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The origins of full-backs, centre-halves and shirt numbers

Shreyas Pai
Editor's Pick
7.82K   //    13 Dec 2012, 09:47 IST

As a football fan, almost every day, one comes across certain curiosities related to the world of football. One such area, of vast expanse, and wide usage is the terminology associated with football. This can be broadly classified under three categories; the usage of some terms, such as a ‘chip’, a ‘volley’, a ‘lob’, and other similar ones is fairly obvious, since they define what is visible to the eye. The second category encompasses terms which came into existence with common usage, and perhaps, the surrounding geography; the ‘Kop’, the ‘Catalans’, the ‘Mannschaft’ are all examples of such. The third kind, and those which are much more deep rooted into football are the ones which need a little bit of digging to discover the origins of. These are usually the ones which have historic significance, and which can be found quite easily by anyone willing to brush aside the layers of dust and delve into the infancy of professional football.

Here, you shall find an explanation of the origin of football’s positional names, and the assignment of shirt numbers, with the aid of the predominant original formation; 2 – 3 – 5. While it does sound odd, and remarkably like a formation that a team like Barcelona would adhere to when playing certain minnows, it was indeed the formation with which football was played in the late 1800′s, and early 1900′s. Being the first real formation of widespread usage, and setting the standard for a fair while, it is understandable why the numbering of shirts associated with it still remains to this day, even with the advent of fancy numbers, such as the #88 worn by Gianluigi Buffon which stirred up a controversy back at the turn of the millennium.

The image to the right depicts the typical terminology and the numbering associated with a player at different positions on the pitch. Here, the terms full-back, and center-half are quite self-explanatory, given that it merely indicates their position on the pitch. What is more interesting, however, is the evolution of this formation into today’s modern 4 – 4 – 2, with the full-backs moving wide, and the centre halves dropping deeper into defence. This has to do with the fact that the halves used to deal with the centre forward, inner-left and inner-right, while the full-backs watched out for the outside-right and outside-left attackers.

Thus, naturally, when the centre-halves dropped deeper and became centre backs with the development of modern formations, they kept their responsibilities of tending to the opposition attackers who came through the middle. The full-backs kept their responsibilities as well, and thus moved out wide to accommodate the centre-backs, as well as help stop the wide players from the opposition getting down the touchline and sending balls across. With further advent of time, of course, wing-backs, false nines, and plenty more positions were evolved. Yet, the numbering, at least in bits and pieces, reflects the original from the 2 – 3 – 5, where the players were simply assigned from back to front, and right to left in that order of priority. The next time you watch CR7, LM10 or watch classic videos of the wizardry of Ryan Giggs in his #11, do spend a fleeting moment on remembering the origins of these numbers that you cheer for.

Shreyas Pai
A free bird that wishes he were a little Red boot on Giggsy's left foot.
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