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The history of football squad numbers explained

It was in a game against Sheffield Wednesday in 1928 that Chapman's side was seen wearing stripes.

Ivan Zamorano
Ivan Zamorano (L) had a “+” sign between the numbers on his jersey

Ever wondered what separates a good manager from a great one? The answer is simple. The difference lies in the ability to see beyond what the human eye permits. In short, a great manager is a visionary. And legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman was a visionary. Among other things, he introduced the concept of squad numbers which at that time seemed insignificant but over the years has changed the way the game is viewed and marketed.

It was in a game against Sheffield Wednesday in 1928 that Chapman’s side was seen wearing stripes. The motivation behind this idea was to bring about awareness in his players with regard to their relative positions on the pitch.

Also read: 5 players with unusual jersey numbers

He assigned squad numbers in ascending order starting with the goalkeeper and moving forward from right to left and up the pitch. Those were the days of the 2-3-5 formation with two defenders at the back, three midfielders in the centre of the park and five players up front. So Chapman assigned number 1 to the goalkeeper; the two defenders were given numbers 2 and 3; the midfielders wore numbers 4, 5 and 6 and the five in front wore numbers 7-11.

Subsequent changes in formations brought about changes in squad numbers as well. With the 4-4-2 system gaining prominence, the midfielders wearing numbers 5 and 6 dropped back. Number 4 remained in the middle with 8 playing alongside him while 9 and 10 were the strikers up front. 7 and 11 played down the wing. At the back, 2 and 3 moved to the flanks.

But this was the system prevailing in Great Britain. As different formations were developed in different countries around the world, the system of assigning squad numbers was also different. Here’s looking at how squad numbers were assigned in different countries:

Brazil

In the land of the Samba, the formation that was initially employed was 4-2-4. This is how the squad numbers were assigned:

1-Goalkeeper

2-Right Wingback

3-Centre Back

4-Centre Back

5-Holding Midfielder (Defensive)

6-Left Wingback

7-Right Winger

8-Centre Midfielder

9-Centre Forward

10-Attacking Midfielder

11-Left Winger

Argentina

In the early days, football in Argentina developed independently almost without any European influence. As such, their method of assigning squad numbers was slightly different form the rest. The formation usually employed was 4-3-3

1-Goalkeeper

2-Centre Back

3-Left Back

4-Right Back

5-Central Defensive Midfielder

6-Centre Back

7-Right Winger

8-Right Midfielder

9-Centre Forward

10-Left Midfielder

11-Left Winger

However, it is important to point out that with changes in formations over the years, the system of assigning squad numbers has vastly changed. 

Barring the Spanish League where goalkeepers have to be assigned numbers 1, 13 and 25, there are no restrictions with regard to the numbers worn by players. Ronaldo famously wore number 99 for AC Milan; former Barnet manager Edgar Davids had assigned number 1 to himself with the hope of “starting a trend”; defender William Gallas donned the number 10 jersey during his spell at the Emirates Stadium and more recently, forward Samuel Eto’o turned out for Everton wearing number 5.

The Italian Serie A has a reputation of assigning all sorts of ridiculous jersey numbers. During his Parma days, Gianluigi Buffon wore number 88. At Inter, Ivan Zamorano opted for number 18 when he had to vacate number 9 for the incoming Ronaldo.

However the forward went on to add a small plus (+) sign between 1 and 8 thereby depicting that he was still the number 9. The likes of Ronaldinho, Andriy Shevchenko and Mathieu Flamini have played with 80, 76 and 84 on their backs respectively, for AC Milan.

In international tournaments, however, numbers are usually allotted from 1-23 given that the squad comprises 23 players. And generally, the given system of assigning numbers to players on the basis of their positions is partially, if not completely followed.

Away from the field, the introduction of squad numbers changed the game for the spectators and the players. To begin with, it was easy for fans in the stadium to spot the players. Further, as the years went by, certain numbers were entrenched in the culture and heritage of various clubs.

Some jersey numbers hold a legendary status

At Manchester United, the number 7 is considered special. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, George Best and David Beckham have all donned that number for the Red Devils. At Inter Milan, number 4 is special amongst the fans largely due to the fact that Javier Zanetti served the club for almost two decades with that number on his back.

After hanging up his boots, the club went on to retire that number. Many clubs do not assign number 12 to any player for that is reserved for the fans who are recognized as the “twelfth man”.

Apart from the fans, the numbers mean a lot to the players as well. Wearing an iconic number at the club or the country level gives them a sense of pride. In recent years, players have begun using their jersey numbers to build their own brands. A popular example in this regard is Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo who has named his own clothing line “CR7”. Rio Ferdinand also has a clothing line and it’s named #5(after his squad number at Manchester United).

Herbert Chapman introduced squad numbers with the objective of improving his players’ sense of position. But over the years, it has become an integral aspect of the game. In fact, when a club signs a new player, one of the first things that the fans look forward to is the squad number assigned to the player. To conclude, one can well say that squad numbers occupy a key position in football both on and off the pitch.

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