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Football 101: Lesson 1 - Jersey Numbers

by Meagan Wiper

In order to provide you with more football (aka soccer) content during the 2023 season, we are introducing a brand spanking new series: CCSG Footy 101.

This series will help fans, old and new alike, to learn a bit about key concepts in football, its history, and some of the most iconic players ever to play the beautiful game. We also know that footy terminology is a language unto itself and that some concepts and terms may seem confusing at first. Whether you know what is meant by “a six” or not, we want to make sure that whether you are new to the sport or a seasoned veteran, you have an opportunity to learn something new and are equally valid members of the Capital City Supporters Group.

Heck, maybe a certain CCSG drummer has an ulterior motive in creating this series and needs to bone up on the terminology herself.

Don't worry; we've got you covered.

First up, we will look at the numbering system in football.

Now in football, jersey numbers are used to distinguish players on the pitch, especially when it comes to the position they play. These numbers can also vary slightly depending on which country you play in as well as the formation (Canada, in particular, is very loose when it comes to numbering systems, i.e., ATO’s Carl Haworth wearing 45 for a few seasons and Aboubakary Sacko currently wearing number 91). However, the numbers and positions are most often listed as such:

Number 1: The goalkeeper

Number 2: Right full-back (defender that's to the right of the keeper)

Number 3: Left full-back (defenders that are to the left of the keeper)

Number 4: The "centre-back" or central defender located in front of the keeper

Number 5: Another centre-back

Numbers 6 and 7: defensive midfielders

Numbers 8 and 10: attacking midfielders

Number 11: the second striker

Number 9: the centre-forward

Numbers 12, 13, and 14: the substitutes

There have been a number of exceptions throughout football’s history. Andrea Pirlo played with the number 21 during his entire Serie A and international playing career. John Terry kept the same number he started his Chelsea career with, number 23, instead of wearing the normal 4, 5, or 6 that a fellow midfielder would wear.

So how was the numbering system created in the first place? It wasn’t created in Europe or South America but in Australia. Sydney Leichardt and HMS Powerful were the first-ever teams to use squad numbers on their backs in 1911. One year later, New South Wales would make the number system mandatory.

The UK first used a numbered system in 1914 when the English Wanderers, a team of amateur players from Football League clubs, played Corinthians at Stamford Bridge, London, and won 4-2.

Argentina followed suit in 1923 when Scottish team Third Lanark played a friendly against Zona Norte, with both squads being numbered from 1-11.

It wasn’t until 1924 that the US used a numbering system when Fall River F.C. played St. Louis Vesper Buick during the 1923–24 National Challenge Cup,

The 1950 FIFA World Cup was the first FIFA competition to see squad numbers for each player. Still, persistent numbers would not be issued until the 1954 World Cup, where each man in a country's 22-man squad wore a specific number from 1 to 22 for the duration of the tournament.

One immediate advantage of using a numbered system is that it gives spectators, and especially journalists, an easy way for them to identify players during a match. The Daily Express reported in 1928, "I fancy the scheme has come to stay. All that was required was a lead, and London supplied it." In the 1939-40 season, the Football League (now the English Football League) made wearing numbered shirts mandatory.

In 1993, England’s Football Association (aka the FA, which is England’s governing football body) switched to persistent squad numbers, with squads switching back and forth from incorporating and abandoning traditional 1–11 numbering. It was only in the 1999-2000 season that the Football League made squad numbers compulsory, with the Football Conference following suit in the 2002-03 season.

So what do other countries use? It varies quite a bit. In the US and France, the numbering system is 1-30, whereas, in Spain, it’s 1-25, with Italy wearing 1-99 without restrictions.

A move from a high number to a low one sometimes shows that the player is likely to be a regular starter for the coming season, particularly after at least one preceding season of being on the starting XI. An example is Celtic's Scott McDonald, who, after former number 7 Maciej Żurawski left, was given the number a move down from 27. Another example is Steven Gerrard, who wore number 28 (his academy number) during his debut 1998–99 season, then switched to number 17 in 2000–01. In 2004–05, Gerrard changed his number again to 8 after Samuel Heskey left Liverpool. Harry Kane is a more recent example with Tottenham Hotspurs.

Squad numbers can also be strongly associated with specific teams. Manchester United had George Best, David Beckham, Eric Cantona, and Cristiano Ronaldo wear the number 7 on their kit. Probably the most revered number is 10, though, which was worn by Pélé, Diego Maradona, Francesco Totti, Rivaldo, and Neymar. So it's no wonder why the most revered players are strikers. These numbers, along with 1 and 9, are also the ones kids rush for the most, as they want to emulate their heroes.

So as you can see, there is a LOT more history behind football’s numbering system than one would think, as well as some surprises (hardly any of you would’ve guessed that Australia was the 1st country to introduce a numbering system, right?). Players for Atlético Ottawa come from all around the world, with different perspectives (with Canada putting less importance on specific numbers for specific positions), so you will see all sorts of numbers on the pitch. I hope that, if you’re a new fan of football, learning about different positions in the sport will help you belong in the ATO supporter culture.

So stay tuned for Lesson Two, where we will start deep dives into these different positions. The first up is the Sweeper Keeper!

About Meagan

Meagan Wiper fell in love with the beautiful game by complete accident by randomly watching the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan. While she does support her beloved FC St. Pauli, she has also supported local football since 2016, starting with the Ottawa Fury and culminating with Atletico Ottawa. A member of the Capital City Supporters Group since 2021, she can be seen drumming in the Dub and occasionally eating her own fist out of anxiety at matches and watch parties.

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