Lucky Number 7: Players and their Squad Numbers

August 2, 2012 in Features

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Michael Owen’s departure from Manchester United vacated the number 7 jersey, which was then handed to Antonio Valencia. So what’s the big deal? At the end of the day, it’s just a number on your back – it doesn’t improve your movement, passing or shooting accuracy. It doesn’t improve your fitness or your ability to read the game. What does it signify? Nothing, right? Wrong. The modern footballer will tell you that his squad number is as much a part of his identity as his surname. Just ask Thierry Henry, whose signature includes the number ‘14’.

Squad numbers were brought into the English game in 1928, when Arsenal took on Sheffield Wednesday, and were originally designed not only to distinguish players from each other, but also to signify what position a certain player was playing in – a bit like rugby. We still see this today. Most first team goalkeepers wear the number 1 jersey with the defence occupying numbers from 2 to 6. Strikers normally wear the number 9 or 10 with the midfielders taking up the remaining numbers. However, football has changed, grown and developed, and with it, the formations have evolved and the notion of numbering players according to their positions is slowly dying.

Take for example Pantelis Kafes, the Greek defensive midfielder who spent the prime years of his career at AEK Athens. He was a gifted player with excellent passing ability and a fierce tackle – an old school protector of the back line. But he will be more famously remembered for being one of the few outfield players who wore the number 1 jersey. How about Luca Bucci, the much travelled Italian goalkeeper? He had two spells at Parma in which he wore the number 5 and then the number 7. Talking of goalkeepers, Cristiano Lupatelli, the bald headed, Italian shot stopper occupied the number 10 jersey during his time at Chievo, much to the annoyance of their strikers. William Gallas refused the number 3 jersey when he joined Arsenal, claiming that it was a left back’s number and that he would not be comfortable wearing it, so he took the vacant number 10 - right, that makes sense.

Is superstition a factor? Quite simply, yes it is. It’s true that this is the case more so on the continent than it is in Britain, but with the influx of foreign players, it is fast becoming a trend in England too. Nicklas Bendtner of Arsenal requested the number 52 because this is a ‘special’ number to him. It’s not clear if he is now performing better as a result of the number change, but in his mind, he has removed any doubt that his previous number was the cause of his lack of goals. Carlos Tevez has famously spent his career in English football wearing the number 32 jersey with nobody really knowing why. Speculation suggests that 32 is his lucky number, while others claim that he uses this number as a tribute to his love for West Ham United, as this is the number that was given to him at Upton Park. You would have to ask Carlitos himself for the truth. Nicolas Anelka has a similar story to Tevez, opting for the number 39 shirt. Again, only Nico will be able to tell you why.

Are some squad numbers more prestigious than others? They are in some parts of the world, and certainly at Manchester United. Sometimes the prestige of a number is defined by the players who had previously carried it on their backs and what they achieved whilst in that shirt. Just before the 1958 World Cup, somehow, Brazil forgot to send their list of squad numbers to FIFA. This resulted in FIFA handing out random numbers to the Brazil squad and by chance, Pele was assigned the number 10. He subsequently wore the same number for the remainder of his career and started a new trend of managers giving the number 10 jersey to the best player in the team. Maradona, Platini, Bergkamp, Zidane and Baggio all wore the number 10 for their clubs and/or their countries and now the likes of Messi, van Persie and Wayne Rooney are following suit. Some shirts actually accumulate so much prestige that the club will decide to retire the number altogether, as is the case with West Ham’s number 6 shirt which once belonged to Bobby Moore, and also AC Milan’s number 3 and number 6 jerseys which were once worn by Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi respectively.

So what happens when two players want the same squad number? Well, basically, one of them will get it while the other takes a number he perceives as being the next best thing. The most famous example of this has to be Ivan Zamorano during his time at Inter Milan. Luis ‘Fat’ Ronaldo had a sponsorship deal with Nike for their ‘R9’ range of products, which meant that Zamorano was forced to give up his number 9 shirt to the Brazilian. With Roberto Baggio taking the number 10 shirt, this left Zamorano with an unfavourable choice of numbers, from which he chose 18. It seemed a bit meaningless until he actually appeared on the pitch with a ‘+’ between the 1 and 8 – he had, according to himself, retained the number 9 jersey. A bit excessive, one would think? Well, Clinton Morrison would disagree, as he applied the same rationale to his number 19 jersey at Coventry because the number 10 shirt had already been taken.

So, back to Antonio Valencia and his new shirt. George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have all made the number 7 jersey iconic for Manchester United, so Michael Owen is one of the few players who fans may regard as an unjustified bearer of the magic number. But what if he had been given, say, the number 40 shirt? Would he still be regarded as such a disappointment? He joined without a fee and scored a goal once every three games including an important one against City – the stats are not bad for a number 40. However, the stats are also not great for a number 7 and that’s how he will be remembered.

Good luck Mr Valencia.

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