Our new favourite Dutch team

As regular readers of the blog will know, the Netherlands have featured heavily here. The country was at the vanguard of the alphabetical numbering movement, it fielded 1-11 in two consecutive World Cup games four years apart and of course it is the home of Johan Cruyff, the first player to regular wear a number above 11 in domestic league games. Four decades later, another club from that country has provided the counter-balancing to Cruyff’s rebelliousness.


At the start of the 2016-17 season, we noticed that Dutch side Sparta Rotterdam were lining out in 1-11 in Eredivisie games (as you’ll see below, we were only six years slow).

This was huge and brilliant news, a wonderful riposte to the kind of bollocksology that goes on in Italy and other countries, where ‘characters’ wear high numbers for no good reason (don’t even try to justify it, there is no good reason).

As luck would have it, the November issue of our favourite football magazine, When Saturday Comes, features a piece on Sparta and fellow Rotterdam club Excelsior by Ernest Bouwes. Describing Sparta as having “something of an intellectual following”, it quoted the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, who had said that Sparta was “the sweetest club of the country”.

We read those words on Friday morning and were inspired to contact Sparta directly to enquire more about the move to 1-11. By that afternoon, we were fully informed, thanks to Paolo van Hartog, who works in the club’s communications department. The bottom line is that we have a new favourite Dutch club and our dialogue is reproduced below.

Who had the idea to make this change, and what were the primary reasons?

The decision not to play with permanent numbers was made by the club’s management in 2010. The reason for this was that Sparta is a really traditional club, that likes to keep in touch with their and football’s history in some ways.

Though we are the only club in the Eredivisie not to play with permanent numbers, it’s not mandatory, so there was no permission required.

Were the players in favour, for example was there anybody who liked to wear, say, 19 and didn’t want to change?

The players were not asked when the change was made, but we had no complaints. When the change was made in 2010, it was shortly after Sparta got relegated and almost the entire squad was renewed.

Have sales of personalised shirts to supporters suffered?

It did in no way hurt the kit sales, because we already didn’t have names on the back as we had two back sponsors.


Paolo also answered a query as to why, going right to left, the traditional Dutch back four reads 2-3-4-5 and we’ll expand on that in a proper article soon, joining the other origins articles.

Sparta don’t employ that system though, as Paolo outlines:

Our current manager, Alex Pastoor, likes the idea of tradition, but he is also a great admirer of English football. So he wanted to use the traditional English numbering, which means we always play with:


The players are certainly invested in the importance of the numbers on the back. Recently, Paolo interviewed Mathias Pogba for the official club site (brother of Paul and former owner of the Partick Thistle number 99 shirt).

When asked to speak Dutch, Pogba counts from one to ten with no problem…when he arrives at 9, the striker starts to smile. It’s the number that’s traditionally assigned to the centre-forward – with clubs that don’t have permanent numbers, like Sparta, that relationship is even clearer.

In the short-term, Pogba wants to recover from his injury and be back at the match-squad, looking further playing with that number is what he desires.

When he does return, we’ll be cheering him, and the rest of De Kasteelheren on.

The History of Numbers: Uruguay

We’ve already looked at how different numbering systems developed in Britain, Argentina, Brazil and Eastern Europe, and there is another historically distinct method which, it could be argued, is the most logical of all.

While they may not be a major power nowadays, Uruguay won two of the first four World Cups, including the inaugural edition as hosts in 1930. Shirt numbering wasn’t in operation then, but when it did come into widespread usage, Uruguay were the same as the rest of the world in numbering left-to-right in the old 2-3-5 system:


Other countries transitioned from the 2-3-5 to four-man defences via the W-M, and that is where discrepancies in numbering arose, as different players would drop back in different countries, keeping their original number.

While the Uruguay team which won in 1950 in Brazil would have the front half of the W-M, they adapted differently in defence, moving directly from two men to four. As a result, it made sense for the right and left halves – numbers 4 and 6 respectively – to become wide defenders, outside the full-backs,  2 and 3. As in Argentina and Brazil, 5 remained as the midfield fulcrum.


Over time, 7 and 10 would retreat to midfield to join 5 and 8, but by and large it’s a numbering system which remained strong in Uruguay, as can be seen from this line-up chosen at random, from a 1989 Copa America tie with Argentina:


Liverpool and Manchester United tidy up their squad numbers, 1996

We do enjoy when clubs ‘tidy up’ their numbers, i.e. the re-assignment of first-teamers with higher numbers. Arsenal giving Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey 7 and 8 respectively for the coming season is an example (though Granit Xhaka wearing 29 isn’t as nice), while Tottenham Hotspur’s re-jigging in the summer of 1999 was very pleasing.

As the days of 1-11 fade further, there is less of this re-allocation of numbers, with most one-off instances pushed by the player in question. In 1996, though, there was still a culture of wanting something close to the first XI in the lowest numbers and the two biggest clubs in England effected big alterations. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, given that Liverpool and Manchester United are already responsible for two of the widest-ranging articles on this site (here for Liverpool’s unique numbering system of the 70s-90s and here for the story of the United number 7).

In the spring of ’96, an Eric Cantona-inspired United were reeling in Newcastle United in the Premier League title race, while Liverpool – using what Johnny Giles had described as “a three-man back four” – were playing some exellent stuff, eventually winding up in third place in the table.

The clubs also made it to the FA Cup final, with Cantona’s goal giving United a 1-0 win to clinch the double. It is, to be fair, worth noting that that goal came in the 85th minute, and had more to do with David James’ uncertain goalkeeping than Liverpool’s choice of pre-match attire.

These are the way the sides lined out for the final (Liverpool wore a green-and-white quartered change kit but representing that would make the numbers harder to see, which is, after all, the point of the whole thing):

With both goalkeepers wearing 1, between them the sides had nine players numbered above 11, but, if the same two line-ups had met three months later, there would have been just two offenders:


Let’s start with Liverpool. When Roy Evans decided to switch to a 3-5-2, it meant that Mark Wright (5) and Phil Babb (6) were joined by John Scales (12). Ideally, he would have taken 4 but Jason McAteer, playing right wing-back, had that, with number 2 Rob Jones switching to the left flank. Therefore, it made sense to give Scales 3, which had been vacant since Julian Dicks re-joined West Ham United during 1994-95.

In midfield, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes and Steve McManaman somehow made an effective trio, despite the seeming lack of defending/attacking balance. Obviously, Barnes had been 10 since joining at the start of 1987-88, and 7 and 11 were empty after the departures of Nigel Clough and Mark Walters respectively. Looking at it objectively, Redknapp might have been a better fit for 7 but, given its mythology at Anfield, it made sense for McManaman to take that with Redknapp in 11.

The other switch was the most straightforward. Robbie Fowler had been 23 since his breakthrough in 1993-94, but with Ian Rush leaving after the final, Fowler to 9 was a no-brainer. More satisfying still was the re-tooling didn’t stop with the first XI, as Steve Harkness – whose brief loan spell with Hudderfield should have had more headline-love – moved from 22 to the 12 vacated by Scales, and Neil Ruddock swapped 25 for 14.

Sadly, the cup final side never played together again and we were robbed of seeing the 1-11 in action. Redknapp and Jones both suffered with injuries – the latter only made two appearances in 1996-97 – while Scales was sold to Tottenham. Incidentally, we have a clear memory of Liverpool trying something similar before 1994-95, with Ruddock moving to 6 and Fowler taking 12 among others, but we haven’t been able to locate the copy of Match magazine in which this news featured. If anyone out there has it, we’d be delighted if you got in touch.


In the first three seasons in the squad-number era, none of the Manchester United 1-11 numbers had been worn by more than one player in the league. However, 8 and 10 lay idle for 95-96 after Paul Ince and Mark Hughes left, and in the summer of ’95 Alex Ferguson had a mini clean-up – Gary Neville moved from 27 to 20, Paul Scholes from 24 to 22 and David Beckham from 28 to 24. All three were key components of the double-winning side, though Neville and Scholes were on the bench in the cup final – Neville’s place taken by his brother Philip with Denis Irwin moving across to right-back.

Gary Neville was still a first-choice for England during Euro 96 and there was never any likelihood of his staying out of the United team for long, so when Paul Parker left that summer, he was the natural choice for the number 2 shirt. Club captain Steve Bruce also departed, so David May switched from 12 to Bruce’s 4, with Philip Neville taking 12. The younger Neville had previously been 23.

Nicky Butt, 19 for the previous three years, move to take Ince’s old number 8 shirt while Beckham was given 10. The only instance of a 1-11 player being moved to accommodate a change was Brian McClair switching from 9 to 13 to allow Andy Cole inherit it. He had previously been 17 and, perhaps strangely, this was now given to new reserve goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw.

Scholes made another move, from 22 to 18, in a straight swap with Simon Davies (this one, not that one), indicating the contrasting directions they were heading. New signing Ronny Johnsen took over the number 19, but in the Champions League he wore 5, following Lee Sharpe’s transfer to Leeds United, and would take it over permanently from 1997-98 on. Also wearing different numbers in Europe were Scholes and Phil Neville, 12 and 28 respectively. Basically, it was to do with UEFA’s rules on ‘A’- and ‘B’-listed players.

Ben Thornley (29 to 23) and John O’Kane (30 to 24) completed the downward movements. The one notable exception was Roy Keane, who kept 16 when taking 5 on Sharpe’s exit would have seemed expected. Apparently, he was later offered 7 by Ferguson but declined as having a higher number kept him motivated to prove himself.

His status as one of the first names on the teamsheet, and the lack of a number 5 in the league, meant that opportunities for United to play 1-11 were limited. The closest they came was in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final at home to Porto when, with Keane absent, Ferguson went with a very adventurous side and was rewarded with a 4-0 victory.


Cymru, we love you

Our last blog post finished with the words, “Wales represent the best best chance of seeing 1-11 on the pitch together in the latter stages”, but we’ll be honest and say that it was something expressed more in hope than expectation. Their number 8, Andy King, had only featured in the final group game against Russia before last weekend’s quarter-final against Belgium, with Joe Ledley (16) clearly ahead of him in the depth chart.

That remained the case for the last-eight tie last Friday evening, but otherwise the rest of the line-up had numbers between 1 and 11 (ignore the placing of wing-backs Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor, they’re the wrong way round):

Screen shot 2016-07-05 at 10.33.55

Look, though, at the subs – with Wales having gone 2-1 ahead, King was brought on for Ledley and, gloriously, the 11 players on the pitch were those wearing the 11 lowest numbers. The numbering was that of a ‘German’ 3-5-2, with 10 (Aaron Ramsey) in midfield and 11 (Gareth Bale) up front.

The perfection only lasted two minutes as Sam Vokes came on for Hal Robson-Kanu, but Chris Coleman’s judgment couldn’t really be questioned as Vokes scored the clinching third goal. Ramsey’s yellow card means that he is suspended for the semi-final against Portugal, but fingers crossed for 1-11 again in the final.

The answer to the question you didn’t ask – the last team before Wales to field 1-11 at the European Championship was the Republic of Ireland, who started their first and third games at Euro 2012 in that fashion. Incidentally, they had done the same at Euro 88.



Examining the Euro 2016 squad numbers

Every so often, we hear phrases about how numbers mean little these days in terms of positions, while articles on the subject will generally focus on egregious offences.

We felt that it was something which warranted a proper analysis, and so we trawled through the 23-man squads of the countries competing at Euro 2016, to see if historical patterns still prevailed and if any higher numbers had become heavily associated with particular positions.

By and large, transfermarkt.com and to a lesser extent Formation-x were used to verify players’ positions, though there were instances where we had to use our own judgment for those who line out in different roles for their countries compared to their clubs. You’ll probably never get it perfectly correct, but we’ve done our best. For example, ‘defensive midfielders’ takes in deep-lying playmakers, while someone like Cristiano Ronalso is classed as a striker.

As always, opinions are just that, subjective and a bit irrational. Alternative views are always welcome. To start, an easy ‘one’:


It’s a rule that the number 1 shirt must be worn by one of the three goalkeepers in each squad, so no surprises here. Obviously, there is no number/position correlation as strong, but number 2 comes closer than most.


We like the cleanliness of this, 18 countries with a right-back wearing 2 and the other six giving it to a centre-back. It’s one of our guilty pleasures.


There isn’t as strong a connection between 3 and the left-back position, though – in fact, there are more centre-backs wearing it – understandably, given the historic links. We can just about put up with right-backs wearing it – more so than left-backs wearing 2 – but black marks against Northern Ireland’s Shane Ferguson and Ermir Lenjani, who play on the wing.


In Britain, 4 is primarily seen as the anchorman’s number, with centre-back running second, but you can see that that goes against the general trend. Ukraine captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is the only defensive midfielder to wear 4 (and that could be more due to his proclivity to wear 44 at club level than anything else), with England giving the number to James Milner while the best-suited player, Eric Dier, is wearing 17. Ivan Perišić of Croatia joins the Rogues’ Gallery of Badly-Numbered Left Wingers, while Matteo Darmian is one of three left-backs to wear it.


The centre-backiest of numbers in most of Europe, it matches 4’s tally of 15. There’s another Croatian oddity, with Šime Vrsaljko playing at right-back, while the South American practice of 5 as a midfielder is seen with Sergio Busquets – who has adopted it with Barcelona – and France’s N’Golo Kanté exponents of this, as is Ovidiu Hoban of Romania, where it is traditional.


Right-backs Michael Lang (Switzerland) and Albania’s Freddie Veseli are the sore thumbs, with Turkey attacking midfielder Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Italy right winger Antonio Candreva and left-midfielder Emil Forsberg of Sweden coming in for comment without being as offensive.


The lowest number to be worn by a striker, the extent of which surprises us – especially when attackers, central midfielders and left wingers outnumber the position with which it’s normally associated, the right flank. Hate mail to be directed to Turkey right-back Gökhan Gönül and Albania left-back Ansi Agolli.


Left-back David Limberský of the Czech Republic most certainly does not receive a pass just because he wears 8 for his club Viktoria Plzen.


The most clear-cut of the attacking numbers, as you might expect. For an odd reason, we’re more open to a right-winger wearing 9 than a left-winger, while the odd attacking midfielder is okay. The one defensive midfielder is Kim Källström, but it’s not a striker’s number there and also mitigating for him is the fact that he’s not a clogger.


The seven-eight split between attacking midfielders and strikers is fine. When Italy did their block-numbering thing, 10 could easily have been worn by a defensive midfielder but it’s odd to see it carried by Thiago Motta now. Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka – mentioned in two consecutive postings – is the other and he’s their best player so you can just about see some logic.


Another instance where the British system’s variance with a lot of Europe is displayed, as strikers wearing 11 are more plentiful than left wingers – though one of these on this occasion is England’s Jamie Vardy. Daniel Pudil of the Czech Republic’s crime of being a left-back would be heinous were it not for the decadent ways of RIGHT-BACKS Vierinha (Portugal) and Darijo Srna (Croatia) wearing the number which is historically the exact opposite of their position. Numbers, bloody hell. (Edit: Srna’s father died after Croatia’s game on Sunday so we’ll cut him some slack)

In the main, the 1-11 numbers continue to retain some of their heritages (plural, given that various systems developed in different parts of the world). Obviously, the higher numbers don’t have any such ties and so the dispersal isn’t as pronounced. Rather than going through each one (you can if you wish, though, click for larger versions), we’ll instead look at how each position is divided, further down the page.

The positional breakdowns:


The position spread across the fewest numbers – it’s not mandated that 2-11 can’t be worn but nobody has done so, and only 12, 13, 16, 21, 22 and 23 feature. While 13 is the traditional back-up number in England and Spain, the other three countries using it for a netminder have it coupled with 12.

In the days of 22-man squads, the last number was almost exclusive a goalkeeper’s number and, while 23 has outstripped it, it hasn’t fully disappeared. Similar to that, 16’s usage came about from giving it to the back-up on matchday when it was the last sub number; France, the Republic of Ireland, Russia and the Czech Republic continue to allocate it thus.

Why 13 and 14 are bereft of right-backs and 12, 20 and 22 don’t feature any left-backs, we’re not sure. Given the associations, it makes sense that 22 is the joint-second-highest number for right-backs.

The strong association between 15 and centre-backs came as a surprise – but, logically, 14 should be similar and isn’t. In our minds, 16 is a ‘normal’ central midfielder, but it features more on the backs of anchormen while 14 is oddly prominent with the all-rounders.

It’s a quirk of modern football and the change in formation that 41 players at the Euros can reasonably be identified as left midfielders but there are only 28 right midfielders. The maverick natures of some attacking midfielders can perhaps be linked with their usage of 23, while we would have expected 19 to be more popular with strikers than it is.

Rather than going through each country and shoehorning their 1-11 line-ups into ill-fitting formations, we will see who can acheive the closest to this as the games go on.

Of six European Championship finals competed in (1988 and 2012), the Republic of Ireland have started 1-11 in four (two at each tournament), but we’ll eat our hats if they do so again. England did it against Switzerland and Croatia in 2004, but their listing is just flawed enough to prevent similar.

Rest assured that we’ll keep you posted, though.


The most numbers worn by one player at the World Cup?

Three players have played in five different World Cup finals competitions.

While Gianluigi Buffon was Italy’s number 22 at France 98, he wore 1 in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Like Buffon, Mexico’s Antonio Carbajal was a goalkeeper who appeared at five finals but didn’t have any other squad number than 1 from 1954-66 inclusive while teams played 1-11 in 1950, when he was first selected.

Lothar Matthäus holds the record for an outfielder, chosen in the squads for 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998. Given 18 in his first outing, he had 8 in 1986 and then 10 as he captained West Germany in 1990. He retained that in 1994, despite now playing as a sweeper, but his inclusion in 1998 came after an international hiatus and he wore 8 with Thomas Häßler having taken 10 in his absence.

Clearly, nobody has worn five different numbers at the mundial, and there are plenty of others who can match Matthäus’s three digits – Paolo Maldini has worn 7, 5 and 3, for example, the first two as part of Italy’s ‘block’ system before he pulled rank as captain in 1998, the last before they reverted to a conventional method. Steve Staunton is the only Republic of Ireland international to play in three finals and did so wearing 3 in 1990, 11 in 1994 and 5 in 2002.

They are but two examples of a large constituency of three-number-wearers, so it got us wondering if there were many – or any – who have had four. There are 48 players who have been picked in four World Cup squads (though not necessarily having played in all of them) and of those, just two have been assigned a different number each time.

We’ll be honest, we weren’t too familiar with the work of Bulgaria’s Dobromir Zhechev before researching this, but the former Spartak Sofia and Levski Sofia defender is now immortalised in the squad-number pantheon. Given the number 12 when first picked in 1962, four years later he had 10 – strangely for a defender, given that Bulgaria didn’t follow any discernible pattern – in 1970 he was 14 and, finally, 1974 saw him wearing 3.

He shares the top spot with someone whose name draws more recognition (from this quarter anyway, given a precocious proclivity to read World Soccer as a pre-teen in the 1990s) – Franky van der Elst. Two years after the midfielder joined Club Brugge from Molenbeek, he appeared at his first World Cup, wearing 3. In 1990, he was given 8 and then dropped by one at each of the next two competitions, wearing 7 at USA 94 and then 6 in his swansong in France.

Brazil and their numbering maze

A few months ago, we attempted to ascertain the origins of the Brazil numbering system. While large parts of that article were correct, recently reader Alexander Howells got in touch and left a comment with examples of deviation from that style. It was quite informative and we felt it would be best expanded into a full article, so take it away Alexander:

The numbering of football shirts started in the 1920s or 30s when the pyramid formations (2-3-5) was in common use. As a result shirts were numbered accordingly – 2 and 3 full-backs, 4, 5 and 6 half-backs and 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 forwards [see here]

In Britain and most of Europe, the pyramid evolved into the W-M formation, although most countries retained the numbering system from the 2-3-5 with the third back being numbered 5.  In South America, the adoption of W-M was not as common and numbering varied from country to country.

During the late 1940s, a hybrid formation called the “diagonal system” was introduced in Brazil which was a cross between the 2-3-5 and W-M. The system involved the full-backs and half-backs tilting, resulting in the left-half (number 6) playing deeper than the other half-backs, becoming a virtual left-back; further explanation can be found in Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson. This was the system used by Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, where they were unexpectedly beaten by Uruguay, who were still using their own version of 2-3-5. The number 6, Bigode, was roasted all game by Uruguay right-winger Ghiggia, who set up one goal and scored the winner (the few film clips from 1950 available on YouTube show the Brazil number 6 at left-back and 3 at centre-back). The team was set up as follows:


By the 1954 World Cup, however, Brazil were trying to adopt the W-M and their back three were numbered 2-5-3, as in the British convention, with wing-halves 4 and 6 and forwards unchanged. Forward to 1956 and the visit of Brazil to Wembley, where they were beaten 4-2 by England. Right-back Djalma Santos, who was number 2 in 1954, now wore 4, while centre-back Pavao was 2 with left-back Nilton Santos number 3, just as he had been in 1954. The right half was 5 and the left-half 6, with the forwards as usual 7-11. This numbering is in line with that used by Argentina during the same time period and is highlighted in the England Football Online website.

At the 1958 World Cup, which Brazil won for the first time, their shirt numbers appeared to be random. It has been reported that Brazil failed to assign shirt numbers to their squad and a FIFA official assigned them randomly. Some of the numbering, however, does not appear to confirm this but seems to fit the system they used in 1956. For example, the first-choice keeper from 1954, Castilho, was number 1, as he had been four years earlier – nothing random there! Right-back Djalma Santos was number 4 as in 1956, Bellini (centre-back) was 2 and right-half Dino was 5.

Some players seem to have swapped shirts, specifically wingers Garrincha and Zagalo with numbers 11 and 7, and left-back Nilton Santos and second goalie Gilmar with numbers 12 and 3 respectively. Finally, of course, Pele was number 10. What are the odds on this happening randomly? As the numbers are so inconsistent, it is hard to draw a conclusion about which system was intended.

Now we move on to the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where we find that Brazil has introduced a new system altogether. They now line up as follows:


The 4-2-4 system used in 1958 has been adapted to 4-3-3, with left winger Zagalo (21) dropping back into midfield. The other midfielders are defensive midfielder Zito (4) and playmaker Didi (8). They continue to use this system up to the 1966 World Cup, where they number the keepers 1 and 12, defenders 2 through 9, midfield 11 to 15, forwards 16 to 22 and of course Pele number 10. As in 1958, the actual numbering system is blurred.

In 1970, the World Cup is played in Mexico and Brazil has adopted a numbering system similar to the one used by Uruguay over many years. So they line up like this:


(The alternate left back Marco Antonio is number 6 but does not play in any matches.)

The system used in 1970 is maintained for 1974, though with 10 now in midfield and 11 as the left-side attacker. On to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and Brazil starts to use the defensive numbering system that we are familiar with in 2015 and line up as shown below:


From 1978 onwards, the back four of 2-3-4-6 has been consistent, although 3 and 4 have been interchangeable. Number 5 has been a constant in midfield, usually accompanied by 8 and 10. As 4-3-3 migrated to 4-4-2, the two forwards have generally been number 9 and either 7 or 11, for example Ronaldo was 9 and Romario was 11.

Over the years, a few other formations have been used for brief periods. For example, in the late 1950s and early 60s they used the ‘Hungarian’ defensive system in some matches with the back four 2-3-6-4 and during the 2002 World Cup they used three centre-backs, numbered 3-5-4, with wing-backs 2 and 6.

In Argentina, the transition from 2-3-5 to W-M and later systems can been seen as a progression, first with number 4 moving from midfield to defence, followed later by the number 6 (see here). In Uruguay, they skipped W-M and moved from 2-3-5 to a virtual 4-3-3 with the wing-halves, numbers 4 and 6, becoming full-backs and the number 8 and number 10 dropping into midfield to form a trio with number 5.

By contrast, Brazil drifted from one numbering system to another without any apparent  progression. The reason for how they changed, why they changed  and how they finished is far from clear.