Evolution of the football shirt number

Evolution of the football shirt number


We delve in to the numbers game, when they first appeared and why the football shirt and the number on the back are now inextricably linked.

Numbers on football shirts were first worn in professional games in 1928 when Arsenal took on Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury. When first introduced the numbering was simply a 1 to 11 configuration representing the 2-3-5 formation of a players position on the pitch.

It wasn’t until the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland that football shirt numbers were worn for the duration of a competition, again using the traditional system with number 1 as the goalkeeper up to number 11 left midfield or wing.

Legend has it that the, at the time unknown, 17 year-old Brazilian, Pele was assigned his, now famous, number 10 by a FIFA administrator.  Just before the World Cup of 1958, when submitting their team, the Brazilian officials simply forgot to attach a number to each player, hence it was left to an administrator to do so.  This is also the reason why the goalkeeper, Gilmar was given the number 3

World Cup 1974 LogoGradually over the ensuing years the 1-11 format was abandoned. During the 1974 World Cup, Argentina decided to number their players alphabetically according to their surname with the exception of the goalkeepers who were given 1, 12 and 21.

This continued for two subsequent World Cups, however in 1978 the keeper was included in the alphabetical line up, hence the Argentinian goalkeeper, Ubaldo Fillol, wore number 12 in 1974, 5 in 1978 and 7 in 1982!  

MaradonaInterestingly this system was disrupted for one player during the 1982 World Cup when Diego Maradona who, alphabetically should have been wearing the number 12, but expressed his strong preference for the number 10!

But it was only at the start of the 1993/94 English Premier League season that squad numbers became the rule and with the ever changing formations creating new roles in football, numbering has become a more and more fluid affair ever since.

Although numbers can help referees and fans distinguish between players on the pitch, their evolution means that, in some cases they are now chosen to send a message or deliver a deeper meaning.

AppieOne example is the squad number 34 which has been adopted by Justin Kluivert, Philippe Sandler, Amin Younes and Kevin Diks in tribute to Appbelhak Nouri.

Nouri, a promising young Ajax player, collapsed during a pre-season friendly and was left with severe brain damage. His fellow teams mates now wear the number 34 at their new clubs to show their continued support for him.

Lucy Staniforth Wears Number 37 at Birmingham City FCLucy Staniforth the Birmingham City and England midfielder chose the number 37 in tribute to her brother, again a promising young player, who died after turning to drink and drugs to self-medicate when arthritis curtailed his football career.

Alvaro Morata, the Spanish forward, changed his number whilst at Chelsea from 9 to 29 when his twin boys were born on the 29th July.  Giafranco Buffon also elected to change his 77_retro_footballnumber.  Not without controversy, whilst at Parma he went from number 1 to number 88, said to signify four balls, to number 77, the year of his birth.

Tommy_oar_wearing_121Socceroos’, Tommy Oar was unable to choose his favoured 11 so plumped for 121 as it represented 11 x 11. 

And the desire to wear a certain number can impact heavily on the game. West Ham’s Paulo Futre refused to wear the number 

Paulo_Futre16 shirt he was handed and, when given an ultimatum by Harry Redknapp, he chose to leave before the match had even begun. Shortly afterwards lawyers were brought in to negotiate the number 10 and he got the number he wanted!

Then there are the ‘modifiers’, those players who choose a number but change it in some way to reflect another meaning.

Zamorano credit Dan_The_Football_Man @Dan_TFMIn the case of Zamorano’s shirt at Inter Milan this involved the use of a plus sign. Originally number 9 he gave this number up to Ronaldo and went for 18 instead but modified it with the addition of an addition! With this in place the 1+8 became 9 again.

Infamous keeper and vegan footballer, Carlos Roa, also chose to use a mathmatical symbol to convert his 13 in to a 1.3  Previously known for his strong, Seventh Day Adventist, religious beliefs, when asked about it Roa is said to have explained that the point, placed between the numbers 1 and 3, represents Jesus and the Most Holy Trinity.

Other number changes tend to involve one off events or publicity campaigns.

Steven Gerrard and James Beattie donned 08, during the Merseyside Derby of March 2006, to celebrate Liverpool being awarded the European Capital of Culture for 2008.

Usain_Bolt_9.58Brazilian international superstar, Neymar Jnr wore the numbers 100 and 200 to commemorate his 100th and 200th matches for Santos and Usain Bolt wears 9.58 - his 100 meter world record time - when he plays in the Unicef World XI for Soccer Aid matches.

Number_10Meanwhile some numbers are ‘retired’ by a football team to honour a particularly outstanding player such as the number 6 worn by West Ham’s Bobby Moore, the 14 shirt donned by Ajax’s Johan Cruyff and Paulo Maldini’s number 3 at AC Milan.  The same is true of the infamous 10, retired by Napoli, to respect the tremendous influence Maradona had on the club.   

Del Piero on the other hand, refused the Juventus board's offer to retire his number 10 stating that "I've really had so much that I would never want it to be retired, this way, every child can dream one day of wearing it.







With number 12 often being the number of the fans, some clubs, such as Portsmouth FC, Dynamo Kiev and Bayern Munich have even retired that in order to pay tribute to the loyalty of their followers.

In Spain however retired numbers are curtailed by the one to twenty-five rule, meaning that there’s only 25 for any squad to choose from.

You can customise your www.oldschoolfootball.co.uk retro, football T shirts with any number you wish by clicking the customising tab in the product listing. Choose a number, and a name if you wish, and just add to checkout.

And if you want to know more about the shirt numbers game take a look at www.squadnumbers.com   Dennis Hurley, a football shirt number enthusiast, has taken the subject to a whole new level with his rather niche but totally fascinating website.

Join the conversation on Twitter too.  Follow us @OSFshop and hear more about shirt numbers @squadnos   https://twitter.com/squadnos and @ShouldBe1to11 https://twitter.com/ShouldBe1to11

Would you like to go back to the more traditional assignment or do you like the stories behind players numbers and why they choose them?

Let us know what your thoughts..….

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Hi Tom.
Numbers were being used here and there during the 1930s (like for the FA Cup in 1933) but it wasn’t until the 1939/40 season that the league required player numbers to be worn.


Just watched a 1939 movie. The Great Arsenal Mystery. In a match shown, neither Arsenal or their opponents wore shirt numbers. Was this usual then, or was it simply for purposes of the movie?

Tom B

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