Squad numbers are used in association football to identify and distinguish players that are on the field. Numbers were originally used to also indicate position, with starting players being assigned numbers 1–11, although these numbers often bear little or no significance in the modern game other than the players' favourite numbers and the numbers available. However, numbers 1–11 are often still worn by players of the previously associated position.
As national leagues adopted squad numbers and game tactics evolved over the decades, numbering systems evolved separately in each football scene, and so different countries have different conventions. Still, there are some numbers that are universally agreed upon being used for a particular position, because they are quintessentially associated with that role.
For instance, "1" is frequently used by the starting goalkeeper, as the goalkeeper is the first player in a line-up.It is also the only position on the field that is required to be occupied. "10" is one of the most emblematic squad numbers in football, due to the sheer number of football legends that used the number 10 shirt; playmakers, second strikers and attacking midfielders usually wear this number. "7" is often associated with effective and profitable wingers or second strikers. "9" is usually worn by centre forwards or strikers, who hold the most advanced offensive positions on the pitch, and are often the highest scorers in the team.
The first record of numbered jerseys in football date back to 1911, with Australian teams Sydney Leichardt and HMS Powerful being the first to use squad numbers on their backs.One year later, numbering in football would be ruled as mandatory in New South Wales.
The next recorded use was on 23 March 1914, when the English Wanderers, a team of amateur players from Football League clubs, played Corinthians at Stamford Bridge, London. This was Corinthians first match after their FA ban for joining the Amateur Football Association was rescinded. Wanderers won 4–2.
In South America, Argentina was the first country with numbered shirts. It was during the Scottish team Third Lanark tour to South America of 1923, they played a friendly match v a local combined team ("Zona Norte") on 10 June. Both squads were numbered from 1–11.
30 March 1924, saw the first football match in the United States with squad numbers, when the Fall River Marksmen played St. Louis Vesper Buick during the 1923–24 National Challenge Cup, although only the local team wore numbered shirts.
The next recorded use in association football in Europe was on 25 August 1928 when The Wednesday played Arsenaland Chelsea hosted Swansea Town at Stamford Bridge. Numbers were assigned by field location:
In the first game at Stamford Bridge, only the outfield players wore numbers (2–11). The Daily Express (p. 13, 27 August 1928) reported, "The 35,000 spectators were able to give credit for each bit of good work to the correct individual, because the team were numbered, and the large figures in black on white squares enabled each man to be identified without trouble." The Daily Mirror ("Numbered Jerseys A Success", p. 29, 27 August 1928) also covered the match: "I fancy the scheme has come to stay. All that was required was a lead and London has supplied it." When Chelsea toured Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil at the end of the season in the summer of 1929, they also wore numbered shirts, earning the nickname "Los Numerados" ("the numbered") from locals.
Early evolutions of formations involved moving specific positions; for example, moving the centre half back to become a defender rather than a half back. Their numbers went with them, hence central defenders wearing number 5, and remnants of the system remain. For example, in friendly and championship qualifying matches England, when playing the 4–4–2 formation, generally number their players (using the standard right to left system of listing football teams) four defenders – 2, 5, 6, 3; four midfielders – 7, 4, 8, 11; two forwards – 10, 9. This system of numbering can also be adapted to a midfield diamond with the holding midfielder wearing 4 and the attacking central midfielder wearing 8. Similarly the Swedish national team number their players: four defenders – 2, 3, 4, 5; four midfielders – 7, 6, 8, 9; two forwards – 10, 11.
The 1950 FIFA World Cup was the first FIFA competition to see squad numbers for each players,but persistent numbers would not be issued until the 1954 World Cup, where each man in a country's 22-man squad wore a specific number from 1 to 22 for the duration of the tournament.
In 1993, The Football Association (The FA) switched to persistent squad numbers, abandoning the mandatory use of 1–11 for the starting line-up. The first league event to feature this was the 1993 Football League Cup Final between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday, and it became standard in the FA Premier League the following season, along with names printed above the numbers.Charlton Athletic were among the ten Football League clubs who chose to adopt squad numbers for the 1993–94 season (with squad numbers assigned to players in alphabetical order according to their surname), before reverting to 1–11 shirt numbering a year later.
Squad numbers became optional in the three divisions of The Football League at the same time, but only 10 out of 70 clubs utilized them. One of those clubs, Brighton & Hove Albion, issued 25 players with squad numbers but reverted to traditional 1–11 numbering halfway through the season.In the Premier League, Arsenal temporarily reverted to the old system halfway through that same season, but reverted to the new numbering system for the following campaign. Most European top leagues adopted the system during the 1990s. The Football League made squad numbers compulsory for the 1999–2000 season, and the Football Conference followed suit for the 2002–03 season.
The traditional 1–11 numbers have been worn on occasions by English clubs since their respective leagues introduced squad numbers. Premier League clubs often used the traditional squad numbering system when competing in domestic or European cups, often when their opponents still made use of the traditional squad numbering system. This included Manchester United's Premier League clash with Manchester City at Old Trafford on 10 February 2008, when 1950s style kits were worn as part of the Munich air disaster's 50th anniversary commemorations.
Players may now wear any number (as long as it is unique within their squad) between 1 and 99.
In continental Western Europe this can generally be seen:
2– Right Back
3– Left Back
4– Centre Back
5– Centre Back (or Sweeper, if used)
6– Central Defensive/Holding Midfielder
7– Right Attacking Midfielders/Wingers
8– Central/Box-to-Box Midfielder
10– Attacking Midfielder/Playmaker
11– Left Attacking Midfielders/Wingers
This changes from formation to formation, however the defensive number placement generally remain the same. The use of inverted wingers now sees traditional right wingers, the number 7's, like Cristiano Ronaldo, on the left, and traditional left wingers, the number 11's, like Gareth Bale, on the right.
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In Brazil, the 4–2–4 formation was developed independently from Europe, thus leading to a different numbering – here shown in the 4–3–3 formation to stress that in Brazil, number ten is midfield:
When in 4–2–4, number 10 passes to the Ponta de Lança (striker), and 4–4–2 formations get this configuration: four defenders – 2 (right wingback), 4, 3, 6 (left wingback); four midfielders – 5 (defensive), 8 ("second midfielder"), similar to a central midfielder), 7, 10 (attacking); two strikers – 9, 11
In England, in a now traditional 4–4–2 formation, the standard numbering is usually: 2 (right fullback), 5, 6, 3 (left fullback); 4 (defensive midfielder), 7 (right midfielder), 8 (central/attacking midfielder), 11 (left midfielder); 10 (second/support striker), 9 (striker). This came about based on the traditional 2–3–5 system. Where the 2 fullbacks retained the numbers 2, 3. Then of the halves, 4 was kept as the central defensive midfielder, while 5 and 6 were moved backward to be in the central of defence. 7 and 11 stayed as the wide attacking players, whilst 8 dropped back a little from inside forward to a (sometimes attacking) midfield role, and 10 stayed as a second striker in support of a number 9. The 4 is generally the holding midfielder, as through the formation evolution it was often used for the sweeper or libero position. This position defended behind the central defenders, but attacked in front – feeding the midfield. It is generally not used today, and developed into the holding midfielder role.
When substitutions were introduced to the game in 1965, the substitute typically took the number 12; when a second substitute was allowed, they wore 14. Players were not compelled to wear the number 13 if they were superstitious.
In Eastern Europe, the defence numbering is slightly different. The Hungarian national team under Gusztáv Sebes switched from a 2–3–5 formation to 3–2–5. So the defence numbers were 2 to 4 from right to left thus making the right back (2), centre back (3) and the left back (4). Since the concept of a flat back four the number (5) has become the other centre back.
Argentina developed its numeration system independently from the rest of the world. This was because until the 1960s, Argentine football developed more or less isolated from the evolution brought by English, Italian and Hungarian coaches, owing to technological limitations at the time in communications and travelling with Europe, lack of information as to keeping up with news, lack of awareness and/or interest in the latest innovations, and strong nationalism promoted by the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (for example, back then Argentines playing in Europe were banned from playing in the Argentine national team).
The first formation used in Argentine football was the 2–3–5 and, until the '60s, it was the sole formation employed by Argentine clubs and the Argentina national football team, with only very few exceptions like River Plate's La Máquina from the '40s that used 3–2–2–3. It was not until the mid 1960s in the national team, with Argentina winning the Taça das Nações (1964) using 3–2–5, and the late '60s, for clubs, with Estudiantes winning the treble of the Copa Libertadores (1968, 1969, 1970) using 4–4–2, that Argentine football finally adopted modern formations on major scale, and caught up with its counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.
While the original 2–3–5 formation used the same numbering system dictated by the English clubs in 1928, subsequent changes were developed independently.
The basic formation to understand the Argentine numeration system is the 4–3–3 formation, like the one used by the coach César Menotti that made Argentina win the 1978 World Cup, the squad numbers employed are:
However, in a 4–3–1–2 like those used by the multichampion teams of Independiente in the 1980s and Boca Juniors in the 2000s, the use of an enganche (playmaker) and the re-accommodation of other roles changes the numbers:
When using a 4–4–2 like that of the multichampion Estudiantes de La Plata of the 1960s or the Argentine national team that became runners-up in the 2014 World Cup, the numbers are the same as in 4–3–3, except that the box-to-box midfielder may have any number. In Argentina, the role is called doble 5 so there is not any convention as to which number it has. Also, due to the use of just two strikers, the number 11 may not be used at all. So, the numbers are:
Then there is the 4–2–3–1 formation, ubiquitous at world-level in the 2010s, and employed in Argentina by the national team nicknamed Los 4 Fantásticos that finished first in CONMEBOL 2014 World Cup qualifying, attacking with the forwards Sergio Agüero, Lionel Messi, Ángel Di María and Gonzalo Higuaín. The numbers used are:
Meanwhile, the 3–5–2 formation, famously used by the coach Carlos Bilardo to make Argentina win the 1986 World Cup and become runners-up in the 1990 World Cup, and one of the last major changes in the history of football formations, changes drastically the use of numbers, due to major movements in roles and positions:
And, last, the 3–3–3–1, used by the coach Marcelo Bielsa to help Argentina finish first in the CONMEBOL's 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, become runners-up in the 2004 Copa América and win the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics. It was also employed by the Argentine under-20 team that won the 2015 South American Youth Football Championship. 3–3–3–1 uses mixtures from many of the aforementioned formations:
Players are not generally allowed to change their number during a season, although a player may change number if he changes clubs mid-season. Players may change squad numbers between seasons. Occasionally, when a player has two loan spells at the same club in a single season (or returns as a permanent signing after an earlier loan spell), an alternative squad number is needed if the original number assigned during the player's first loan spell has been reassigned by the time the player returns.
A move from a high number to a low one may be an indication that the player is likely to be a regular starter for the coming season. An example of this is Celtic's Scott McDonald, who, after the departure of former number 7 Maciej Żurawski, was given the number, a move down from 27.Another example is Steven Gerrard, who wore number 28 (which was his academy number) during his debut 1998–99 season, then switched to number 17 in 2000–01. In 2004–05, after Emile Heskey left Liverpool, Gerrard then changed his number again to 8. More recently, Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane changed his number 37 shirt from the 2013–14 season to 18 for the 2014–15 season when he became one of the club's first-choice strikers after Jermain Defoe was sold and the number 18 was vacated. Kane then switched to the number 10 for the 2015–16 season after Emmanuel Adebayor left the club and the number was vacated. Manchester City's Sergio Agüero also did a similar switch in jersey number, from number 16 in 2014–15 to number 10 in 2015–16, a number he took over from Edin Džeko following his loan departure to Roma.
Some players keep the number they start their career at a club with, such as Chelsea defender John Terry, who wore the number 26 during his spell at the club. On occasion, players have moved numbers to accommodate a new player; for example, Chelsea midfielder Yossi Benayoun handed new signing Juan Mata the number 10 shirt, and changed to the number 30, which doubles his "lucky" number 15.Upon signing for Everton in 2007, Yakubu refused the prestigious number 9 shirt and asked to be assigned number 22, setting this number as a goal-scoring target for his first season, a feat he ultimately fell one goal short of achieving.
In a traditional 4–4–2 system in the UK, the squad numbers 1–11 would usually have been occupied in this manner:
However, in a more modern 4–2–3–1 system, they will be arranged like this:
Higher-level clubs have a tendency to field reserve and fringe players in the English Football League Cup so high squad numbers are not uncommon. Nico Yennaris wore 64 for Arsenal in the competition on 26 September 2012 in a match against Coventry Cityand on 24 September 2014, again in the League Cup, Manchester City forward José Ángel Pozo wore the number 78 shirt in a match against Sheffield Wednesday. In a quarter-final tie on 17 December 2019, Liverpool player Tom Hill became the first player in English football history to wear the number 99 shirt in a competitive match. In The Football League, the number 55 has been worn by Ade Akinbiyi for Crystal Palace, and Dominik Werling for Barnsley.
When Sunderland signed Cameroonian striker Patrick Mboma on loan in 2002, he wanted the number 70 to symbolize his birth year of 1970. The Premier League refused, however, and he wore the number 7 instead.
In France, players must be registered between numbers 1-30, with 1, 16 and 30 reserved for goalkeepers and 33 left empty for extra signings. In case a fourth goalkeeper has to be registered, he wears number 40.
In 1995, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) also switched to persistent squad numbers for Serie A and Serie B (second division), abandoning the mandatory use of 1–11 for the starting lineup. After some years during which players had to wear a number between 1–24, now they can wear any number between 1–99 without restrictions. Notably, Chievo Verona had the goalkeeper Cristiano Lupatelli wearing number 10 from 2001 to 2003and midfielder Jonathan de Guzman wearing number 1 in 2016.
In the Spanish La Liga, players in the A-squad (maximum 25 players, including a maximum of three goalkeepers) must wear a number between 1–25. Goalkeepers must wear either 1, 13 or 25. When players from the reserve team are selected to play for the first team, they are given squad numbers between 26 and 50.
North American professional association football club follows a model similar to that of European clubs, with the exception that many American and Canadian clubs do not have "reserve squads", and thus do not assign higher numbers to those players.
Most American and Canadian clubs have players numbered from 1 to 30, with higher numbers being reserved for second and third goalkeepers. In the United Soccer Leagues First Division and Major League Soccer (MLS), there were only 20 outfield players wearing squad numbers higher than 30 on the first team in the 2009 season, suggesting that the traditional model has been followed.
In 2007, MLS club LA Galaxy retired the former playing number of Cobi Jones, number 13, becoming the first MLS team to do so.
In 2011, MLS club Real Salt Lake retired the former playing number of coach Jason Kreis, number 9.
The first-choice goalkeeper is usually assigned the number 1 shirt as he or she is the first player in a line-up.
The second-choice goalkeeper wears, on many occasions, shirt number 12 which is the first shirt of the second line up, or number 13. In the past, when it was permitted to assign five substitute players in a match, the goalkeeper would also often wear the number 16, the last shirt number in the squad. Later on, when association football laws changed and it was permitted to assign seven substitute players, second-choice goalkeepers often wore the number 18. In the A-League, second-choice goalkeepers mostly wear number 20, based on that competition having a 20-man regulated "first team" squad size.
In international tournaments (such as FIFA World Cup or continental cups) each team must list a squad of 23 players, wearing shirts numbered 1 through 23. Thus, in this case, third-choice goalkeepers often wear the number 23. Prior to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, only 22 players were permitted in international squads; therefore, the third goalkeeper was often awarded the number 22 jersey in previous tournaments.
The move to a fixed number being assigned to each player in a squad was initiated for the 1954 World Cup where each man in a country's 22-man squad wore a specific number for the duration of the tournament. As a result, the numbers 12 to 22 were assigned to different squad players, with no resemblance to their on-field positions. This meant that a team could start a match not necessarily fielding players wearing numbers one to eleven. Although the numbers one to eleven tended to be given to those players deemed to be the "first choice line-up", this was not always the case for a variety of reasons – a famous example was Johan Cruyff, who insisted on wearing the number 14 shirt for the Netherlands.
In the 1958 World Cup, the Brazilian Football Confederation forgot to send the player numbers list to the event organization. However, the Uruguayan official Lorenzo Villizzio assigned random numbers to the players. The goalkeeper Gilmar received the number 3, and Garrincha and Zagallo wore opposite winger numbers, 11 and 7, while Pelé was randomly given the number 10, for which he would become famous.
Argentina defied convention by numbering their squads for the 1978, 1982 and 1986 World Cups alphabetically, resulting in outfield players (not goalkeepers) wearing the number 1 shirt (although Diego Maradona was given an out-of-sequence number 10 in both 1982 and 1986 while Mario Kempes in 1982 and Jorge Valdano in 1986 were allowed to use number 11).In 1974 Argentina also used the alphabetical system, but only to line players and goalkeepers Daniel Carnevali and Ubaldo Fillol wore traditional goalkeeping numbers 1 and 12 respectively. England used a similar alphabetical scheme for the 1982 World Cup, but retained the traditional numbers for the goalkeepers (1, 13 and 22) and the team captain (7), Kevin Keegan. In the 1990 World Cup, Scotland assigned squad numbers according to the number of international matches each player had played at the time (with the exception of goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who was assigned an out-of-sequence number 1): Alex McLeish, who was the most capped player, wore number 2, whereas Robert Fleck and Bryan Gunn, who only had one cap each, wore numbers 21 and 22, respectively. In a practice that ended after the 1998 World Cup, Italy gave low squad numbers to defenders, medium to midfielders, and high ones to forwards, while numbers 1, 12 and 22 were assigned to goalkeepers. In July 2007, a FIFA document issuing regulations for the 2010 World Cup finally stated that the number 1 jersey must be issued to a goalkeeper.
Before the 2002 World Cup, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) attempted to retire the number 10 in honour of Maradona by submitting a squad list of 23 players for the tournament, listed 1 through 24, with the number 10 omitted. FIFA rejected Argentina's plan, with the governing body's president Sepp Blatter suggesting the number 10 shirt be instead given to the team's third-choice goalkeeper, Roberto Bonano. The AFA ultimately submitted a revised list with Ariel Ortega, originally listed as number 23, as the number 10.
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