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International, Player Profiles, Premier League, Subculture

It’s a numbers game…

The numbers on players shirts have got out of hand...

The first advent of players wearing numbered shirts came on 25th August 1928, when Arsenal and Chelsea played in their matches against The Wednesday and Swansea Town, respectively. After several experiments over the course of a number of years, it was decided to make numbers on the back of club shirts a permanent feature. The eleven players lining up for a match would wear shirts numbered from 1 to 11, and a player could find himself donning various number combinations throughout the season.

Although there were no steadfast commitments to what number players wore, especially given football’s experimental and varied tactics at the time, a de facto standard emerged and was employed by most teams, with very few exceptions. Goalkeepers generally wore the number 1 shirt. Defenders generally wore numbers between 2 and 6. Midfielders most commonly wore numbers 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 (11 and 7 typically reserved for the left and right wings, respectively). Strikers wore 9 and 10, and less commonly 7, 8 and 11.

Given the relation between number and position, the number became to signify the type of player who featured in teams, the most analogous of which became the number 9. The number 9 was traditionally a centre forward, the person who scored your team’s goals. Teams also have significant iconic shirt associations, none more so than the number 7 at Manchester United. George Best was the archetypal wing-forward, full of flair, trickery, Pizzazz and goals. Newcastle legends often wore the number 9 shirt. Alan Shearer, Malcolm McDonald and Jackie Milburn all played with the gritty determination and raw energy sewn in the coalface of their Geordie upbringing.

Cristiano Ronaldo donning the Manchester United number 7 shirt

So what then, when a new player joins a club and adorns the iconic shirt? Cristiano Ronaldo did Manchester United’s number 7 justice, as did Andy Carroll guts and chutzpah when he first got playing in the Newcastle number 9. But is there a time when players should not opt for certain shirts due to their heritage? People are often heard saying “he’s not fit to wear the shirt”, but how true can this be? How much is the traditional shirt number entrenched in the game today? Has the transfer merry-go-round distinguished all possibility of a modern icon in a traditionally numbered shirt?

Sure, every team will have these iconic shirt associations in one way or another and so there may be a nervous predilection to avoid redistributing the number. Both Suarez and Carroll spoke about the intonations of the number 7 and 9 shirts when signing for Liverpool. Numbers carry a certain gravitas within teams, players will always be compared to their predecessors, whether intentionally or not, however fair that may be. Some number/club combinations are hard to live up to and are more evocative than others. You struggle to immediately comprehend a player that would immortalize a number 3 AC Milan shirt in any way comparable to the great Paolo Maldini, likewise Baresi’s number 6, and so that may be the reason that La Rossoneri have ‘retired’ those shirts. They are far from alone. Even in this country, Bobby Moore’s number 6 at West Ham is retired, Zola’s 25 at Chelsea all but retired and Manchester City’s 23 is closed to Marc-Vivien Foe’s memory.

Foe’s case is a tangential one, the tragedy which became of the Cameroonian bestowed a humbling honour on the Citizen’s lasting number 23, yet in other instances, it seems a shame to tribute players by indefinitely removing their number from the future of the club.

No-one can argue the commitment to a shirt offered by players such as Maldini and Baresi, but the thought that no player will be given the chance to walk out in the San Siro wearing the red and black, 3 and 5 shirts again is a sad one. Surely this would evoke memories of other players to grace the shirt and start debates about who was the better? A child, revering Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, the newest incumbent of the number seven shirt, would surely be told of the past fraternity of Mersyeside legends to grace the iconic shirt. Furthermore, what greater homage to players, than to be awarded a shirt steeped in history, by the greatest number 7 in Liverpool’s history? And I’m not talking about Harry Kewell or Vladmir Smicer. Herein lies my point.

It doesn’t always work like that of course.

Dennis Bergkamp successor at Arsenal, the Iceman heir apparent - William Gallas

When Dennis Bergkamp so modestly called his time on a glittering career, one of the questions on people’s lips was about who could possibly continue the Dutchman’s legacy of the Arsenal shirt. Who will get the honour of playing in his coveted number 10? Could it be Robin Van Persie, a fellow Oranje, a fellow goal-scorer? How about the new signing Theo Walcott, whose promise was evident for all to see? How deriding then, so completely and unexpectedly mocking, for the Gunner’s legendary number 10 to be given to centre-half William Gallas, just signed from London rivals Chelsea. Furthermore, across London, deep in the Russian corridors of Stamford Bridge, their Premier League cohorts had also recently signed themselves a new number 9. A strike partner for Didier Drogba perchance? Unfortunately not. German right-back Khalid ‘the Cannibal’ Boulahrouz. Not named because of his appetite for goals…

Why is it that players do not wear the traditional numbers any more? Why do we have people allowing defenders to wear numbers forever associated with goal scorers? Maybe as Luiz Suarez said, “when you are out on the pitch, you forget what number you’re wearing anyway”. Some may say that these questions are drowned in hyperbole, that it is ‘much ado about nothing’, that the situation is not as bad as people (I) may suggest, that only one or two aforementioned burkes make a mockery of the system.

Out of the 20 teams currently playing in the Premier League, only 3 have players registered with a full complement of numbers 1 to 11 inclusive (Birmingham, Blackburn, Sunderland). What may be most interesting in this statistic, is that out of the remaining 17 teams, only 9 have a player allocated the number 9 shirt. Maybe Alan Smith, commentating on Aston Villa v Newcastle last week has a point suggesting “Newcastle desperately need a number 9″, but it is in fact a case where 8 teams are lacking the traditional attacking spearhead.

Higher numbers does not necessarily mean higher quality

Out of the 8 teams without a number 9, six have a number 39 registered, with three of those established Premier League strikers. Manchester City’s Craig Bellamy is one of these and so should be excluded from this argument due to his loan at Championship Cardiff City, yet two of the remaining number 39s (Darren Bent and DJ Campbell) started and scored in this weekend’s games.

It may be the case here, that the numbers were registered by others at the start of the season, with Stephen Ireland (!?) and Marlon Harewood, but there is no doubt that the number 39 is becoming more commonplace amongst strikers in the Premier League – Nicolas Anelka being one of the foremost components of the superfluously high number.

Anelka wears the number 39 in every team he has played for since signing for Manchester City in 2002. Prior to his move to Eastlands, he did indeed wear the number 9 shirt, but due to other members of Manchester City’s squad having ‘number 9 shirts’ registered, (Wanchope 9, Tiatto, 19 and Shaun Wright-Phillips 29), 39 was the lowest possible number to feature a number 9 that was available. Since then, he has worn the number 39 shirt throughout his somewhat nomadic career (Fenerbahce, Bolton, Chelsea and even the France national team). It is pleasing to note then, that there remains a hankering to have a number 9 on your shirt, but perhaps due to large squad registrations, the number may have to be obtained in a different way.

Ivan Zamorano protesting against the Nerazzurri hierarchy by continuing to wear number 9

The most famous of this number manipulation must lie in the case of Ivan Zamorano. In 1998, when Roberto Baggio signed for Inter Milan, a certain Ronaldo was forced to give up the number 10 shirt and was instead awarded the number 9 shirt, much to Zamorano’s disgust. The Chilean’s leftfield response was to continue wearing the ‘number 9’ shirt, albeit in an altogether unusual way. His grievances in not getting the number nine he felt he owned, is a far different principle to the numbers that we see parading around in Serie A of late. Antonio Cassano has taken it one step further of course. Notoriously difficult and tumultuous to please, Cassano wears the number 99 at Milan, which, contrary to his belief, does not make him twice the player of Filipo Inzaghi. Cassano’s 99 is just one of a large set of esoteric numbers in the AC Milan squad (let alone Serie A), with 24 of the 31 registered players wearing a number outside the traditional 1 to 11. As is becoming a trend recently, Mario Yepes (76) and Ronaldinho (80) have worn numbers relating to their birth, whilst Robinho and Antonini strangely wear 70 and 77 respectively.

In principle, I have no problem with isoteric numbers on the back of a shirt, particularly if they mean something to the individual. Take Bixente Lizarazu for example. Who can deny the divine providence of the number 69 to the man born in 1969, who, upon signing for Bayern Munich for the second time in 2005, measured 169cm in height and weighed 69 kilograms. Clarifying these facts and stating that it was not a lewd gesture is in vast contrast to other people trying to wear Bixente’s ‘birthright number’. In 2009, Deutscher Fußball-Bund prohibited FC Karlsruhe defender, Dino Drpic, from playing with the number 69 on his back. He and his wife, Croatian star of Playboy, Nives Celzijus, apparently chose the ‘sexy’ number to try and boost the sales of Drpic’s jerseys in Germany.

Other European footballing authorities have not always been so mean, however. During the 1999/2000 season, the Scottish Football Association allowed Moroccan striker Hicham Zerouali to wear the number 0 whilst playing for Aberdeen. In doing so, Zerouali, also nicknamed “Zero”, became the first player in British football history wear a number lower than all others.

Rogerio Ceni with his commemorative 618 Sao Paulo goalkeeping shirt

Conversely, the award for the highest ever number to feature on a shirt  goes to Rogerio Ceni. Most recently making history by becoming the first (and only!?) goalkeeper to score 100 professional goals after scoring Sao Paulo’s decisive goal in a 2-1 derby victory over rivals Corinthians, Ceni has worn a shirt higher than all previous football professionals. In a match against Atlético Mineiro in 2005, he broke the record for most appearances for São Paulo and subsequently wore a special commemorative jersey adorning 618 to prove it. Romario has also done it when he reached 500 appearances. Trust him to make a point of counting them all eh?

Strange numbers in Brazil are also nothing new. Before the World Cup in 1958, the CBF rather incredulously forgot to submit the squad’s numbering to FIFA, which meant numbers were assigned by an anonymous FIFA bureaucrat, who one can only assume wasn’t au fait with the Brazilian team. Garrincha randomly got given number 11, Dida 21 and Gilmar number 3 – it was by sheer luck that a goalkeeper (Castilho) got given the number 1 shirt. What is most astonishing about this lottery however, was the assignment of the number 10 to a young, 17 year-old reserve forward from Santos – Pele. Perhaps the footballing God had thrown in his hand 18 years earlier than people credit Him for?

One place where they do things a little more sensibly is La Liga. Under RFEF regulations, first team squad numbers are bound within the limits of 1-25, with reserve and youth players numbered higher. So why is it that the English Premier League cannot also enforce such rules, given that they are now also obliged to name a 25 man squad? Given the restrictions within Spain, loyalty to a club is often rewarded with a lower, more traditional number, something that should become commonplace in England.

In October 2004, Lionel Messi made his La Liga debut for Barcelona against Espanyol. He wore the number 27 shirt. The following season, Messi wore number 19 to reflect his first team squad status. It wasn’t until three seasons later in 2008, that he was awarded the number 10 shirt upon Ronaldinho’s departure. People saw Messi as Ronaldinho’s heir apparent and felt that he had done enough to warrant playing in the iconic number 10 shirt. This is because the number 10 at Barcelona means something. The number 10 is the shirt that stood for creativity and ability; a player who can open a game with a pass, with either foot, or score a decisive goal. Andres Iniesta also followed a four-year path to his now rightful shirt, going through numbers 21 and 24 in the process.

Both have earned the shirt at Barcelona

Messi and Iniesta’s cases prove that all shirts are there to be earned. You cannot walk in to a club expecting to take and choose whichever number you see fit. It’s more than just a number, it’s a heritage, both in sporting terms, and cultural significance. These things cannot be a self-absorbed, overly indulgent decision. Just because a defender might have enjoyed playing upfront at the age of fourteen when football was innocent and fun, you should not be able to opt for the number ten shirt, when its historical aura will outlive their newly declared love for the club, regardless of the riches they seek. Perhaps that is why teams retire shirts, so you don’t happen on the chance of a middle-of-the-road, reserve midfielder like Steve Sidwell dancing on the grave of Chelsea’s legendary number nine Peter Osgood. Like William Gallas sticking two fingers up to one of the best footballers to ever grace the Premier League.

Is the idea of traditionally wearing 1 through 11 just not fashionable any more? Is it had to brand yourself with a number that is long associated with someone else’s back? I do believe that people watching the ever-changing squads in the over-inflated Premier League will remember the iconography of their beloved numbers rather than the single-season signing wearing that number. It takes years to forge the connection and perhaps given the riches of the Premier League it will be a long time before we have a player that becomes synonymous with a club number again. The numbers 1 to 11 seem to be less important to the modern footballer, keen to develop their own brand, but these are numbers that should be aspired to, that should be seen as a nod to heroes of the past who have worn that number. People shouldn’t take that number decision lightly, what is on the back of your shirt can mean more to people than players may imagine.

And don’t get me started on ‘Chucho’, ‘Lass’ and ‘Chicarito’.

Follow @MattTickner and @TheDGCommittee on Twitter.

Footnote: To highlight the absurdity of the situation, here is a possible team based on real squad numbers given. Their position is a reflection of that number based on a traditionalist sensibility.

Possible team based on actual numbers worn and the position they traditionally represent.

Team of non-numbers:
GK. O. Ardiles – 1 for Argentina, RB. A. Diaby – 2 at Arsenal, LB. M. Kallon – 3 at Inter, DM. N. Kanu – 4 for Nigeria, CB. M. Baros – 5 at Liverpool, CB. E. Adebayor – 6 Real Madrid, RM. W. Bogarde – 7 at Chelsea, AM. J. Woodgate – 8 at Middlesbrough, CF. K. Boulahrouz – 9 at Chelsea, CF. W. Gallas – 10 at Arsenal, LW. S. MIhilovic – 11 at Real Madrid.

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About Matt Tickner

My life is arranged in lists of top fives. I love tea, sarcasm, post-rock, Converse and crisps. I write about football on my blog: The Dubious Goals Committee.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “It’s a numbers game…

  1. I totally agree. It is great to try and live up to someone’s number. In the NBA everyone wants to wear Jordan’s number 23.

    Posted by Jim | April 20, 2011, 3:59 pm
    • And why not? The only way it can be proven that he was the best ‘number 23′ in the NBA is to let others wear the number and see. Otherwise it is merely assumption…

      Posted by Matt Tickner | April 20, 2011, 6:46 pm
  2. Baresi’s shirt isn’t retired. Mexes is currently wearing the number five jersey.

    Otherwise, fantastic article.

    Posted by Anthony | October 14, 2011, 11:26 am

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