1-11 at international level; vacant Premier League numbers

At the time of writing (lunchtime on Tuesday), there are still nine internationals to be played in what are now being referred to as the European Qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.

By the end of the round of fixtures, it looks like we’ll be left with a total of three countries, of the 54 in action, to have begun the game with their team numbered 1-11 – England, the Netherlands and Scotland. Even Gibraltar and the newly-formed Kosovo had squad numbers.

England stick to the origins, and, while Scotland’s system isn’t the most perfect, they still deserve kudos for not buckling.

We have doffed our hats to the Netherlands in the past, of course, and while all the rest of Tuesday’s participants are listed by squad number on the UEFA site, the Dutch players have zeroes next to their names.

Of the other nations, Denmark and Wales (who have form, to be fair) came closest, starting with nine 1-11 players:

It was also interesting to note a reassignment of some numbers in the wake of retirements. Mesut Ozil is now the Germany number 10 after Lukas Podolski’s departure – apparently he wants it at Arsenal too – while the Republic of Ireland have replaced one Robbie with another at 10.

Robbie Keane signed off with a goal in the friendly against Oman last week and for the game with Serbia last night, Robbie Brady inherited it, having previously been associated with 19. Brady played in midfield in the 2-2 draw but has played most often at left-back in recent times. We have to say, we’re feeling a bit nervous.


Elsewhere, all of the Premier League squad numbers have been finalised, following the closing of the transfer window.

Of the 220 available 1-11 numbers, 24 – or just under 11 percent – are empty.

Liverpool are the worst offenders, leaving 4, 8 and 9 vacant. Obviously, Steven Gerrard’s old number is still seen as a heavy burden which can’t be given to just anyone, but surely Ragnar Klavan – who wore 5 at Augsburg – could have taken the 4 freed up by Kolo Touré’s departure, rather than 17?

Daniel Sturridge was offered number 9 before Christian Benteke came but turned it down. Speaking of players who have left Liverpool on loan, Lazar Markovic isn’t wearing 50 anymore:

Bournemouth, Hull City, Leicester City, Middlesbrough and Southampton have allocated all of the numbers from 1-11. The most unused number is 2, which isn’t used at Everton, either of the Manchester clubs or Watford.

Séamus Coleman could have taken 2 – which he wears for Ireland – when Tony Hibbert retired but has stuck with 23, while Matteo Darmian opted for 36 upon arrival at Manchester United and remains there (he does wear 4 for Italy).

Man City have two right-backs – Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta – in their numerical first 11 but they wear 3 and 5 respectively. John Stones picked 24 rather than taking 2.

Tottenham, whose first-choice team wasn’t far off 1-11 last season, have 6 and 8 free, with Eric Dier and Dele Alli opting to keep their 15 and 20 respectively. Moussa Sissoko wouldn’t have been a bad fit at 8 but will wear 17, having been 7 at Newcastle United.

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:


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.

France’s 1978 dalliance with green and white

We were delighted when Jess Cully (@moonhot97) got in touch recently with the story of how France coped in the infamous 1978 World Cup game against Hungary, when they had the wear the shirts of local club side Kimberley. With his permission, here it is:

Football anoraks of a certain age like myself will remember fondly how the French turned out in a green and white strip, some players with wrong numbers, for their final group game with Hungary in Mar del Plata at the 1978 World Cup (A match that was meaningless as both teams were already out).


Here is the full story of how it happened:

In 1978 much of the world still watched TV in black and white so wherever possible televised football matches had to be contested by one team in light strips and one in dark. With that in mind, in February 1978 FIFA wrote to the French and Hungarian FAs to advise them that Hungary should play the World Cup game against France in their red home strip, and France should wear their white away kit.

However, in late April or early May FIFA changed their minds, and decided that France should wear their blue home strip and Hungary their white away kit. Alas, FFF official Henri Patrelle gave this communiqué only a cursory glance, binned it and forgot about it.

So, come the day of the match, both teams turned up in Mar del Plata with only their white strips.

No-one guessed anything was up until the French took to the field to warm up, blue tracksuit tops over their white shirts. Their opponents were already out on the pitch. Henri Michel noticed something suspiciously white-looking under the Hungarians’ red tracksuit tops.

“White shirt?” Michel asked Peter Torocsik.

“White shirt,” came the reply.

The French officials were asked where their blue shirts were. The answer was 400 km away in Buenos Aires.

A couple of World Cup gophers were rapidly despatched in a car to ask the local football club, Atletico Kimberley, if they had a set of dark strip to lend  the French. Fortunately Kimberley played in green and white stripes and agreed.

Here is where the story gets interesting from our point of view – the Kimberley shirts had no numbers. France’s squad of sixteen for the match included Bernard Lacombe (number 17), Dominique Rocheteau (18), Didier Six (19 – you’d think coach Michel Hidalgo would have given him 6) and Olivier Rouyer (20). There were only 14 outfield shirts in the Kimberley set. Kimberley didn’t mind the French ironing numbers onto their shirts, but they drew the line at having gaps in their numeration. The shirts would have to be numbered 2-11 and 13-16. (In Argentina 12 is for the substitute goalkeeper.)

So, after kick-off was held up for 40 minutes for the numbers to be ironed on, the teams finally took to the field, with Rocheteau wearing 7, Rouyer 11, and Claude Papi, whose squad number was 12, wearing 10. On the subs’ bench Six wore 16 and Lacombe, though an attacking midfielder, had to wear 2 as it was the only remaining shirt. He wasn’t brought on so we didn’t get to see a number 2 making surging forward runs from the middle. The French blue away shorts had numbers, so these five players turned out with one number on their shirt and another on their shorts.

The French players weren’t put off by these shenanigans – they won 3-1. Some of the Kimberley players were in the crowd, flushed with pride at their shirts seeing World Cup action.

The Netherlands’ World Cup Rehabilitation

We’ve already looked at alphabatical numbering at the World Cup and the role the Netherlands played in that.

While the 1974 numbering was acceptable (bar Johan Cruyff’s ego), the 1978 system – or lack of it – was a bit of a mess, with the veterans from ’74 keeping their numbers and others taking what was free. While subsequent World Cup appearances by the Dutch had the numbers fairly normal, there was the occasional questionable call, such as Ronald de Boer wearing 9 in 1994 and Dennis Bergkamp 8 in ’98 with Clarence Seedorf 10.

Since then, though, the Netherlands have been very impressive in how they have done things numbers-wise. Having missed out on the 2002 World Cup, they returned in ’06 and manager Marco van Basten – or someone at the KNVB – had taken great care in allocating the numbers.

While the players from 1-11 never appeared together, they could be arranged in the classic Dutch formation. But for right-back Khalid Boulahrouz wearing 3 – he would go on to wear another non-RB number at Chelsea – and central defender Kew Jaliens having 2, it would have been perfect.

The Dutch went a step further with the rest of the squad, however. Back-up goalkeepers Henk Timmer and Maarten Stekelenburg wore 22 and 23 respectively, with every other player wearing a number 10 greater than what he would wear if he were in the first 11. For instance, as the notional second-choice right-winger to number 7 Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie was 17 (though van Persie would start more games there) while left-back Tim de Cler was 15, behind the 5 of Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Interestingly, while regarded as a centre-back and wearing 14, John Heitinga played at right-back for much of the competition, though as the alternatives were Boulahrouz and Jan Kromkamp, that’s hardly surprising.

2006a 2006b

Come 2010 and the Netherlands would continue to do things right. Rafael van der Vaart’s request for 23 upset the pattern of the 11-plus numbers slightly (goalkeeper Michel Vorm wore 16) but he lost his place in the knockout stages and in the last-16 game against Slovakia, they fielded 1-11.

While there were changes to the side for the quarter-final against Brazil and the semi-final against Uruguay, the final saw them 1-11 again – the first time since the introduction of squad numbers in 1954 that a team in the final had done so:

  1. Maarten Stekelenburg
  2. Gregory van der Wiel
  3. John Heitinga
  4. Joris Mathijsen
  5. Giovanni van Bronckhorst
  6. Mark van Bommel
  7. Dirk Kuyt
  8. Nigel de Jong
  9. Robin van Persie
  10. Wesley Sneijder
  11. Arjen Robben


It was a more pragmatic approach by Holland as they didn’t win too many fans in reaching the final, but it was effective and, just as importantly, the numbers fitted the system. Having lost 1-0 to Spain in the decider, the Netherlands’ next World Cup game almost four years later was against the same opposition and again they fielded 1-11:

  1. Jasper Cillessen
  2. Ron Vlaar
  3. Stefan de Vrij
  4. Bruno Martins Indi
  5. Daley Blind
  6. Nigel de Jong
  7. Daryl Janmaat
  8. Jonathan de Guzman
  9. Robin van Persie
  10. Wesley Sneijder
  11. Arjen Robben


While the 4-2-3-1 wasn’t a million miles from what we were used to with Holland, this three-man-defence system employed by Louis van Gaal was a change. Numerically speaking, the left-back (5) shifted to wing-back with the rest of the defence ‘sliding’ across and 7 dropping back to play right wing-back.

The Spanish game turned out to be a 5-1 win and this system took them all the way to the semi-finals, where Argentina beat them. Apart from Spain, the 1-11 was also used against Australia but the team changes thereafter.

World Cup block party

Following on from alphabetical numbering and Scotland’s idiosyncratic 1990 style, we take another look at different World Cup numbering systems, with France and Italy in the spotlight for their ‘block’ styles.

The first time that countries were mandated to give players set numbers at a World Cup was in 1954 and various approaches were used. Most teams tried to stay true to what they normally did with 1-11, though unsurprisingly there was no pattern followed with the higher numbers.

France and hosts Switzerland did something novel, though. Both selected three goalkeepers and numbered them 1-3, with defenders next, then half-backs and the forwards taking the higher numbers. If you look at the Wikipedia page with the squads from ’54, the blocks look to be a little bit out of kilter, with a midfielder among the forwards or vice-versa. However, it can be assumed that these positions relate to those that we perceive today, as each ‘block’ in the squad is arranged alphabetically.

Switzerland weren’t at the 1958 World Cup, leaving France as the only side with that block method. In ’62, the USSR and Colombia did something similar, albeit without the players sorted alphabetically within their position. Spain’s goalkeepers were 1, 2 and 3 but the rest of players were done alphabetically. For the 1966 World Cup, France were properly alphabetical and it was Argentina – who would later popularise the alphabetical style – who had something resembling the block format. Italy made the first steps towards the block as their goalkeepers were 1 and 2 and the outfielders alphabetical while Portugal had 1-3 as goalkeepers but no logic beyond that.

Italy returned to a straightforward system in Mexico in 1970 and only the Soviets had a goalkeeper wearing number 2 (though, oddly, Lev Yashin was 13). In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1978 that the Italians would first utilise the blocks as France had, though this numbering excluded goalkeepers. They were 1, 12 and 22. Defenders were 2-8, midfielders 9-11 and 13-17 and forwards 18-21, with each position sorted alphabetically – for example, Paolo Rossi would become associated with 20 after his Golden Boot in 1982 but he was 21 in ’78.

They would continue with the block-numbering until the 1998 World Cup. One point of interest with the ’82 squad was that wingers were separately grouped, with Franco Causio, Bruno Conti and Daniele Massaro wearing 15, 16 and 17 respectively. France also adopted the system in 1982 (goalkeepers 1, 21 and 22) though, as we have seen with Argentina and the Netherlands and alphabetical numbering, egos could get in the way – Michel Platini was allowed to wear 10 when he should have been 13.

In 1986, Alain Giresse followed Platini’s lead and sought a change too, coincidentally also avoiding 13, which was worn by Bernard Genghini while Giresse got 12. Individual demands would also eventually affect Italy’s numbering too. Franco Baresi had worn 2 in 1982 and ’90 (he didn’t play in ’86 though his brother Giuseppe wore 11 as the first-named midfielder) but for the 1994 World Cup he was allowed to wear his favoured 6 instead of 3 (Luigi Apolloni was 2). Roberto Baggio also bucked the trend as he wore 10.

At France ’98, Baggio had fallen into line as he was 18 (he also wore that number at AC Milan) but he should actually have been 17 as Alessandro Del Piero had now taken 10. Captain Paolo Maldini followed Baresi’s example from ’94 as he wore 3 when he should have been 5, as he had worn in America. France had missed the 1990 and ’94 World Cups and when when they returned, as hosts, their numbering was logical-ish (if we overlook Marcel Desailly wearing 8 at centre-back, Didier Deschamps’ 7 as anchorman and Youri Djorkaeff as an attacking midfielder with 6).

Looking at their games, Italy didn’t appear out of place, however, as their first-choice back three of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Costacurta and Alessando Nesta wore the ‘correct’ 4, 5 and 6, with Maldini wearing 3 on the left. Maybe it was this which persuaded the Italian federation to relax things for the 2002 World Cup (also the first time a manufacturer’s logo was seen on an Italy shirt at the World Cup) and subsequent editions. Maybe it wasn’t. Whatever the reasoning, World Cup numbering is certainly a lot more boring since then.

Scotland cap it all off

We have already looked at the phenomenon of alphabetical numbering by countries in the World Cup.

That is the most well-known ‘quirky’ style, but it’s not the only one. In the 1990 World Cup, and the European Championship in Sweden two years later, Scotland employed a system which – to the best of our knowledge – nobody else has replicated.

If you just had a quick glance at the squad list, you mightn’t twig anything, as numbers 2, 3, 4 and 6 were defenders, 5, 8 and 10 were midfielders and 7 and 9 were strikers. Only number 11 on Gary Gillespie, a defender, jarred with you might consider acceptable.

The basis for the allocation of the numbers was the amount of caps each player had, in descending order. Goalkeeper Jim Leighton was excluded, but if the system had been rigorously applied then he would have been him in number 2 and the most-capped player, Alex McLeish at 1. The only other change was that of strikers Gordon Durie and Alan McInally. It’s possible that the numbers were assigned before friendlies against Egypt, Poland and Malta. Durie played only against Egypt while McInally started the other two. The full squad, with caps in brackets, was as follows:

  1. Jim Leighton (55)
  2. Alex McLeish (69)
  3. Roy Aitken (53)
  4. Richard Gough (49)
  5. Paul McStay (46)
  6. Maurice Malpas (34)
  7. Mo Johnston (33)
  8. Jim Bett (24)
  9. Ally McCoist (23)
  10. Murdo MacLeod (14)
  11. Gary Gillespie (11)
  12. Andy Goram (9)
  13. Gordon Durie (6)
  14. Alan McInally (7)
  15. Craig Levein (5)
  16. Stuart McCall (5)
  17. Stewart McKimmie (4)
  18. John Collins (4)
  19. Dave McPherson (4)
  20. Gary McAllister (3)
  21. Robert Fleck (1)
  22. Bryan Gunn (1)

Had Scotland fielded the players from 1-11 in any of their games, it would have looked like this:


Not perfect by any means, but nor would it have been the worst ever seen. Their first match, the loss to Costa Rica, was the closest they came, with eight of those players present. McPherson featured instead of Gillespie while McCall replaced MacLeod and McInally was up front with Johnston.

When Scotland qualified for Euro 92, they followed broadly the same system but this time there were a few discrepancies.

euro 92

Gough – who had worn 2 in the 1986 World Cup – was in that shirt again despite having a cap fewer than McStay, who was 3. In 1990, reserve goalkeeper Goram had been 12th in the list of caps but now he was first-choice and took 1. His deputy Henry Smith was a relative newcomer with only three caps but he wore 12. Number 18 Dave Bowman and 19 Alan McLaren should have been the other way round too.

Again, it’s likely that the list had been decided before Scotland played the USA, Canada and Norway in friendlies prior to going to Sweden. Before these games, Gough and McStay had the same number of caps but Gough missed the USA game while McStay played in all three. Additionally, Bowman had one cap to his name while McLaren had yet to feature but he played in all three with Bowman only being seen once, leaving McLaren on three and Bowman on two. Duncan Ferguson had also been cap-less before these games but played against the USA and Canada.

  1. Andy Goram (20)
  2. Richard Gough (56)
  3. Paul McStay (57)
  4. Maurice Malpas (50)
  5. Ally McCoist (38)
  6. Brian McClair (23)
  7. Gordon Durie (19)
  8. Dave McPherson (20)
  9. Stewart McKimmie (17)
  10. Stuart McCall (17)
  11. Gary McAllister (15)
  12. Henry Smith (3)
  13. Pat Nevin (12)
  14. Kevin Gallacher (9)
  15. Tom Boyd (9)
  16. Jim McInally (7)
  17. Derek Whyte (4)
  18. Dave Bowman (2)
  19. Alan McLaren (3)
  20. Duncan Ferguson (2)

For their games against Germany and the Netherlands, Scotland had the 11 most capped players on the field and looked something like this: