Captains’ armbands are like debunked religions, and Michael Bradley will wear Toronto FC’s

Michael Bradley is the new captain of Toronto FC, a move some thought made sense last year when the former Roma midfielder upstaged Jemain Defoe as the most important signing of TFC’s 2014 offseason. But the club still had Steven Caldwell, to whom then-head coach Ryan Nelsen was loyal. So despite all the violin-playing about leadership and drive and effort that came from south of the border, Bradley’s arm was unbounded last season, something new head coach Greg Vanney has quickly changed.

The news came yesterday, with Bradley offering a series of effusive quotes about Caldwell’s leadership mollifying the slight to the defender. Though giving the captaincy to example-on-and-off-the-field personified Bradley makes sense, there’s always the ugly reality each time this decision is made: One man’s leadership is cast as inferior to anothers.

“For me, the first thing is to talk about Steven Caldwell and what a great player and leader he’s been since the second that I have come to the club,” Bradley said, complimenting a man’s home as he eases him out the door. “Knowing him, he will continue to be that in every way.”

Depending on how you view the importance of captaincy, the idea that this means anything may sound silly, but the whole idea of an armband having any magical, spiritual powers is pretty silly, too. One man’s wearing it being a key part to any team only makes sense if players invest themselves in the idea. Unfortunately, in many places in the soccer world, that investment actually exists – a delusion that gives the captaincy some needless emotional value.

Sometimes, that delusion crosses over into fandom. We always hear the drama about England’s captaincy, where they have to pull an ancient armband from a reluctant stone every time John Terry’s denied in the changeover. There was some discussion about Clint Dempsey ascending to Carlos Bocanegra’s place in the earlier days of Jurgen Klinsmann, but for the most part, the biggest captain controversy in these parts in recent memory is when David Beckham was temporarily handed Landon Donovan’s armband in Los Angeles. Predictably, fans decried that move with an intensity that’s unlikely to surface with Bradley, loyalty being what it is.

The Bradley-Caldwell transition is obviously a lot less glamorous than the trial of Donovan v. Beckham, but the underlying tensions remain the same, even if the merits of those involved are much different. Bradley is not Beckham, has been with the team for a year and seems to be the beneficiary of Vanney’s personal decision. And he does seem like legitimately good captain material – for whatever that means. But Caldwell is also not Donovan, has served as Bradley’s captain for a year, and without the idiosyncratic pressures of the Beckham situation, he’s still getting demoted. Whatever that means.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of the process or decision. I find it interesting as hell, in the same way I find the different lands in Dragon Age: Inquisition amazing. It’s all fantasy, none of it matters, and it becomes nonsensical outside the context of a game. After all, you don’t see sales teams giving out (and taking back) captains’ armbands to be worn amidst the cubicles.

Yet within the context of the game, this armband game is fascinating. Like something Frank Underwood would make up. It’s like a debunked religion a backwards culture is hanging onto. And because they’re holding on so tight, it actually might matter, if only in their own heads.

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