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Squad Numbers[]

Ronaldo 99


Squad numbers (or ‘numbers’ as they were formerly known) are foot-high demarcatory numerals worn on the backs of footballers’ shirts to enable easy identification and, increasingly, ridicule. Whereas in the olden days numbers were traditionally denoted by a player’s position on the field of play (and thus by common sense), they have in recent years become increasingly trivialised to the brink of madness and beyond.


Numbers, in the form of the most basic integers, have been around since approximately 30,000 BC, though it wasn’t until the rise of the Babylonians that they first found their way onto the reverse of the rough cloth garments worn by the participants of the primitive ball games popular in circa 1600 BC Lower Mesopotamia. The original numbering of 1 to 11 apparently stems from this era, with a surviving inscription quoting Babylon’s King Hammurabi (ca. 1728 – 1686 BC), while inspecting the teams before a derby clash between the provinces of Akkad and Sumer, as asking the Sumerian Captain Ibi-Sinn “So infidel, who is the shitbag with the No.54? Not really a left-back’s number is it? What a cock.” This high-profile dressing-down quickly passed into infamy, and it would be several millennia before anyone again dared adopt a number of such self-conscious wackiness.

1974: The Tide Turns[]

The 1974 FIFA World Cup in West Germany was in many ways a footballing Year Zero as Johan Cruyff’s stylish, revolutionary, Holland team rewrote much of the sport’s tactical orthodoxy, blazing their way to the final and a stylish, revolutionary, but depressingly inevitable defeat to the grimly efficient Teutonic hosts. Much more significant that the rise of Total Football however was the popularity of Cruyff’s unusual choice of number, with his soon-to-be-iconic No.14 jersey remaining even now the shirt of choice for misguided kitsch-hungry twats in student unions across the civilised world. Though the Dutch legend couldn’t have known it at the time, Cruyff’s bold choice opened the floodgates for the numerical insanity which now plagues modern football. His own profuse regret at the consequences of his actions was plain for all to see when, as Barcelona manager, he attended the 1994 press conference marking the unveiling of Romanian ace Gheorghe Hagi, only to have his new signing ask to be assigned the No.72 shirt. Cruyff’s response, vividly captured by the attendant Spanish Press, was to stare resolutely into the middle distance in absolute silence for around three minutes, while a single trickle of blood emanated from his right ear.

1990s and Beyond[]

The last two decades have seen shirt numbers become a sick parody of what they once were, with barely a single number left unsullied. It has become increasingly commonplace for players to wear numbers ill-befitting their role on the pitch, and for clubs to assign shirts steeped in historical significance to players steeped in underwhelming mediocrity. Worse still, some players seem to now be choosing numbers with the express intention of infuriating football purists. Some notably heinous offences committed in recent years include:

  • Arsenal giving their No.10 shirt to hulking gallic crybaby William Gallas.
  • Chelsea assigning what should be a cherished institution, their No.9 shirt, first to a laughing-stock of a defender in Khalid Boulahrouz and then to inexplicably ginger midfield nobody Steve Sidwell.
  • Liverpool signing Robbie Keane from Spurs for upwards of £20,000,000, loudly trumpeting the greatness of his illustrious predecessors as the Reds’ No.7, and then promptly ignoring him for six months, demoting him from the first team to the bench, then from the bench to light clerical duties, before packing him back off to London.
  • Tubby Brazilian geniuses Ronaldinho and Ronaldo wearing No.80 and No.99 respectively at AC Milan, having both claimed that anything smaller would have looked ludicrous on the back of their voluminous XXXL shirts.

Surely the worst offender however was Chilean simpleton and Inter Milan No.9 Ivan Zamorano, who reacted to Ronaldo’s 1997 arrival at the San Siro and the subsequent loss of his number by wearing a shirt marked ‘1+8’ which, as any mathematician will tell you, is just not the same. While Zamorano’s folly was thought by many to represent the event horizon of squad number lunacy, it has since been rumoured that his efforts are to be eclipsed by a new rash of even more insane examples. In a July 2009 interview with the Observer Sport Magazine, annoyingly good chest-waxing Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard confessed that he secretly stopped wearing the No.8 shirt in 2004, replacing it unnoticed with ‘∞’, the mathematical symbol for infinity turned through 90°. Lampard attempted to deflect criticism over the affair by pointing out that bit-part teammate Salomon Kalou is intending to spend the 2009-10 Premier League season wearing a shirt with ‘π’ on the back. When asked to comment, Chelsea coach Ray Wilkins defended the Ivorian, stating that “Salomon, well he’s only a young lad, and like a lot of young players he’s had his head turned by the old mathematical constant representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter in Euclidian space.”