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.

‘Mark no. 6!’ ‘Which one?’

Friend of the site Jay from Design Football – the brains behind the excellent podcast of the same name – asked us an intriguing question recently: have there been instances, apart from testimonials, where two team-mates have worn the same number?

He suggested Peter Crouch for England against Uruguay in 2006, when he was officially number 21 but a printing error meant that, while the front of his shirt and his shorts reflected that, he had 12 on his back.


Unfortunately, the ‘real’ number 12 was Luke Young and he stayed on the bench for the duration.

The first example that came to our heads was the play-off for the final Euro 96 qualifying spot, when the Netherlands met the Republic of Ireland at Anfield, two Patrick Kluivert goals giving the Dutch victory and ultimately making it Jack Charlton’s last match in charge of Ireland.

Edgar Davids would come to prominence for his number choices later in his career, but back then he was firmly established as number 8 for Ajax and Holland (though it would be another year before squad numbers were brought in in the Eredivisie). Either it was the kitman’s error or he wasn’t paying attention in the dressing room and plucked the wrong shirt, but he ended up wearing a short-sleeved 6 in the first half, the same as the player who usually wore it, Ronald de Boer, who had opted for the warmer option (click for bigger versions).


Irish commentator George Hamilton was quick to spot the mistake, but it wasn’t until half-time that it was rectified, with Davids wearing the proper number 8 in the secondhalf.


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.

Alphabetical numbering systems at the World Cup

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.

fillol5 fillol7

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).