugby balls, until 1880.
This practice would spread like wildfire throughout the countries of the United Kingdom, each one developing its own styles and color schemes. For a time the Scottish used cowls for their uniform as opposed to the commonly English cap. Eventually, it spread to the highest levels of the sport, professional and international. In the very first official international football match in 1872 the England side wore their own various school caps as part of their uniform in a match against Scotland, the Scotts wearing their cowls. The unique caps each England player wore promoted a sense of local and school pride and in 1886 that sense of pride would transition from town to country as a uniform cap was created for the national side. A white silk cap with a red rose embroidered on the front would be the set design, although in production it would change from white to blue, and that design lives on today as the logo for the England rugby side and as an accent on the badge of the three lions national football squad.
Along with the official design in 1886 came the custom, originally proposed by N. Lane Jackson, that with each international appearance every player would be presented with a cap. In the beginning, this was part of the team’s uniform but as uniforms adapted it became more like a badge of honor. The practice continues to this very day, although each player is only presented with one cap for tournaments no matter how many games are played. England still presents each player with physical caps but many teams have adopted the same language without presenting physical caps for each appearance. The idea of caps has ingrained itself in international competition not just in England but around the globe. Caps are the official name for international appearances in football, rugby, and cricket no matter what nation it is played in.
Caps are more than just a number on a sheet or a trophy in a player’s trophy cabinet. They represent the love of a nation. Triumph and heartbreak in equal measure. Saving every single vacation day two years in a row to spend a month at the World Cup watching every minute your country is on the pitch. They are kids in the schoolyard trying to imitate the curve on a free kick and the matching celebration after they’ve finally nailed it. They are ingrained in a player’s legacy and are vital pieces in the puzzle that is our undying love for sport.
Own your personal piece of rugby history by checking out the Vintage Rugby Collection and remember the tradition of one of the worlds greatest sports.
Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.