A look at known, unknown and bizarre stories about the numbers on Footballers' Jerseys.

Numbers, the world revolves around them. Numbers keep ticking us on. We spend most of our lives chasing the numbers and numbers relentlessly chase us.We deal with them so much in our day to day lives that we remember them even in our deepest sleep.

Bank Account Numbers, Telephone numbers, Credit Card Numbers, Social security numbers, Birth dates, Anniversaries, Finances, Fixture Dates, Stats and even players’ Jersey numbers.

Hang on a minute. Is it Jersey Numbers?

Yes. We do remember our favorite players and their Jersey numbers. Not only that, we also remember entire squad and their numbers year by year.

Football has always been associated with the jersey numbers and the players who wear them. According to the archives, the numbers were used in football for the first time in 1928, in a match between Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal. In that game, the numbers were strictly assigned by field position.

The numbers were allocated as per the standard 2-3-5 (‘Pyramid’) Formation. As the game evolved with the new formations, the conventional numbering system also changed.

Although there were no hard and fast rules as to which number represented which position (especially given football's varied formations), a de facto standard emerged over time and was employed by most teams, with few exceptions:

Goalkeepers generally wore the number 1 shirt. This convention has become almost universal.

Defenders generally wore numbers between 2 and 6.

Midfielders most commonly wore numbers 4, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 (11 and 7 were typically used for the left and right wings, respectively).

Strikers wore 9 and 10, and less commonly 7, 8 and 11.

Now many teams have adopted following convention for assigning numbers as per player positions.

When substitutions were introduced to the game in the 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.

Till 1993 in England it was mandatory for player in the starting line up to wear the squad number between 1 and 11. FA decided to adopt permanent squad numbers and used it for the first time in 1992-93 League Cup Final ironically between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. It was fully implemented with effect from 1993-94 Premier League season.

In Spain, the permanent squad numbers started in from season 95-96. Germany adopted the system in 1993-94 season and Italy in 1995-96.

Now in England and Italy, Players may now wear any number (as long as it is unique within their squad) between 1 and 99 but in Spain the system is different and stringent.

In 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 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.

But some numbers have their own tale.

Number Keepers:

Though it is traditionally the goalkeeper's number, Pantelis Kafes a playmaker from AEK Athens has been wearing no. 1 jersey since his Olympiacos days (2003-06). On other hand, Parma goalkeeper Luca Bucci wore the numbers 7 (2005–06) and 5 (2006-08) jerseys. Also Crisiano Lupatelli, a wandering goalkeeper wore No. 10 Jersey at Chievo and No. 3 in his second stint at Roma. He’s now at Genoa wearing No. 22 at Genoa.

Gigi Buffon however got into trouble for his No. selection. At the beginning of the 2000 season, he bizarrely decided to switch to No. 88 from No. 1. Apparently this move caused a huge rage in Italian Jewish community. They pointed out that 88 is a neo-Nazi symbol as "H" is the eighth letter of the alphabet, so 88 equates to HH, or Heil Hitler.

Buffon later spoke in the press that, "I have chosen 88 because it reminds me of four balls and in Italy we all know what it means to have balls: strength and determination," he said. "And this season I will have to have balls to get back my place in the Italy team." He changed it to No. 77.

The Honor of becoming the first ever player to don no. 99 jersey in the final of major European competition goes to Vítor Baía of Porto in 2003-04 final against AS Monaco.

World’s highest scoring goalkeeper Rogério Ceni who has scored 101 goals for São Paulo, 55 Free Kicks and 46 Penalties wore the No. 618 for Sao Paulo in 2005 to commemorate his 618th appearance for the club. However, this was just a one-off appearance, before Ceni reverted to his regular number 1.

In 2006, when Chelsea signed defender Khalid Boulahrouz from Hamburg, he took No. 9 which was apparently vacant.

Also William Gallas surprisingly wore no. 10 which was vacated by legendary Dennis Bergkamp. Arsene Wenger explained this decision in an interview to Arsenal’s official magazine. Wenger said, “Number three was uncomfortable for him and I had given the rest of the numbers out. In the end I thought it might be a good idea to give the number ten to a defender, because a striker would suffer a lot with the comparison with Dennis. At first I was reluctant to give Dennis's number out, and especially to a defender, but overall I think its better that way.”

During his second spell at German giants Bayern Munich in 2005, French World Cup winner Lizarazu chose the squad number 69. With obvious connotations, many saw this as a disrespectful choice from the left-back, but he claimed that he chose it as it was his 'lucky number' (as he was born in 1969, measured 169 cm, and weighed 69 kg).

Iván Zamorano, a Legendary Chilean striker who has been selected in the FIFA 100, a list of the best living football players in the world compiled by Pelé, got involved in some bizarre number game.

Zamorano had won La Liga with Real in 1994-95 and individual awards like two EFE Trophies and Pichichi, got transferred to Inter in a crazy swap deal of €1m + Roberto Carlos in 1996.

Having played for Real Madrid in No. 9 jersey, he continued to wear the same for Inter till 1998 when they signed Roberto Baggio. Baggio demanded No. 10 Jersey which he had always worn in the past.

So Ronaldo, who had to give up no. 10 for Baggio, took up no. 9 which already belonged to Zamorano. Therefore he chose retain same No. 9 with a twist. He then chose to wear bizarre No. ‘1+8’ jersey for two remaining years.

In 2008-09 summer AC Milan signed Ronaldinho from Barcelona, Mathieu Flamini from Arsenal and Andriy Shevchenko from Chelsea. Upon their arrival in Milan, they chose their respective birth years as their jersey numbers, 80, 84 and 76 respectively, as their old No. 10, 16 and 7 were already held by Clarence Seedorf, Željko Kalac and Alexandre Pato.

In Scotland, Hibernian signed a striker Derek Riordan in 2008, and gave him No. 01 as No. 10 was already occupied by another striker Colin Nish. When Steven Fletcher moved to Burnley in 2009-10, Nish took vacant No. 9 and Riordan finally got his No. 10.

Hicham Zerouali, a Moroccan striker was allowed to wear No. 0 when he was in Aberdeen (1999–2002) as it was his Nickname ‘Zero’.

The Mexican forward Bautista has gained a reputation for being somewhat of a show-off, and his strong personality has won him both friends and enemies. While a Chivas player, Bautista chose the squad number 100, and is the only player to regularly wear a triple figure squad number. However, after a fall-out with both his manager and his team-mates, 'Bofo' was transferred to Chiapas, where he currently wears the number one shirt - one which is normally reserved for goalkeepers.

Mexican league has no restrictions on the numbers, but when Mexican clubs enter any FIFA authorized CONCACAF competitions, they have to wear double digit jerseys only. Currently following players in the Mexican league are having triple digit Number are,

Legendary Goof up:

Pele, who has always been associated with No. 10, began to wear the number in 1958 World Cup. But it has been found out that he got that number as a goof up. Brazilian Football Confederation forgot to send the player number list to FIFA. Thus FIFA randomly distributed the numbers to players. No.3 was given to their World Cup winning Goalkeeper Gilmar, Garrincha and Mario Zagallo got No. 7 and 11 as they were playing on the wings and Pele got No. 10. Pele finished the tournament with six goals in four matches played, and was named young player of the tournament. He never looked back and never wore another number again.  

Argentine debacle:

During 3 consecutive World Cups (1974, 1978, and 1982) Argentina numbered the team alphabetically by surname. In consequence, starting goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol wore the number 5 jersey during the 1978 World Cup and the number 7 in 1982 letting the number 1 to an outfield player. In 1982, Argentina adopted the same method but allowed Diego Maradona to wear No. 10 instead of sequential No. 12.

When the Argentinean FA announced in 1986 that they would be doing a repeat of 1982 and ordering the shirt numbers alphabetically, apart from Diego Maradona who would swap again to number 10, captain Passarella and Real Madrid striker Jorge Valdano pulled rank and insisted on keeping their own numbers too, so Passarella kept his favored number 6 and Valdano wore 11.

After Maradona’s retirement, every next No. 10 player was burdened with lot of pressure to justify that number’s legacy. Ariel Ortega was given No. 10 for 1998 World Cup. Ortega was supposed to carry playmaker’s flag, but he failed to deliver.

In September 2001, the football authorities of Argentina decided that, starting from November 14th, the #10 shirt of Argentina will be retired forever, as a tribute to Diego Armando Maradona. The decision was taken from all the members of the committee of the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA).

For 2002 FIFA World Cup, Argentina submitted their squad list of 23 players and assigned them 1-24 numbers and No. 10 was left blank, which was against FIFA’s tournament regulations (Point 4, Article 26). FIFA sent the list back and ordered no. 10 to be given to any player. And the Man himself Sepp Blatter gave a bizarre suggestion to award No. 10 jersey to third choice goalkeeper Roberto Bonano. So it was given to Ortega again.

Now it has been claimed by Maradona’s apt successor Lionel Messi. Although he’s world’s best footballer, doing miracles for Barcelona, the jury is still out on him for his contribution to the national team.  

Swapping Game:

There has been a long chain of players’ swaps between Real Madrid and Manchester United involving No. 7.


When Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Old Trafford in 2003 he asked for the no 28 shirt he had worn at Sporting Lisbon, which was held by Mark Lynch. But Sir Alex Ferguson wanted him to be a legend and gave him the shirt of a legend - vacated by David Beckham (who had taken the 23 at Real Madrid as there was no budging Raul). Ronaldo said: "After I joined, the manager asked me what number I'd like. I said 28. But Ferguson said 'No, you're going to have No. 7,' and the famous shirt was an extra source of motivation. I was forced to live up to such an honor."

Apparently when Luis Figo moved to Real Madrid from Barcelona, he too wanted No. 7, but Raul’s refusal made him take a vacant No. 10. Next year when Zidane moved to Real, he wanted No. 10, which was held by Figo, who wanted No. 7, which was held by Raul.

Zidane’s bad luck about numbers goes back to Juventus days. Zizou used to wear No. 7 at Bourdeaux, but when he moved to Juve, Angelo Di Livio held No. 7 and Alessandro Del Piero held No. 10. Zizou had to opt for a strange No. 21 at Juve and No. 5 at Real Madrid.

Raul had held No. 7 for 14 years at Real Madrid and was vacated only when he got transferred to Schalke in 2010. At Schalke he has taken No. 7 from Chinese player Junmin Hao, who has been moved back to No. 8.

Ronaldo has not only lived up to the legacy of No. 7, but he also has elevated the stature so high that next No. 7 of Real Madrid will suffer the same fate as Argentina’s no. 10.

Retiring Numbers:

Another thing with Jersey numbers is of those which are being retired in honor of their icon players. This way of expressing gratitude is more common in Basketball in America. To name a few, Chicago Bulls have retired the No. 23 of Michael Jordan and 33 of Scottie Pippen, LA Lakers have retired No. 32 of Magic Johnson, No. 33 of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and No. 34 of Shaquille O’Neal, Boston Celtic have also retired No. 33 of Larry Bird and many more.

Although Michael Jordan has never played for Miami Heat, they have retired his No. 23 for his contribution to the game. This is certainly a unique way of paying tribute to the Legend of the game.

Football too isn’t far behind in this. Some of the famous retired Numbers are below.

Legendary No. 14:

On 25th April 1957, a 10 year old kid joined the youth academy at Ajax and he left them in 1973 for Barcelona as a 26 year old superstar. In his illustrious career at Ajax, he won all the trophies which a club footballer can win. With 8 Eredivisie titles, 5 KNVB Cups, 3 consecutive European Cups, 2 UEFA Super cups, 1 Intertoto Cup and 1 Intercontinental Cup, the lad was already a world superstar. After hanging his boots as a player, he returned to Ajax as a manager as a 38 year old man. Not only he won 2 KNVB Cups and a Cup Winners Cup, he also installed a strong football philosophy which is stilled used at Ajax and Barcelona. His name was Johann Cruyff.

He started his career at Ajax with a traditional No. 9 but in 1970-71, he insisted on wearing no. 14 shirt, although being in the starting lineup.

On his 60th Birthday on 25th April 2007, Ajax retired the number 14 jersey, which in their best period was worn by Johan Cruyff. His contribution for the Ajax jersey is immeasurable, and he brought world fame to the club, said the president of the club, John Jaakke.

El Diego again:

Claudio Bellucci is a luckiest man in Naples. He became a last player ever to wear legendary No. 10 jersey, which was graced by Diego Maradona. Diego’s impact on Napoli can’t just be captured in words. As a tribute to him, Napoli retired No. 10 Jersey from 2001-02 season. But Maradona wants Napoli to being No. 10 out of retirement only if fellow countryman Ezequiel Lavezzi wants it. But Lavezzi has decided to keep his current No. 22 Jersey as he wants to establish himself as first Lavezzi rather than being second Maradona in Naples.

Maradona is no less than God in Naples and has his shrines in the city. Every place you go, has Maradona picture, poster or statue. Although Napoli has retired No. 10, not all the fans agree with this this decision. Many of them believe that young players always should have a burning desire in them to be successful and should have an aim to wear No. 10 jersey in their life.

The Divine Ponytail:

After a disappointing season with Inter in 1999-00 and being left out of Italian National Squad, Roberto Baggio decided to resurrect his career with small team Brescia.

Baggio joined Brescia at the start of 2000-01 season and helped them to achieve a respectable 8th place. In 01-02 season, he tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee and had a lengthy absence.

He played his last game on 16 May 2004 at the San Siro against Milan. In the 88th minute, Brescia coach Gianni De Biasi subbed Baggio off so he could get his curtain call. The 80,000 present at the San Siro gave him a standing ovation. He scored 45 goals in his 4-year tenure with Brescia and they decided to pay their respect by retiring his No. 10 Jersey.

Curious Case at AC Milan:

AC Milan became the first team in Europe to have two No.s retired, when they retired Paolo Maldini’s No. 3 jersey after he hung up his boots after his 25 year stint with Milan. They had already retired Franco Baresi’s No. 6 jersey as a respect to his 20 year service. Both Maldini and Baresi have spent their career only at Milan.

Apparently Maldini’s jersey has been semi retired. His sons Christian (15) and Daniel (10) have already been signed by AC Milan’s youth team. Paolo has given his consent to bring the shirt out of retirement if anyone of them makes it to AC Milan’s first team. So he has made sure there’ll only be a Maldini wearing No. 3 jersey.

Seven clubs in England and Scotland have retired a number, but most as a result of a player's sudden death. Hartlepool (Michael Maidens, No. 25), Manchester City (Marc-Vivien Foe, No. 23), QPR (Ray Jones, No. 31), Wycombe (Mark Philo, No14) and Aberdeen (Hicham Zerouali, No20 and who also wore No. 0) have all withdrawn numbers in the wake of tragedy.

West Ham too, has retired No.6 shirt's withdrawal as a tribute to Bobby Moore.

Usually fans that are also referred as a “twelfth man” can get their share in the team’s history in a unique way. Many teams dedicate a number to their fans. The most common number for this practice is 12. Some of the teams who have retired No. 12 are, Sparta Prague, Portsmouth, Bayern Munich, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Lazio, Parma, PSV Eindhoven, Fenerbahce (had to be) and Lech Poznań (remember their goal celebration?).

Heartwarming Tale:

Undoubtedly, an award for most romantic number story goes to Hungary’s Ferencváros TC.

Hungarian legendary goalkeeper Gyula Grosics nicknamed Black Panther, who was a part of Hungary’s Golden Team of 1950s, played for Budapest Honvéd FC along with Ferenc Puskás. After an ill fated South American tour of 1957 where the club was declared as invalid by FIFA, Ferenc Puskás signed for Real Madrid, but political pressure forced Grosics to return home.

Although Grosics wanted to play for Hungary’s most prestigious club Ferencváros TC, he was transferred to modest provincial outfit Tatabanya against his wishes as Hungarian authorities had opposed his move to Ferencváros. He ended his career with Tatabanya in 1962 with a massive regret of never being able to play for Ferencváros.

46 years after his retirement, Ferencváros decided to amend this mistake.

In 2008 officials at the club organized a friendly match against Sheffield United and signed Grosics to allow him to appear on their team sheet at least once.

Before the kickoff, 82 year old Grosics lined up with a squad dressed in his usual black, with his white hair slicked back. He took up position between the posts and got a touch on the ball before being substituted for regular keeper Adam Holczer.

After the game, Ferencvaros retired the No.1 shirt in his honor and, every year, his name features on the list of players which the club sends to the Hungarian Football Association.

Till date Grosics is still a registered member of the club. Forty-six years on from his retirement, Gyula Grosics’ dream had finally come true.

What's your Number?