What’s In A Number?
Every sport has certain conventions when it comes to jersey numbers, although they’re generally flexible. In American football, quarterbacks have their pick of the numbers 1 through 19 while running backs wear 20 through 49, although cornerbacks can also wear these numbers—confusion is not generally a problem since CBs aren’t on the field at the same time as WRs. And there have been many, many exceptions to football’s rules, including Keyshawn Johnson wearing the number 19—although he had to pay a regular fine for wearing it.
In basketball, numbers have less a positional significance (although there are unwritten rules about big men having bigger numbers) and more a cultural significance. LeBron James switched from 23 to 6 because of 23’s association with Michael Jordan and Kobe’s switch from 8 to 24 seemed to hint at a one-upping of Jordan, although I’m not sure that was ever made concrete. Players like Gilbert Arenas and Russell Westbrook have taken the number 0 as a gesture to proving their critics wrong, a way of saying, “This is all you expect from me and I’m going to blow you away.”
Soccer, though, is interesting for its blend of positional and cultural significance when it comes to squad numbers. Back in the game’s early days, the numbers were very directly positional. Their first use in Europe in 1928 was when Arsenal played Chelsea and had them numbered as such:
2. Right full back (right side centre back)
3. Left full back (left side centre back)
4. Right half back (right side defensive midfield)
5. Centre half back (centre defensive midfield)
6. Left half back (left side defensive midfield)
7. Outside right (right winger)
8. Inside right (attacking midfield)
9. Centre forward
10. Inside left (attacking midfield)
11. Outside left (left winger)
So while position players in football have a spread of integers to choose from, in soccer, specific numbers came to be associated with specific positions and roles. It’s become a bit looser now, but Minnesota United’s goalkeeper, Mitch Hildebrant, still wears the number 1, for example.
But no squad number is more significant in soccer than the number 10. Worn by Pele, Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldhino, Messi and many other greats, the number is associated not just with the position of attacking midfielder (or in the Italian, trequartistas) but with the role of playmaker. As the hinge of the offense, the archetypal number 10 receives the ball at midfield and brings it forward, looking for attackers in space and creating openings with deft dribbling and passing. It doesn’t seem unfair to call the trequartista the point guard or the quarterback of the soccer team.
As such, the number 10 has become a symbol, something that players feel they have to become worthy of or earn. Down at its root, the rich, multi-layered significance of the number speaks to questions of position and role, yes, but also to the way we assign value in sports, to what we believe is important.
As our understanding of what a 10 does becomes canonical, it opens up the possibility for shifts that play off that understanding. So now we have “false 10s” like Lionel Messi who don’t stay behind the forwards but instead drift wide with the ball to create mismatches or open up the center of the pitch. By going against their accepted role, they redefine it. Like stretch 4s in basketball (power forwards who can shoot the 3-pointer like Kevin Love or Ryan Anderson) or running QBs like Warren Moon or Donovan McNabb in their younger days, false 10s are weapons because they fall into the cracks of the game itself.
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