Christian Abbiati wishes you a happy new year

New Year’s Day is 01/01, so perhaps it should be made a special day for goalkeepers.

One netminder who never seemed to carry 1 on his back, however, was the Italian Christian Abbiati, who could lodge a justifiable claim to be the patron saint of squad numbers.

Having been with Milan since 1998, he has donned six different numbers. When he made his name in 1998-99, he wore 12 as he came into the side when Sebastiano Rossi got injured, helping the Rossoneri to win the title.


He kept 12 until the end of the 2000-01 season. For 2001-02, however, the number was given to Valerio Fiori – who had had 40 for the previous two seasons – with Abbiati moving to 18.


After another two seasons, he changed once more in the summer of 2003, to 77, representing the year of his birth, 1977.


That experiment lasted just a year, however, and he was registered as 17 for the 2004-05 season. With the Brazilian Dida now the first-choice keeper, Abbiati’s game-time was limited, meaning that a good picture of him in 17 was hard to source.


Oddly, it wasn’t the only number he wore that season, either. For the Champions League, he was assigned number 46 (we haven’t been able to find out if someone else had 17 – if they did, they didn’t play in the CL). When Dida was struck by a flare in the quarter-final clash ‘away to’ Inter at the San Siro, he had to leave the field, with Abbiati replacing him.


Having played in the final Serie A game of the 2004-05 season against Palermo, when the first-choice players were rested ahead of the Champions League final against Liverpool, Abbiati wouldn’t appear for Milan for three years.

A loan spell at Genoa was aborted almost as soon as it had begun when they were relegated to Serie C1 due to match-fixing, but soon found himself joining Juventus on loan when Gianluigi Buffon suffered an injury which kept him out for the first half of the 2005-06 season. Abbiati spent 06-07 with Juve’s rivals Torino – he wore 32 with both Turin clubs – and then joined Atletico Madrid for 2007-08, wearing 13 there due to the Spanish league’s strict rules on goalkeeper numbers.

On his return to Milan in 2008, he was back in the original number 12:


In both 2008-09 and 2009-10, David Beckham wore 32 for Milan, but Abbiati inherited it for 2010-11 and still has it as 2016 dawns. As he’ll be 39 in July, it’s probably the number he’ll finish with – though we have to admit we’d love to see one last change.



Ireland’s forty shades of numbers

We’re aware of the irony, that this is called the Squad Numbers Blog but the curator prefers the older 1-11 style.

When squad numbers became ubiquitous, we accepted it under protest but comforted ourselves that at least international football retained the traditional numbering – with, of course, the exception of major finals, once so exotic because they were the only times we got to see high numbers.

Slowly, the status quo began to be eroded. We recall seeing Cameroon play in squad numbers for a friendly at Wembley in early 1991 but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that they began to proliferate in competitive qualifying games. France and then Spain were the first to adopt this as we recall but no doubt there were others. At least the consolation remained that England – the home of football – and our native Republic of Ireland stayed with 1-11. It was a source of pride that Ireland had been 1-11 in four of six European Championship finals games, comprising the 1988 and 2012 tournaments.

To their credit, England still do stay true to the way it should be, but apart from them and the Netherlands, everybody else seems to number their squad 1-23 for every game. The first time Ireland did this was their World Cup 2014 qualifier away to Kazakhstand, when Kevin Doyle (number 9) came on to help turn the game as a scarcely-deserved 2-1 win was achieved. Stephen Kelly (2) and James McClean (11) were also subs, with Jon Walters (12), Simon Cox (14) and Darren O’Dea (15) starting.

In the aftermath of that, we thought that Ireland’s 1-23 numbering was for ‘pairs’ of games, the two internationals scheduled for each break, but the recent Euro 2016 qualifiers belied this. It took a while for us to notice the inconsistencies but some are glaring from game to game, as you can see (black indicates a starting player, with the subs in red):


It’s interesting to note that the players who wore 1-11 for the opener against Georgia were all in situ for the last one, the play-off second leg against Bosnia & Herzegovina, though Robbie Brady was now wearing 19 instead of 11. He wore that as a sub against Georgia and then switched to 17 as McClean took 11 for the remainder of the campaign but it wasn’t until Brady donned 19 that he became a regular starter.

Jef Hendrick (8-13-21) was another who saw his number rise as he became more of an integral member of the team. In contrast, David Forde retained number 1 as he went from first-choice goalkeeper to second and then third choice, with captain Robbie Keane likewise welded to 10 despite losing his status. Shay Given initially had 23 as Forde’s back-up, but when he resumed in goal he wore 16 before injury against Germany saw Darren Randolph take up residency between the posts, 23 on his back.

Exactly why Jon Walters and Darron Gibson swapped 14 and 19 between the Georgia and Gibraltar games – which were part of the same break – is unclear, as is why Richard Keogh had to surrender 5 to Ciarán Clark, wearing 22 instead, when starting against Scotland away. By the end of the campaign, Keogh had 5 back and Clark was wearing 14 and then 12. Also strange is Wes Hoolahan wearing 20 throughout the campaign, except for the home game against Germany, when he had 11.

That match, with Seamus Coleman, Marc Wilson and Glenn Whelan unavailable saw their 2, 3 and 6 respectively taken by unused subs Paul McShane, Eunan O’Kane and David McGoldrick. Whelan had 6 whenever he was involved, missing only Germany at home and Scotland away, when Cyrus Christe wore it. He is a defender, so it was one of the rare examples of 6 not being worn by a midfielder for Ireland – perhaps the first time since Roy Keane inexplicably wore 4 against Lithuania in 1997.

The most numbers worn by one player? That’s Alex Pearce, who had (in order) 15, 21, 20, 5 and 4, without ever starting a game. Darron Gibson is next closest, with 19, 14, 20 and 18 on his back.

This is not soccer

We have in the past examined the origins of various numbering systems in football. The association variety is of course the main focus of this blog, but there’s no harm in looking at other codes from time to time. Today, the Rugby World Cup final takes place between New Zealand and Australia at Twickenham and so we felt it appropriate to examine how the shirt markings in that sport came to be settled on. There’s more to the story than you might think, too, and we are thankful to the Rugby Football History site and rugby historian extraordinaire John Griffiths for their help in assisting us. You might also like our sister site, International Rugby Shirts, which features all of the kits worn at the Rugby World Cup from 1987-2015.

Let’s start by first having a look at the layout of a modern rugby union team:


For the uninitiated, the top seven players are the backs. Number 15 is the full-back, 14 and 11 the wingers, 13 and 12 centres, 10 the out-half and 9 the scrum-half. The remaining eight are the forwards, who contest scrums. Number 1 is the loosehead prop, 2 is the hooker and 3 is the tighthead prop (he has players packing down either side of him while 1 only has an opponent to his right), 4 and 5 are the locks, 6 and 7 flankers and the number 8 is…the number 8.

Effectively, it’s the opposite philosophy of a 2-3-5 football team from the 1930s, with the backs wearing higher numbers and the ascension going from right to left. The numbering is fairly rigid, too – the system has been laid down in law since 1967 and, apart from some instances of the switching of the wingers (11 and 14) and the flankers (6 and 7), every team follows it.

Before the decision was taken to standardise things in ’67, there was a lot of autonomy given to sides to operate as they saw fit. Part of the reason for the freedom could stem from the original motivation of numbering in the 1890s in Australia and New Zealand. At the time, there was a busy cottage industry in the production of counterfeit match programmes and so, to encourage patrons to purchase the ‘official’ versions, players were assigned numbers.

The Wales-England game in Cardiff in 1922 was the first time that both teams in a Five Nations Championship game were numbered. Ireland and France followed, but, apart from a brief dalliance, Scotland held out. When King George V gently enquired of SFU (now SRU) President James Aikman Smith as to why the Scots were unnumbered, he was gruffly informed that it was a rugby match and a not a cattle sale. Most sides numbered numbered the full-back 1 or 15 and followed in a linear fashion, but John Griffiths points out that there were occasionally inconsistencies:

In the 1938 Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, for instance, the Scottish fly-half and scrum-half were numbered one and two; the full-back wore number 11 and the left-wing number 15. All totally illogical.

For a while, Wales opted not to field a number 13 and also had lettered, rather than numbered, shirts during the 1930s and 40s (see below for more). Another side to become associated with a lack of a 13 were Bath. In 1920, one of their players, Clifford Walwin, had sustained an injury on the pitch while wearing the number and subsequently died. Until the mandating of 1-15 by the RFU in the late 1990s, Bath’s centres were 12 and 14, the right winger 15 and the full-back 16. Richmond operated a similar system.

By the late 1950s, France and Ireland used a system similar to what we’re used to now. However, scrums packed differently in those days, with the flankers driving the second rows and the player between them ‘locking’ it, meaning he was generally known as the lock forward. Their forwards were numbered thus:


England, Scotland and Wales used the system seen below, beginning with 1 at full-back but starting the numbering of the forwards with the props rather than continuing from the scrum-half (7) to the lock forward. To this day, many match reports or team listings will go from 15-9 and then 1-8. Rugby league, which is 13-a-side, still uses a system like this too.


Scrummaging was changing, however. The traditional 3-2-3 was giving way to a 3-4-1 or 3-2-2-1, a new system developed in South Africa, where the lock forward was referred to as the “eighthman”. In New Zealand, that player was called the number 8 and they made the step to have him wear the same, switching around the numbering of the forwards:


It was for South Africa’s tour of the Northern Hemisphere in 1960/61 that the rest of the Five Nations countries fell in with the French/Irish numbering, and then six years later it was written into International Rugby Board law. John Griffiths relates that it wasn’t plain sailing, though:

The Springboks immediately misinterpreted this. Look at the 1968 and 1974 Bok jerseys in the Tests against the Lions – they numbered their wings before their centres. Thus 11 was left wing but 12 right wing; then 13 was left centre with 14 as the other centre!

South Africa also went against the grain in the back row of the scrum. Numbers 6 and 7 were referred to as the left and right flankers respectively when the numbering was standardised. Nowadays 6 is the blindside flanker and 7 is the openside, except in South Africa, where the opposite pertains.

There are occasionally other exceptions, like Australia’s David Campese retaining 11 when he switched to the right wing later in his career and both Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland) and Will Greenwood (England) wearing 13 when playing at inside centre despite it being the number for the outside centre.

Lettering of shirts was practised by New Zealand when they first met South Africa in 1921, but Wales were the country which became most associated with it. The pattern was the same as the system which had 1 as full-back:


By the 1950s, Wales had reverted to numbers but Bristol maintained the same system until being forced to change when the RFU issed the edict instructing everyone to use the more common style. Another club which had letters until that change were Leicester. Their lettering was along the lines of the modern numbering, with the loosehead prop wearing A and the full-back O. One difference was that the number 8 wore G (the seventh letter) and the openside flanker was H.


In 2010, Leicester resurrected lettering for games against touring sides. In addition, for all games the players’ shirts carry a letter above the club crest, corresponding to the number on their backs.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that replacements in rugby union also follow a numbering pattern. Originally, the numbering began with backs. A previous article by John Griffiths lays out the way this changed:

Given that starting fifteens were numbered upwards from front-row to fullback, the logical step of similarly numbering replacements upwards from 16 to 22 in Tests from front-row to the backs was taken by Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Wales and France at the start of the 2000 Six Nations. England soon fell into line and Romania, Argentina and South Africa did so for their June Tests the same year.

Australia and New Zealand finally followed the convention of numbering replacements from the front-row cover (16 and 17) upwards for the autumn Tests in 2000 (when Wales, curiously, reverted to the old convention of labelling the back reserves from 16 upwards for their games with Samoa and the United States yet numbered from 16 upwards from the front-row reserves for their final match of 2000, against South Africa). Since then Test teams have (almost) universally numbered their replacements along the same lines as their starting fifteens: lowest number upwards corresponding with the front-row through to the backs.

Nowadays, to ensure safe scrummaging, teams in top-class rugby must carry replacements for each player in the front row. (an oddity is that 16 is often the reserve hooker rather than following the pattern of the first 15). It gives a top-heavy look to the bench if we examine the positions covered by each replacement, with number 23 required to be a versatile back, though it’s often the case that 22 can play there too:


Kanu believe it?

At club level, Nwankwo Kanu often wore number 9 for Ajax, fitting into their traditional system.

When he joined Internazionale, he was given 11 as his squad number while his move to Arsenal in 1998-99 saw him don 25, with which he became heavily associated. However, at international level, the digit on his back was most unusual.


Let’s be honest, 4 isn’t often seen being worn by strikers. A predecessor of Kanu at Arsenal, Kevin Campbell, did wear it a few times in 1991-92, and Steve Nicol played up front for Liverpool on very rare occasions, but, beyond that, examples are (rightly) rare. Kanu’s wearing of 4 is a regular feature of those articles which look at unusual numbers, while he has also inspired unemployed men to copy him.

How and why did he wear it? Well, it seems it was a tribute to two heroes, as he explains himself:

I think I was comfortable wearing jersey number 4. My older brother, who was somebody l looked up to, wore number 4. Big Boss [Stephen] Keshi, one of my idols, also wore number 4 and if you check this number, if you are not intelligent and smart you cannot wear it.

“If I have a player wearing 4 and he is not intelligent, I will take the shirt from him and give it to another person. Number 10 is meant for superstars and it is the choice of everybody but not everyone can get it. So if you want to be a superstar, you go for number 10.

“I wasn’t a superstar when I started but God made me a superstar eventually. For me, number 4 is my choice because my big brother was wearing it and he was somebody I wanted to be like.

“Keshi also made me to like the number because he is a leader and showed that quality in the Super Eagles and I wanted to be like him too. So it was number 4 that was my preferred choice.

Former Nigerian captain Keshi was a defender and so 4 was natural choice for him:

When I was growing up, I had three idols. They were playing in the same position and I was studying them. One of them was Franz Beckenbauer, the others were Bobby Moore, the late England captain, and a former Nigerian captain that I took over from, Christian Chukwu.

“Bobby Moore wore number 6, Beckenbauer had number 4 and Chukwu was number 5. I had seen their style of play and I wanted to be part of them. I had a coach from Yugoslavia. I was in the junior team then and he said to me: “Hey Keshi, I want you to wear number 4.

“I looked at him and [thought], ‘How does he know that I am contemplating on which number to wear?” That was how I just picked number 4.

“One of my sons, if he’s playing, he wants to wear number 4. My daughter, if she’s playing, she wants to wear number 4. So it’s just a number I just love to have.

Baba Rahman installs himself on our list of enemies

Long-time fans of this blog – those who preferred the earlier stuff, as opposed to all the rest of you Johnny Come Latelies – will recall that the first entry regarded a numerical switcheroo at Chelsea to allow Didier Drogba to take his favoured number 11 upon his return to the club.

Drogba has of course since departed and number 11 is now occupied by Juan Cuadrado, which would suit his position if he ever made it on to the pitch. That wasn’t the only example of musical chairs at the Blues last summer – when the signings of Filipe Luis and Kurt Zouma were announced, it was initially stated that left-back Luis would wear 5 and Zouma, a centre-back, would be 3.

Thankfully, sense prevailed but, a year on, it looks like sanity is losing the battle. With Luis departed after struggling to make an impact ahead of Cesar Azpilicueta – our favourite player from another club, so forgiven for wearing 28 – he left and Baba Rahman was signed as his replacement.

Obviously, the number 3 was free and seemingly the logical choice for left-back Rahman, but he was announced as being given 17 (with ‘Baba’ on the back rather than ‘Rahman’, in honour of his father, also Baba, but presumably also Rahman too). At Augsburg, from whom he joined Chelsea, the Ghanaian international wore 18 while at his previous club before that, Greuther Fürth, he was 12, so a deep desire for 17 doesn’t seem apparent.

If it were present, it’s clearly not strong enough to refuse to allow Pedro to wear it, as is now the case. Having worn 17 and then 7 at Barcelona, the Spanish attacker has some attachment to numbers featuring 7 and his installation there has meant Rahman having to switch. To 3? No, to 6, even though it had belonged to young centre-back Nathan Aké, who is on loan to Watford.

Why Rahman’s aversion to 3? We don’t know, but, if their pursuit of Everton’s John Stones finally bears fruit and he is given 3, it won’t sit well with us at all. But then, we’re probably naive to expect more from a club where the captain wears 26.

Premier League goalkeeper numbers 2015-16

We’ve only briefly looked at goalkeeper numbers in the past on the blog. To our minds, it’s simple – the first-choice netminder should wear 1 and his deputy should be 12, 13, 16 or 22 (depending on what country it is). Beyond that, we like 24, 25 or 26 for the third choice and other back-ups should be 30, 35 and 40.

We accept that there is a chance that others may disagree, of course so, with the Premier League having re-started, we felt that it might be worth looking at what digits appear on the backs of those between the posts.

Of the 20 clubs, 19 of them have a number 1 and, thankfully, all of them are goalkeepers (Liverpool are the exception). In addition, nobody has yet tried to do an Emiliano Viviano or Jens Lehmann by wearing another 1-11 number. Of the 10 games played on the opening weekend, though, only two had both teams with number 1 in goal (Kasper Schmeichel and Costel Pantilimon in the Leicester City-Sunderland game and Artur Boruc and Brad Guzan in Bournemouth-Aston Villa).

The Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal v West Ham games didn’t have anyone wearing 1 on the pitch, though Hugo Lloris was on the bench for Spurs and would have started if he had been fully fit. John Ruddy, Heurelho Gomes, Lukasz Fabianski, Tim Krul, Jack Butland and Joe Hart were the other number 1s to play for their clubs.

That 1 is the most popular number for keepers in the Premier League is hardly a surprise; beyond that is there much of a pattern? To aid you, we’ve done up a nice bar-chart, but we’ve inserted some criteria. Strictly speaking, the third-most popular GK number in the league is 45, chosen by four, but beyond the mid-30s is really either for young players or those frozen out. In addition, some clubs, like Arsenal or Southampton, announce the numbers given to the Captial One Cup fodder while others only publicise first-team numbers. To that end, beyond 34 (worn by three), we’ve lumped them together in groups.


The most surprising thing (for us, anyway) is that no goalkeeper wears a number between 14 and 19. For whatever reason, 31 and 34 are slightly popular, with all three wearings of 31 coming at clubs where the other two keepers are 1 and 13 – perhaps it’s seen as a good fit for being the reverse of 13?

Dani Alves’ rollercoaster

Barcelona announced their 2015-16 numbers yesterday, with the most notable change being that Dani Alves has taken the number 6 shirt which Xavi recently vacated.

By and large, we’re all for first-team players wearing low numbers but a right-back wearing number 6 – even allowing for Alves’ predilection towards attacking – just seems wrong. When he arrived at Barca first, he wore 20 but then took 2 when that became available in 2009 after the ill-fated Martin Caceres didn’t really work out.

Logically, he should have kept 2 for the remainder of his Barça career but when Eric Adibal retired, Alves decided to switch to 22 as a tribute to the French international. To be fair, 22 isn’t the worst choice in the world for a right-back but players moving from 1-11 numbers to higher ones is a pet hate here.

For the past couple of years, number 2 has been worn by another Martin – Montoya – but that name just doesn’t seem to gel with the Barça defence as he has gone on loan to Inter. It should have paved the way for Alves to move back down but instead new signing Douglas has taken it and maybe that’s for the best as one would imagine that he will be the medium-term right-back for the club.

The Spanish league rules that squads must be numbered from 1-25 meets our approval in general, though policing within those numbers would be even more welcome (we know it’ll never happen, alas). Barcelona’s low numbers are now arranged in the following way:

  1. Goalkeeper (Marc André Ter Stegen – GKs have to be 1, 13 or 25)
  2. Right-back (Douglas – fine)
  3. Centre-back (Gerard Piqué – he has worn it for ages but it’s still not ideal)
  4. Attacking midfielder (Ivan Rakitić – not unacceptable, but could be better)
  5. Defensive midfielder (Sergio Busquets – okay in isolated incidents, but the numbers around him make it look worse)
  6. Right-back (Dani Alves – hard to justify, if we’re honest)
  7. Winger/striker (Pedro – for how much longer? Aleix Vidal’s in January?)

We can’t really quibble with 8-11 (Iniesta, Suárez, Messi, Neymar). They’re far from the worst numbers among a major club – we’re looking at you, Bayern Munich – but we’re fighting the urge to boot up Football Manager and tidy them up.