First off, a confession. Here at this blog, we’re awful snobs with an inflated sense of self-worth.
If you read any article about numbering in football, the chances are that it will include a reference to Ivan Zamorano putting a plus between the digits on his number 18 shirt at Inter as he was piqued at having to switch so that Ronaldo could wear 9. Mention will also be made about the the 1978 World Cup final being played between two teams who had alphabetical numbering (only half-right) and there’ll probably be some reference to Nicklas Bendtner’s number 52 as well (it’s the cover pic on the @squadnos Twitter account but that’s more taking the piss out of him than anything else).
We wanted to go further than the usual surface-scratching, to provide something different, something informative and also interesting. Some of the things always mentioned in the identikit articles on numbers are important, though, and, in the interests of fairness, they must be examined at some stage too. We will start with one of those now, viz. the alphabetical numbering, part of a wider examination of World Cup systems. It warrants special attention as, for so long, the Mundial was our only exposure to squad numbers.
Okay, let’s start with the first instance of a team numbered alphabetically at the World Cup. Not the Netherlands or Argentina, but rather Chile, France, Italy and Switzerland in 1966. France and Switzerland made concessions for goalkeepers, 1, 21 and 22 in the case of France while the Swiss had 1, 12 and 22. Chile attacker Pedro Araya had the distinction of being the first outfielder to wear 1 at a World Cup while Italy’s method may have gone unnoticed or misinterpreted.
At the time, many countries had their goalkeepers as the first two or three players numerically, and coincidentally Enrico Albertosi and Roberto Anzolin wore 1 and 2. The third keeper, Pierluigi Pizzaballa was 18. Of those four countries, only Italy were in Mexico in 1970 and this time they seemed to have no joined-up approach – 2, 3, 4, 5 and 10 were defenders, 6, 7, 8 and 9 were midfielders and 11 was an attacker. No other country went alphabetical but in 1974 that style was seen again.
Argentina gave their goalkeepers 1, 12 and 21 but everybody else was alphabetical – apparently, there had been disagreements about who’d wear what – and the Netherlands also tried it (insert clichéd line about it being appropriate that numbers didn’t represent positions in Total Football). Surnames with ‘van’ (which means ‘of’) or ‘de’ (‘the’) were considered as beginning with the first letter of the next word, so Wim van Hanegam was 3. Only one surname began with any of the first six letters of the alphabet but, as that was Johan Cruyff and he wanted 14, Ruud Geels wore 1. Captain Cruyff was the only exception.
In 1978, Argentina went the whole hog so midfielder Nolberto Alonso was 1, with goalkeepers Hector Baley and Ubaldo Fillol 3 and 5 respectively. First-choice goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed retained 8 for the Dutch but that was because the survivors from ’74 played in the same numbers but otherwise there was no pattern. Back-up goalkeeper Piet Schrijvers wore 1.
Alphabetical numbering would last for two more World Cups, but never again would it be practised in an undiluted form. England got in on the act for Spain ’82 (true to form, 16 years after the trend began) but 1, 13 and 22 were goalkeepers and captain Kevin Keegan was allowed to wear his favoured 7. Argentina didn’t make goalkeepers exempt – Fillol was 7 now – also allowed a key player to deviate as Diego Maradona would have been 12 but he was allowed to swap with Patricio Hernandez so that he could take 10. The very reason the country had introduced the system was being ignored.
For Mexico ’86, the discrepancy was highlighted further, as Daniel Passarella demanded 6 and Jorge Valdano sought to wear 11. Maradona was again 10 but otherwise the rest of the squad – those who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak up for themselves, in other words – were done alphabetically. We suppose that it should be recorded that Argentina managed to win this World Cup despite the fraying of the fabric of their numbering.
If you look at the 1990 Argentinean squad, on first glance it might appear alphabetical but 2 was midfielder Sergio Batista and striker Abel Balbo was 3 with Jose Basualdo 4. There might be some logic there but we’ll have to examine that further.
Edit: The 1990 scheme was similar to the Netherlands in 1978, in that the survivors from ’86 retained their numbers, though, unlike the Dutch, everybody else was alphabetical. The exception to this was goalkeeper Nery Pumpido, who switched from 18 to 1 as the netminders were 1, 12 and 22. The players to buck the alphabetical trend were Batista, Jorge Burruchaga (7), Maradona, Ricardo Giusti (14) and Oscar Ruggeri (19).