If you’ve ever watched a game of soccer, you’ll have noticed that each player wears a number on their back. These numbers are very important. However, many people don’t understand what they mean and why soccer players have to wear a number. Here’s what the numbers mean:
The primary purpose of the number on the back of a soccer player’s jersey is to identify a specific player. Each player on a team wears a different number to the others. Because every player wears the same color jersey, the number is the primary way for the referee to tell the players apart.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the culture of numbers in soccer and see precisely why the players have to wear numbers, how does number allocation work, and the relation between soccer positions and numbers.
Let’s get started!
Why Soccer Players Wear Numbers on their Jerseys
Soccer is one of the most meticulously developed sports in the world. The game has been formed over hundreds of years into the sport we watch today.
Due to this sport being so highly developed, the referee has to be aware of a lot of aspects when officiating the game.
With so many factors that the referees need to have in mind, it helps if they don’t have to remember each player’s name as well.
The numbers on the back of a player’s jersey remove the need for a referee to remember a specific player’s name.
Numbers are used in soccer primarily for identification.
There are 22 players on the field, or pitch as it’s known, with one referee running amongst them. On top of this, there are also three (or in some cases even more) referees on the sides of the pitch (not to mention the coaching teams).
That means that over 50 people can be directly involved with the game, and 22 of those are playing on the field.
On top of this, there are also around 20 teams in a professional soccer league.
The fact is there’s no way that anyone’s going to remember so many faces and so many names. Especially when new players arrive and some players leave every season.
The referees use the number to identify a player.
If they need to talk to a player, the referee will rarely shout out a player’s name to get their attention. That’s not how a referee communicates.
For example, Victor Lindelof of Manchester United in England wears the number 2. It’s unlikely that a referee is going to shout, “Hey, Victor, come here!” – as not every referee will recognize Victor Lindelof just by looking at him.
It’s far more likely that the referee will shout something like, “Hey, number two! Come here!”
Some people will now correctly point out that the players’ last names are actually printed just above or below the number on their backs. And because of this, it’s not that hard to know and use their names.
This is an understandable point of view.
However, the print of a player’s name is finer and much smaller than the number on their jersey. The number is usually printed big enough to take up most of the space on the back. It’s unlikely that the ref can actually read the last name on someone’s back from a distance.
But everyone can see the number from anywhere around the field.
Of course, if a referee is experienced with the league they’re refereeing in – they may recognize many players without having to read the number on their backs.
For example, James Milner of Liverpool, despite not being a world class player and probably not as famous as the likes of Mo Salah, who plays for the same team, is still a reasonably recognizable player in the English Premier League as he’s been playing there for almost two decades.
So, when a referee needs to speak to James Milner, they may call him by name. But this familiarity doesn’t apply to all players or referees.
Another reason players need to wear numbers is for refs to keep track of them easily.
When a referee is about to caution a player, be it with a yellow or a red card, they usually write down the player’s team, number, and the minute at which they’ve shown them the card.
This way, they can keep track of who has received a card, be it red or yellow.
(*note that a second yellow card in soccer equals a red card. If you’re shown a red card, you’re out of the game, and your team is left playing with one less player. Find more out about yellow cards here, and red cards here).
The third reason soccer players wear numbers is that it’s much easier for everyone, including us, the viewers, the commentators, and the coaching team, to keep track of a specific players’ movements when we can see the number on the back of their jersey.
This is especially true if there’s a new player in the team or if there’s a player with an unusual or complicated name to pronounce.
It’s much simpler to refer to a player by their number rather than by their name.
How Soccer Numbers Work
If you’re a fan of any team sport, you will know that each player has a number assigned to them. That number is not always set by position, but often by the player themselves.
In soccer, a specific number is assigned to each player at the beginning of the season. A player will wear the same number on their jersey throughout the season regardless of what position they are playing for the team or where they are on the soccer field.
Do Soccer Players Pick Their Numbers?
However, the question over how much influence a player has about the choice of their number is an interesting one. Not every player gets to pick their number.
Most of the time, the numbers are decided by a system that’s stable and taken as a standard in all competitive leagues, but a player can influence that decision.
We’ll be talking about the meaning of specific numbers and how they’re connected to certain positions in a second, but some players can influence the decision of choosing their number.
Only the most important soccer players pick their own numbers. This is usually because these players have created a brand around their number. Most other players have a number assigned to them.
If you look at a player such as Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most well-known soccer players in the world, you will quickly notice that he has built a brand around the number 7. This is the number he always wears, and because of this, soccer fans regularly refer to him as “CR7”.
I would imagine that he would refuse to play for any team that didn’t let him play with the number 7 on the back of his jersey.
It’s also important to know that a player will rarely take an essential player’s number.
Suppose a new player arrives at a club, and they want a number that’s already taken by another player. In that case, it usually doesn’t matter how good they are and how big of a star they are. It’s incredibly disrespectful to try to take away another player’s number.
(Internationally renowned players such as Ronaldo are an exception to this rule!)
For example, when Mesut Özil arrived from Real Madrid in Spain to Arsenal in England, he wanted the number 10 jersey.
When he was playing for Real, he always wore that number. It is, admittedly, the number traditionally assigned to his role – an advanced creative midfielder. Throughout history, attacking creative midfielders wore the number 10.
It also just happened that Mesut developed his own brand, MO10, while he was at Real, and it would make little sense for him to wear a different number.
However, when he arrived at Arsenal, that number was already taken by another player, Jack Wilshere.
Jack Wilshere was a player riddled with injuries, despite displaying brilliance and astonishing levels of talent (and despite being believed to have the potential to become one of the greatest players of all time).
He suffered an injury after injury. There was a period where he didn’t play for Arsenal for over two years!
Despite that, the number 10 was still assigned to Jack Wilshere when Mesut Özil arrived. Despite Mesut being an unbelievable player who was a global superstar at the time, he couldn’t get his number from a player who wasn’t playing for years.
But due to rules of sportsmanship and respect, Özil didn’t insist on taking that number and settled for number 11 instead.
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Soccer Positions: Numbers and Roles
Many numbers in soccer have developed an almost cult-like following, especially numbers 10 and 7. This is due to their historical relation to a specific position or role in a team.
In fact, if we take a look at it historically, numbers were considered to be even more important than players’ last names!
Here is what the numbers in soccer represent:
#1 – this number is usually assigned to the goalkeeper, as the goalkeeper is usually the first name on the team list. Also, the goalkeeper is often seen as the most important player on the pitch. With some teams, it’s because of the importance of that position. The reason the goalkeeper is often considered to be the most important player on the pitch is that you can win a game if you have a terrible attacker, but you’re definitely losing the game if you have a bad goalkeeper.
However, there are exceptions to this rule, like Gianluigi Donnarumma, the goalkeeper of AC Milan, who insists on wearing the number 99 kit, representing his year of birth.
#2 – this number is usually assigned to the right back. However, many teams don’t use fullbacks, and in that case, you’ll see a central defender donning that number.
#3 – A team will usually assign this number to the left-back. With teams that don’t use fullbacks, the same rule applies as with right-backs.
#4 and 5 – these two numbers are almost exclusively assigned to central defenders. The number 4 is given to the defender who’s deemed the strongest defender. However, a coach may assign that number to a defender who impresses at first and later turns out not to be as good, so don’t take that as an absolute. However, Ivan Rakitić actually wore the number 4 for Barcelona, despite being a midfielder. The reason for that was that they didn’t have a number 4, but all higher numbers that made sense were taken. If he didn’t take number 4, he would be forced to take a 50-something number.
#6 – the number 6 is most often assigned to a central defender, but it’s also known to be given to central defensive midfielders (although that’s rarer). Paul Pogba is a good example.
#7 – this number is most often assigned to speedy wingers and sided midfielders. The most famous examples are Cristiano Ronaldo with the CR7 brand and David Beckham.
#8 – the number 8 is usually assigned to midfielders, and most typically central or box-to-box midfielders. Aaron Ramsey wore this number for a long time at Arsenal, for example.
#9 – the central striker most often takes the number 9: Robert Lewandowski, the best striker in the world (currently), or the famous Ronaldo 9.
#10 – as we’ve already said, this number is almost always assigned to attacking creative midfielders, or attacking creative players in general. Some of the most famous examples are Diego Maradona, Dennis Bergkamp, and Mesut Özil. Leo Messi is also a good example, despite not being a midfielder (which is funny because he’s statistically the most creative player across all competitions in the last 20 years).
#11 – this number is usually free, meaning that it’s not assigned to a particular position.
#12 – Strikers usually wear this number.
#13 – not assigned, and often avoided by players because of superstition that it brings bad luck.
#14 – Strikers or wingers usually wear this number, famously worn by Thierry Henry, one of, if not the greatest striker of all time.
A soccer club would traditionally assign these numbers to specific roles.
However, in modern soccer, there is not always a relation between a number and a player’s position.
The only reason jersey numbers matter in soccer is that they are important for identification. Although the numbers were traditionally assigned to specific roles or positions on a team, they no longer reflect this. A player can wear any number their club agrees to.
There’s nothing in the rules requiring a player having to wear a specific number. However, the traditional use of numbers still influences soccer.
A striker could wear the number 1 jersey, but it would be very unusual to see this as the traditional relationship between the number 1 and the position of goalkeeper is still strong in the minds of many people.
If you’re looking for more information regarding soccer positions, you need to look at my Soccer Position Guide. It contains everything you need to know on this topic.
Popular Soccer Jersey Numbers
As I mentioned above, there are a few numbers that are more popular than others.
The most popular soccer jersey numbers are the number 10 and the number 7. The number 10 is usually the creative midfielder on a team, and the number 7 is a winger.
The number 10s on a team are usually regarded as the most fun players to watch in soccer. As a child, everyone wanted that number.
Players such as Ronaldinho, arguably the best technical player of all time, wore the number 10. Millions of fans started watching soccer just because of him, and, naturally, they love that number.
Another number that’s gained a lot of attention is number 7.
It’s usually regarded that the number 7 for a team has to be a great winger who’s a fantastic player.
Traditionally, this number had a special meaning for Manchester United, who only assigned this number to a player if he was exceptional.
Iconic players such as George Best, Eric Cantona, and David Beckham have all worn the number 7 for Man Utd.
However, when Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at United and got the number 7, he arguably took that number’s reputation to new heights.
He made that number globally iconic, and every club in the world saw it as a number for one of the best players in the sport.
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