Football is a sport with a symbolism and an aesthetic deeply rooted in each of us. If we noticed at the start of a match that there was no number on the players’ backs we would quickly think that there had been a mistake. The numbers are part of football and in addition to identify each player, they reach an enormous importance in the careers of the same ones being common that throughout their careers the footballers do not want to separate themselves from certain numbers no matter what happens.
However in the early days of the beautiful game the numbers were not there and when two teams faced each other the only thing that differentiated each club was the colour of their shirts, nothing else. It was not until 1928 that the numbers were used for the first time thanks to the intervention of Herbert Chapman, manager of Arsenal FC in England, who convinced the FA of their usefulness.
On 25 August 1928 Sheffield Wednesday FC played Chapman’s Arsenal FC and it was decided that each number would have a specific function, one that many today designate as the correct way in which they should be used. From that day on, the numbers were used to designate the position of each player and were unique, being from 1 to 11 those who had the home team and from 12 to 22 the visiting team (remember that before there were no changes and therefore there were no more players on the bench). In the 1939/40 season, the English Football Association (Football Association) unified criteria and officially ordered the numbering of all the shirt numbers of all the teams that played in the English league. From there it spread to other leagues and organizations, which transferred the rule to other team sports disciplines.
The 1 was given to the goalkeeper, while the 2 and 3 were given to the right and left central defender respectively. The 4 was worn by the central defensive midfielder or what today would be the defensive midfielder. The 5 was for the right wing and the 6 for the left wing. The 7 was worn by the right winger and the 8 by the inside right. The 9 was for the centre forward while the 10 was for the inside left, and the 11 was for the left winger.
Over time and especially with the different organizational forms on the pitch these numbers varied their position being different the use of for example the 10 in Europe than in Brazil or Argentina and gradually the numbers began to circulate freely among the players until today. Because of this, unusual numbers have been seen in some teams. To cite some curious cases we could talk about the 1958 World Cup, when the Brazilian Football Confederation forgot to send the list with the numbers of the players to the organization of the event. Because of that the Uruguayan official Lorenzo Villizzio assigned random numbers to the players giving the 3 to the goalkeeper Gilmar. Garrincha and Zagallo wore the number 11 and 7 respectively, while Pele was randomly given the number 10, the number he would go down in history with.
At the 1974 and 78 World Cups, the Dutch Football Association decided that the numbers would be allocated in alphabetical order, which meant that goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed would wear number 8 and striker Ruud Geels would wear number 1, for example.
Johan Cruyff for example, was another player who chose a number outside of the “starting 11”, with number 14 being the number by which he would be recognised.
In the 1998/1999 season, the Chilean striker Ivan Zamorano, Inter Milan striker, had to give up his classic number “9” to give it to the Brazilian Ronaldo due to pressure from his sponsor. In response to that, Bam Bam decided to use the number 18 with an unusual detail, including the plus sign +, visually remaining as “1+8” something never seen before in the history of European football and that was repeated in Brazil by the Colombian Freddy Rincón and his dorsal 3+5 in Santos FC. Hicham Zerouali was allowed to wear the number 0 for Scottish Premier League club Aberdeen F.C. after fans nicknamed him “Zero” and in 2003 we saw for the first time in the UEFA Champions League final a player wearing 99 on his back, namely Porto’s great goalkeeper Vitor Baía.
Other great players who had to give up their numbers even when they arrived as stars at their new clubs were Ronaldinho Gaúcho at AC Milan Clarence Seedorf, who wore the number 80 on his back as Clarence Seedorf was the player who had the number 10.
During the 2009-2010 season CR7, Cristiano Ronaldo had to settle for a different number to his own because another great historical white team, Raul Gonzalez had it in his custody and would not let go.
In short, the numbers are much more than just numbers and throughout history they have left a legacy that will forever go hand in hand with the great legends of football.