Player movements, especially during the two transfer windows, from one team to another always come with hoops to jump through from agreeing on wages to passing the medical. One detail often overlooked is making sure the new player can find a suitable number.
The challenge is the same for national teams with players returning from club duties many wearing the same numbers with different teams in the domestic leagues.
This was not always the case. Numbers were first used in Europe in 1928. And once player jersey numbers became common place, life was much simpler when players were handed a number and just happy to be making a living playing the game. The goalkeeper was handed the #1 jersey, defenders had #2-5, central midfielders the #6 and #8, wingers usually the #7 and #11 with the go-to players up-front wearing the #9 or famous #10 jersey.
Not so today and so problems can arise when a current player is wearing the ‘lucky’ number of the new signing. The solutions can be very creative from adding numbers together, to the player falling back on a ‘lucky’ number used earlier in his career, to settling on the player’ birth year, to other out of thin air solutions.
The #1 is where we start the look at crazy soccer numbers over the years…not so fast. Hicham Zerouali took it back one by using the #0 for Aberdeen in 2000. The Moroccan striker was nicknamed ‘zero’ which made the number choice logical if not unusual. The stint in the #0 lasted only 1 season, however, as the Scottish Premier League and English Premier League banned the number the following season.
Goalkeepers are the traditional #1 but that it not always the case. The highest profile field player taking the #1 was Argentina’s Osvaldo ‘Ossie’ Ardiles. He was part of La Albiceleste’s 1978 World Cup winning squad (when he wore #2) but it was 4-years later at the 1982 World Cup that he donned the #1 jersey. From 1978 through 1986 Argentina opted to hand out numbers alphabetically based on the player’s surname. In 1978, Norberto Alonso beat Ardiles to the #1. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder wore it in 1982 with bench player Sergio Almiron taking top honors in 1986. The rule only went so far as Diego Maradona was allowed to switch numbers to make sure he had the #10.
More recently Pantelis Kafes wore the #1 jersey for Olympiakos and AEK Athens. The midfielder spent time on trial with the Philadelphia Union in 2013 but did not make the roster.
Jorge Campos was known for his flashy goalkeeper jerseys so it should come as no surprise that he was not just going to settle for the #1 jersey. And why should he as the Mexico international and Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper was known to dribble the ball out from goal sometimes reaching and passing the midfield line. He started his career as a striker and wore the #9 jersey so when possible he wore the #9. He sometimes had to settle for the #19 jersey.
David Beckham is one player in the history of Manchester United to make the #7 jersey his own. But with his move to Real Madrid in 2003 as the latest galacticos signing, team legend Raul was standing in his way for the #7 jersey. The England midfielder took an interesting approach to selecting his new number opting for #23 because the Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan was making it famous. Maybe the future Los Angeles Galaxy player knew a move to the U.S. was in his future so best to start building a fan base stateside.
Clint Dempsey is known for his #2 jersey. The number makes sense as his rapper alias is ‘The Deuce’ but the #2 goes back further than his rapping career. Dempsey wore the #2 as a kid but as he got older switched to #11. He could not get that number when he went to college at Furman so went back to #2 and kept that number with his first professional contract with the New England Revolution. In 2007 Fulham of the English Premier League came calling and agreed to a $4 million transfer fee with MLS, a record fee at the time. The #2 jersey was not available as Maritz Volz was wearing the number so Dempsey went with the ‘only other number that was kind of available that similar’ and selected the #23 for his time with the Cottagers. He switched back to #2 when he transferred to Tottenham. Sorry Jordan, Dempsey’s #23 was not in hopes of playing ‘like Mike.’
Asamoah Gyan’s lucky number is 3. After signing with Sunderland in 2010 and the number was not available he doubled up to wear #33.
Yuto Nagatomo, who regularly wears the #5 jersey for the Japan national team, did not have that option when he signed with Inter Milan in 2011 so he just doubled up his lucky number 5 and took #55.
Bixente Lizarazu helped France win the 1998 World Cup wearing the #3 jersey but decided in 2005 to take the unusual position and wear #69 for Bayern Munich. The midfielder was forced to defend the number saying it was the year of his birth as well as his weight in kilograms and height of 1.69m.
Gianluigi Buffon got into trouble early in his career for selecting #88. The issue was not that the goalkeeper had strayed from the traditional #1 but that the 8 is a neo-Nazi symbol for ‘H’ with the 88 seen as being ‘Heil Hitler.’ The connection was partially fueled by Buffon earlier wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Boia chi molla” – “Death to cowards” which was commonly used by fascists during the time of Benito Mussolini. Buffon defended himself saying at a press conference to explain the number; “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. And this season I will have to have balls to get back my place in the Italy team.” And the #88 was not his first choice, the keeper explained he wanted 00 but the league would not allow it. They did not allow the number 01 either. Buffon wanted that number because ‘it was the number on the General Lee car in the TV series the Dukes of Hazzard.’ Just the good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm…
Ronaldo was no longer the top player in the world when he made his move to AC Milan in 2007 so could not dictate his number and graciously accepted the #99 jersey for the Rossoneri. Rumors at the time hinted that it was for the Brazilians love of 99 Flake ice cream but really it was just the best way to double up on his first love, the number 9. Ronaldo also wore the #99 jersey in a match with Corinthians celebrating the club’s 99th anniversary.
U.S. men’s national team fans will have fond memories of knocking 3 goals past Portugal’s Victor Baia at the 2002 World Cup and will correctly recall he was wearing the #1 jersey that day. But the goalkeeper was fond of wearing the #99 jersey. He is the only player to wear the #99 in a major European competition pulling it on as Porto won the 2003/04 Champions League.
Cristiano Lucarelli also wore the #99 for part of his career. The number was a tribute to the left-wing group Brigate Autonome Livornesi which was founded in 1999. The admitted communist was passionate about his politics and brought them on the field in more ways than just the number on his jersey.
Adolfo Bautista has a big personality so it probably fit that for some of his stint with Chivas de Guadalajara he wore the #100 jersey.
Thomas Oar pulled on the #121 jersey for Australia in an Asian Cup qualifying match back in 2010. The only instances we could find of a 3-digit number in an international match. FIFA does not allow 3-digit numbers in major tournaments. The midfielder wore a more traditional #11 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Club America’s Diego Reyes was found of the #134 jersey early in his career.
The highest number to make it on the back of a soccer jersey is Rogerio Ceni’s #618. The jersey was a commemorative jersey as the goalkeeper was making his record setting 618th appearance for his club, Santos. A record jersey number is not the only high mark Ceni holds. He has scored over 100 goals, all from the penalty spot or free kicks, making him the most prolific goalkeeper in the history of the game. He had a jersey made up for his 700th match and still bucks the trend regularly wearing #01.
Add It Up
When a player can’t get their preferred number sometimes the best solution is to pick a 2 digit number that adds up to the first choice number. Ivan Zamorano was Inter Milan’s #9 with Ronaldo wearing the #10 jersey before Roberto Baggio was signed in 1998. The Italy international was handed the #10 jersey which then saw Ronaldo grab the #9 from Zamorano leaving the Chilean international without a roster number. He made the most of it and opted for the #18 jersey inserting a ‘+’ between the 2 digits mathematically making him the #9.
The look has been copied. Clinton Morrison wore the #10 jersey at Crystal Palace but could not get the number when he moved to Coventry City so during the 2008/09 campaign wore #19 with the add it up + mark getting him to #10.
Ade Akinbiyi, who wore a very normal #14 while with the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer, was not so conventional when signing with Crystal Palace in 2002. The number 10 jersey was taken on his arrival so he selected #55 with the small + between the 2 digits.
Mario Balotelli’s #45 adds up to 9 in a very round-about way. When the forward was starting with the Inter Milan the younger players were handed jerseys ‘No 36 to No 50’and Balotelli joked ‘I took No 45 because I was joking that four plus five is nine.’ He scored in all 4 of his first matches and has stuck with the number with Manchester City, AC Milan, and now Liverpool.
Indonesian international Firman Utina as pulled on the #87 with small + between the digits so he can feel like he is wearing his favored #15 jersey.
Antonio Cassano opted to wear #99 with Parma saying the reason was that 18 was one of his favorite numbers. The player is most remembered wearing the #10 jersey but that can’t go on forever these days.
It’s My Birth Year!
Why try and pick a new number if you can just settle on using your birth year as your number? That is what happened at AC Milan in 2008/09. The Serie A club signed Ronaldinho from Barcelona, Mathieu Flamini from Arsenal and Andriy Shevchenko from Chelsea but their first choice numbers 10, 16 and 7, respectively, were already held by Clarence Seedorf, Željko Kalac and Alexandre Pato. Fortunately the players were not born in the same year as they each went with the year of their birth, 80, 84 and 76 respectively.