It’s a common sight in Sunday League football: youngsters clamouring around the kitbag, waiting impatiently for the coach to dump the jerseys onto the turf so they can scramble to don their number of preference. But which numbers are their favourites nowadays? Kids sporting the number 10 are more likely to be trying to emulate Wayne Rooney than Geoff Hurst. Times have changed, the numbers have taken on a life of their own.
The culture of numbers has altered over the years. In the same way that the language of the sport has changed (rarely do we hear of players taking up position at halfback or inside-right), so too has the implications of the numerals on the back of the shirts and the responsibilities that go alongside them. Perhaps it is indicative of the rise in mavericks and mercenaries in the sport – egos have taken over, and the number on the back has become more important than the badge on the front. Professional clubs are happy enough to condone it, if replica shirts are still flying off the shelves.
Squad numbers were pioneered in 1928 because of Arsenal manager and visionary Herbert Chapman. His Arsenal side were assigned numbers for their match against Sheffield Wednesday, hoping to make it easier to know where each player was in comparison to his colleagues. (Chapman’s ploy was in vain though, as the Owls triumphed 3-2 at Hillsborough on that occasion en route to a league title.) Widespread introduction of numbers was consistently rejected by the Football League Management Committee until 1939, when they finally allowed 1 to 11 to be worn according to their relevant positions.
It wasn’t until the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland that permanent numbers were used. Previously the starting lineup had worn 1 to 11 – in 1954, the entire 22-man squad was assigned their own numbers for the duration of the tournament.
Brazil forgot to submit their numbers ahead of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, and so the numbers were designated at random – bizarrely, first-choice goalkeeper Gilmar received the number 3. Portentously, however, an unknown 17-year-old named Pelé was given the number 10 shirt. He emerged as the brightest of talents and guided the Seleção to their first World Cup victory. He made his number iconic by wearing it at the next three tournaments as Brazil stamped their authority on world football.
Argentina’s entrants to the 1982 World Cup in Spain were forced to wear numbers corresponding to alphabetical order, meaning Spurs legend Ossie Ardiles could be seen donning the number 1 in central midfield. Unsurprisingly however, certain exceptions were made – the Argentine FA allowed Diego Maradona to keep his prized number 10. The number 12 might have had a noteworthy history if the same rules had applied to El Pibe de Oro as to the rest of his teammates.
During the early 1990s, Charlton Athletic also tried assigning numbers according to alphabetical order – though with considerably less on-field success than the Albicelestes. Consequently Stuart Balmer suffered the ignominy of being the first outfield player to wear the number 1 shirt in English football.
Derek Riordan left boyhood club Hibernian in 2006 after being sucked in by the bright lights at Celtic – he returned to Easter Road two years later with his tail between his legs, only to find Colin Nish occupying his old number 10 shirt. As Hibs didn’t have a number 1 shirt assigned, the SPL allowed him to invert his old number and wear 01 instead. Clinton Morrison had similar issues when he joined Coventry the same summer – the closet-academic’s solution was to adapt his 19 to read 1+9.
Number-related issues aren’t always amicably resolved though. In an act of spite, José Mourinho allowed Michael Ballack to wear his preferred number 13 shirt when he signed for Chelsea in 2006, as its previous occupant William Gallas had failed to turn up at the Blues’ pre-season training camp in Los Angeles. The relationship became unsalvageable and shortly after Gallas moved to Arsenal. The Frenchman took the number 10 at the Emirates, vacated by Dennis Bergkamp’s retirement. Traditionally reserved for a trequartista, a star striker, an enganche or mercurial talent, the number 10 had branched out to include a petulant centre-half.
The number 39 is becoming increasingly popular amongst strikers – Craig Bellamy, DJ Campbell, Nicholas Anelka and Darren Bent all currently wear it. Even Rotherham’s Adam Le Fondre had the temerity to don 39 until recently. Plenty of players have their unique preferences – Emmanuel Adebayor wears 4 for Togo because his hero Nwankwo Kanu did the same for Nigeria. Antonio Cassano has to settle with 99 at Milan while Filippo Inzaghi continues to prolong his dwindling career, whilst Harry Kewell chose the same number at Galatasaray despite the number 9 jersey being unused.
Raúl wouldn’t relinquish his number 7 at Real Madrid even for David Beckham – who subsequently managed to turn the number 23 into a fad – though Cristiano Ronaldo took Raúl’s number when the striker signed for Schalke this summer. Ironically, Ronaldo had wanted to wear 28 – his number at Sporting – when he signed for Man Utd, but Alex Ferguson challenged him to wear the shirt made famous by George Best, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona – as well as Beckham, of course.
Years of birth are seldom used as inspiration but three of AC Milan’s signings in 2008, Mathieu Flamini, Ronaldinho and Andriy Shevchenko, took the numbers 84, 80 and 76 respectively. This appeared an especially daft decision for the Ukrainian, who simply reminded the fans of his advancing years. For similar reasons Patrick Mboma wanted to wear 70 when he signed for Sunderland, only to have his request harshly rejected by the Premier League.
Plenty have been retired out of respect for untimely tragic deaths. Most recently, Richard Butcher’s number 21 was retired by Macclesfield after he passed away suddenly last month. In England, only Bobby Moore’s number 6 at West Ham has been retired to commemorate exceptional service – but in my eyes, it seems a great shame that youngsters in Naples fans can’t even dream of wearing the famous number 10, knowing it has been committed to the history books. Respecting a player’s service is one thing, but offering it to the heavens is something else.
A squad number is the only chance for players to symbolically transcend the shirt. With more and more players trying to boost their own profile, it seems that a team wearing 1 to 11 has been consigned to the past.