The dynamics that go into picking a squad number in football are fascinating, to say the least. Specific numbers have gone on to become more significant than others for many reasons. This is, more often than not, due to the personnel that donned them in the past.
For instance, the iconic number ten is usually associated with the creative hub of the side, such as Leo Messi at Barcelona and Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain. The number seven has been donned by some of the all-time greats as well, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul Gonzalez, and several others.
For this reason, there is arguably no bigger sign of respect in football than when a club chooses to retire a prominent number in honour of a player, as a sign of respect.
This could be purely based on merit, such as Schalke 04 retiring Raul's number seven permanently, or George Weah's number 14 being retired by Liberia. Clubs have also retired shirt numbers in the event of an untimely passing away of a player, such as Emiliano Sala's number nine at Nantes, Davide Astori's number 13 at Fiorentina, and Junior Malanda's number 19 at Wolfsburg.
On that note, here, we take a look at five famous footballers whose shirts were retired by their clubs.
#5 Pele | New York Cosmos' #10
Historically, not many clubs in world football have retired the famous number ten shirt in honour of a player, but Pele was no ordinary footballer. The Brazilian game is widely regarded as the greatest player to have played the game, and he's won the World Cup on three occasions with the Selecao, more than any player in football history.
Although he spent nearly two decades with Santos, where he established himself as a football icon, it was the star-studded New York Cosmos that honoured him by retiring the number ten shirt. Pele had a three-year spell in the United States, during which he scored 37 goals and set up a further 30.
It was at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey where he played his final game, during which he played one half for the Cosmos and the other for his former side, Santos. His Cosmos shirt was retired at half-time during this game. A legendary farewell for a true legend of the game.
#4 Javier Zanetti | Internazionale's #4
Javier Zanetti is one of the greatest full-backs to have graced the sport. With a staggering 615 Serie A appearances for Inter (858 across all competitions) and an overall figure of 1,114 for club and country, Zanetti is the proud holder of a host of records. He is also arguably Internazionale's greatest-ever captain, having helped them to five Scudetti and a European treble among other major titles.
His 19 years at San Siro, out of which he spent 13 as captain, is regarded as one of the greatest spells a player has had at any club, and Inter paid a remarkable tribute to the Beunos Aries-native. The Nerazzurri permanently retired his shirt number with a touching statement, saying the number four is 'forever Zanetti's'.
Zanetti was subsequently appointed as part of the Inter board to recognize his contribution towards the club apart from having his shirt number retired.
#3 Johan Cruyff | Ajax's #14
To say that Johan Cruyff is one of the greatest footballers of all time, as true as that may be, undermines his contribution to the sport. Cruyff is regarded as one of the most influential football figures of all time not only because of what he's achieved on the pitch, but also due to his contribution off it.
The three-time Ballon d'Or winner tore defences to shreds for Ajax, winning eight Eredivisie titles and three successive European clubs for his boyhood club and, later, guided Barcelona to LaLiga Glory. As manager, he built the original 'dream team' at the Nou Camp and transformed their very approach to the game. Cruyff helped them win 11 major honours, including the Catalans' first-ever European cup.
On the occasion of Cruyff's 60th birthday in 2007, Ajax revealed that they will retire his iconic shirt to 'freeze his number as an homage to a unique football player'. The Dutchman unfortunately passed away eight years later, and Ajax honoured him once again by renaming the Amsterdam ArenA to the Johan Cruyff ArenA.
#2 Paolo Maldini | AC Milan's #3
Paolo Maldini is, by all accounts, one of the most influential defenders to have played the game. The Italian football icon followed in the footsteps of his father, Cesare Maldini, by playing for AC Milan, and he spent all 25 years of his professional career at San Siro.
Maldini helped the Rossoneri win 25 major honours during his time at the club, including a staggering seven Serie A titles and five European Cups/UEFA Champions Leagues. Overall, he has appeared 902 times for Milan in all competitions, more than any other player in their history, and holds the record of having eight European Cup/UCL finals with Paco Gento.
After an incredible 25 years of service to the Rossoneri, it came as no surprise for the club to honour him by freezing his number three shirt. However, what makes Maldini's case a unique one is that while the number is retired, he reserves the right to pass it on to his sons should they play for Milan in the future.
#1 Diego Maradona | Napoli's #10
Much like Pele, Diego Maradona is one of the only few footballers to have had their clubs retire a shirt as significant as the number ten. However, such was the impact that the diminutive Argentine had during his time in Naples. After two years at Barcelona, Napoli smashed the world record fee to bring Maradona to Italy in 1984, and it was with the Partonopei that he became a legend of the game.
Maradona single-handedly fired Napoli to their first-ever Scudetto in history in 1986, and followed it up with another four years later, which remain the only two league titles Napoli have ever won. The midfielder endeared himself to Naples and etched his name into the very fabric of the city, and Napoli decided to pay him the highest possible tribute — they retired one of football's most iconic shirts for one of football's most iconic names.
El Pibe de Oro sadly passed away in November 2020 at the age of 60, after which Napoli promptly renamed their stadium to Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in honour of the late legend.