BY CHRIS ETCHINGHAM
It’s the little things in life that grab people’s attention and my own particular obsession is squad numbers in football. In this global game where players earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, debates over who is the greater between Messi or Ronaldo and whether there are too many of those foreign types within our domestic game, what grabs my attention is those numbers that players wear on the back of their shirts. Do certain players wear a particular number for any particular reason? Did Nicolas Anelka’s insistence on wearing the number 39 come from the Department number of his home in France or the number of clubs he played for throughout his nomadic career?
Forgetting the traditional numbers of 1 – 11, which have existed since the 1920’s, squad numbers in which a player was given a particular number originated in the 1954 World Cup when each player in a country’s individual squad was given a certain number to wear. In 1958 the Brazilian FA forgot to send their squad numbers to FIFA leading to some last minute scrambling to assign players their respective numbers. The goalkeeper Gilmar was randomly given the number 3 and a seventeen year old by the name of Pele was given the number 10. The world was only an administrator sticking his finger in the air ponderously from creating Brazil’s iconic number for future generations as something like 18.
Some teams like to think a little more creatively when it came to assigning their numbers. For three consecutive World Cups Argentina based their numbers alphabetically (though they made an obvious exception in 1982 when Diego Maradona was assigned the number 10 shirt) leading to Ossie Ardiles being given the number 1. England, also in 1982, used the same alphabetical policy with the exceptions of Ray Clemence in goal and Kevin Keegan who were given the numbers 1 and 7 respectively. Scotland at Italia ‘90 assigned their outfield numbers in the order of players with the most caps. Alex McLeish the most capped wore 2 whilst Norwich City’s Robert Fleck and Bryan Gunn only had a cap each and were assigned numbers 21 and 22.
When it comes to individual players there are differing schools of thought. Some numbers are closely associated with a particular team due to the success of players past who wore that number, some players try to make a particular number their own and some even use it as a means of protest. Others, rather boringly, choose the year of their birth – perhaps most famously Ronaldinho, Andriy Shevchenko and Mathieu Flamini when they signed for AC Milan in 2008 (80, 76 and 84 respectively). Others are given a number entirely out of context with the position they play. Zinedine Zidane and Samuel Eto’o both wore the number 5 at points in their career, but would you like them as the centre backs for your clubs?
Players choosing their number out of protest is usually a childlike response to being given a number not of their liking, the most famous example is probably Ivan Zamorano at Inter Milan. In 1998, when Inter signed Roberto Baggio, Ronaldo was forced to give up the number 10 shirt for the Divine Ponytail and chose to wear the number 9 shirt instead. The only problem with this is that Zamorano was already in possession of that number. Tough luck said the Inter hierarchy and Zamorano was told to pick from the vacant numbers remaining. No matter, he chose the number 18 with a + sign in-between the two numbers in a bid to show who the real striker was. Juan Pablo Sorin was allowed to use 1+2 for Villareal as the number 3 was taken and Freddy Rincon was allowed to wear 3+5 for Brazilian club Santos as the number 8 was already taken.
The number 7 shirt at Manchester United has had iconic status going back to the days of George Best with legends such as Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo wearing the shirt in subsequent years. Angel Di Maria, the current owner of the number has, its fair to be said, quite a way to go before he can join the illustrious list of greatness. Newcastle’s number 9 is another number which carries gravitas for those who support the club. Made famous by immortals such as Jackie Milburn and Malcolm McDonald, Alan Shearer requested that he be given the number when negotiating his transfer from Blackburn Rovers in 1996 (he also requested the number when talking to Manchester United previously). The only issue was that Les Ferdinand was already in possession of the number. There was talk for a while of Ferdinand wearing the number 99 to ensure that fans who had already shelled out for a shirt with his name and number on the back weren’t left out of pocket and only had to make a slight adjustment. This, however, never materialised and Ferdinand was given the number 10 shirt instead.
Luis Suarez has spoken too of his desire to wear the number 7 shirt at Liverpool which was made famous by Kenny Dalglish. Less promising, however, was Joe Allen when signing for the club which was captured in the TV documentary Being: Liverpool. Having already been put under enough pressure by manager Brendan Rodgers by being called the “Welsh Xavi”, Allen was assigned a squad number for the forthcoming season. On offer were the numbers 6 and 24. Logic dictates that having been called the “Welsh Xavi” that 6 would be the automatic choice. Not so for Brendan, he decided that Liverpool’s saviour and ”Welsh Xavi” could take 24 and make the number his own. The non-plussed look on Allen’s face was a sight to behold. Having to live up to the pressure of being compared to the best playmaker in the world was one thing, but having to wear a number and being told to make it his own at a club where Kenny Dalglish already had done the same with a different one was something else. Besides, who wants to wear 24 anyway?
In one case though, maybe a squad number choice had more to do with a player’s OCD than a club’s history. Frenchman Bixente Lizarazu, born in 1969, weighed 69 kilograms and 169cm in height, re-signed for Bayern Munich in 2005 and what number did he choose? That’s right, 69.
Sometimes a player is assigned a number on grounds of occasion or ceremony. Andrea Herzog wore 100 in a friendly against Norway commemorating the fact it was his 100th cap. Both James Beattie and Steven Gerrard, the owners of the number 8 for Everton and Liverpool respectively, wore 08 during the Merseyside Derby in March 2006 in recognition of Liverpool being awarded European Capital of Culture for the year 2008. The highest squad number ever worn professionally was 618 as worn by Sao Paulo’s Rogerio Ceni as he played his record breaking 618th game for the club.
Some squad numbers are retired due to long service by a player. One example is Paolo Maldini whose number three shirt at AC Milan has been retired and will only be worn if either of his sons play for the club. In this country, Bobby Moore’s number 6 has been officially retired at West Ham United in honour of his service to the club. Chelsea have not officially retired Gianfranco Zola’s squad number of 25 but it hasn’t been awarded to another player since he left the club in 2003.
Sadly some numbers have been retired posthumously too. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Marc Vivien-Foe who’s squad number of 23 was retired by his club Manchester City after he died playing for Cameroon at the African Cup of Nations in 2003. Other examples are Adam Stansfield who wore the number 9 for Exeter City and died in August 2010 of cancer, the club decided to retire the number for nine successive seasons. Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell died after collapsing on the pitch in a match against Dundee United in 2007 and though his number 10 hasn’t been officially retired, the only person to have worn that number for the club since is O’Donnell’s nephew David Clarkson who wore it during the 2008/09 season.
Squad numbers – from the sublime to the ridiculous to the poignant. All players wear them and next time you’re watching Match of the Day and you see Mario Balotelli wearing the number 45 and bemoan the state of the modern game, remember there is a reason for everything. Balotelli incidentally wears it because, at Inter Milan, he once scored four goals in five games in their youth team.