Football Shirts in Dressing Room

Football Shirt Numbers: How Are They Assigned & Do Players Get to Choose Their Number?

On the back of every footballer’s shirt there are two distinguishing features, a name and a number. In most cases the name is a surname although the odd exceptions does apply, increasingly so in fact. Both Dele Alli and Memphis Depay, for instance, opt, to have their first name on their shirt for personal reasons. You then of course have the wide range of one-named Brazilians, partly because their names are often long and complicated to a foreign audience. Naming conventions are different in the various countries of the world too, so defining what exactly is someone’s surname is not always as straightforward as it may seem if your name is John Snith.

For the vast majority of players though, the name on their shirt will simply be the name they were born with so it is not something they need to think about. The number, however, is far more open to negotiation, with players often donning several digits over the course of their careers. Although there are numbering traditions that teams can, and often do follow, issuing non-standard numbers is far from uncommon should a player request it. Indeed, as with names, it is becoming more and more common for players to take an unusual shirt number.

Player Numbers: Who Decides?

Register Green Keyboard Button

In every football squad, each registered member of the senior team and often some of the top academy players, will be issued with a unique number. The club will have a deadline for submitting these numbers to the relevant authority e.g., the Premier League, but the approach they can take to decide the numbers can vary. Some teams may decide to give a lot of freedom to the players, letting them choose whatever number they want to wear, even if their selection is unusual.

Other clubs will want to work within a more traditional framework, allocating numbers based on player positions, often with the perceived best XI taking the numbers from one through to 11. This is not to say though that they will not be open to the odd special request that comes their way. It is definitely true that some players have a sentimental attachment to a specific number but many others could not care less what they have on their back.

In the event that there are two (or more) players who wish to have the same shirt number, it is the club that ultimately makes the final decision. How they approach it can differ massively though. They could simply decide to give the number to the more senior player, or whoever had the number the previous year. Alternatively, they could tell the players themselves to come to some sort of agreement rather than having to pick sides. It is very rarely the cause of any serious arguments though because teammates hardly want to fall out over a quite a trivial matter.

It is also worth noting that a player can hold more than one number should their team be involved in a UEFA competition or a player represents their country. This is because competitions like the World Cup or Champions League require separate squad registrations.

Can Numbers Be Changed?

Blue Number 10 Football Shirt

Once a player has been allocated a number, this is the number they will have for the remainder of the season in most cases for domestic matches. Normally, a player will only be able to change numbers in one of two circumstances. The first is that they swap clubs, either on loan or as part of a permanent transfer. Even if their existing number is vacant they are under no obligation to stick with what they had at their former club. The other time a player can change their selection is if a number that was previous taken becomes vacant because of an outgoing transfer at their club.

When Crystal Palace confirmed the sale of Yannick Bolasie to Everton, this freed up the rather sought after number 10 shirt. Although now Everton player Andros Townsend was registered with the number 17 Palace shirt at the time, Bolasie’s departure allowed a rare switch to occur.

In the Premier League handbook, Section M: Players’ Identification and Strip states that “upon a player leaving a club the shirt number allocated to him may be re-allocated.” This enabled Townsend to change even though the season had already begun. The winger was, however, kind enough to cover the cost of replacing the number for any fan who had bought a shirt with the former pairing of Townsend and 17.

Different leagues can work in different ways when it comes to the registration and finalising of numbers. In La Liga it is possible to change numbers until the end of August as they are not 100% confirmed until this point. By contrast, in the Premier League, once submitted prior to the season starting, the numbers are set and not open to change except in the circumstances listed above. This is what the rule book states, although they were on the verge of making an exception for Manchester United in the summer 2021.

The Ronaldo Case

Cristiano Ronaldo CR7 Museum Logo
Image: wjarek, Bigstock Photo

Squad numbering is rarely a topic which makes many headlines as it is, by and large at least, often just a boring administrative process. There was a notable exception though in the summer of 2021 when Man Utd struck an unexpected deal to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to Old Trafford. For those unaware, Ronaldo has long been associated with the number 7 shirt, having taken the number at United when David Beckham left for Real Madrid. His desire for seven was not just sentimental though, as CR7 has become both a nickname and an international brand. As such, it is the number he insists on playing with wherever he goes.

At Juventus this was not a problem as the deal was wrapped up so early in the summer, long before squad numbers were determined. The United return was much later though, after the season had already kicked off. At the time there was no serious discussion of the Portuguese star coming back to Old Trafford so it made perfect sense, at the time, to award Edinson Cavani with the number 7 shirt. Although Cavani had not yet appeared in the shirt prior to Ronaldo’s arrival, it was his registered number and ordinarily this could not be changed, forcing his new teammate to pick a new number.

This left the Premier League in a rather tricky spot. Abandon the rules for the sake of one footballing superstar or hold firm and make CR7 become CR77 or something? Fortunately for them, this was a decision they did not have to make as United sold Dan James to Leeds, freeing up the 21 shirt. Cavani willingly then swapped to 21, leaving the number 7 shirt free for Ronaldo. This type of swap was not without precedent either as it happened a decade earlier at Tottenham when Rafael Van der Vaart (10) left, with Emmanuel Adebayor (25) taking his number and new signing Hugo Lloris getting 25.

Must Standard Numbering Be Followed?

Football Shirts 1 to 11Rules regarding player numbers are far from universal. Some leagues take a quite relaxed approach and allow clubs to stray far from the traditional format. In Western Europe at least, the below numbers are seen as a general guide and a lot of teams do tend to stick to them, by and large. Sometimes this is impossible when using an atypical formation but a lot of teams follow the ‘standard’ format as closely as possible.

Position Squad Numbers
Keeper 1
Right Back 2
Centre Backs 4 & 5
Left Back 3
Right Midfielder 7
Central Midfielders 6 & 8
Left Midfielder 11
Strikers 9 & 10

For numbers higher than this there is no real structure to it but you would normally have reserve players occupying number 12-25 (or however many players in the squad a club had). Traditionally, no number would be missed off, though some clubs have made an exception in the case of “unlucky” number 13.

Although shirt numbering may usually be fairly standard, there is often no obligation whatsoever to adhere to these more customary selections. Sometimes teams have not only steered away from footballing norms but have occasionally stuck a middle finger up to them. In 2006, Chelsea gave the number nine shirt, almost exclusively reserved for strikers, to defender Khalid Boulahrouz. There have also been some instances of outfield players wearing the number one shirt. Edgar Davids at Barnet and Argentina’s Ossie Ardiles during the 1982 World Cup for Argentina being two high-profile examples.

The motives for breaking the mould can vary significantly. Boulahrouz joked that the kit man set him up rather than it being his preference. As for the Dutch legend Davids, he wanted to set a trend of midfielders wearing the number 1 shirt but it never really caught on. Then you have Ardiles, who ended up with number one because his surname came first alphabetically. That is right, Argentina issued numbers for the 1982 World Cup based on the alphabet, so their first-choice keeper, Ubaldo Filol, ended up with the number 7 shirt.

Interesting Shirt Numbers

As well as not wearing out-of-position numbers, you have an increasing number of players choosing large, unique digits. Trent Alexander-Arnold wears 66 for Liverpool while his fellow first-choice fullback Andrew Robertson wears 26 rather than 3. Gifted French defender Bixente Lizarazu donned 69 when returning to Bayern Munich, although his reason for doing so might not be what you think. Rather than anything mischievous, it was because he was born in 1969, 1.69m tall and 69kg in weight. Although we suspect there was a playful aspect too!

There are plenty of other examples to choose from but two obvious ones that stand out, where players took especially high numbers, were Mario Balotelli’s love for 45, and the number 52 shirt Niklas Bendtner wore at Arsenal (the Danish striker previously wore 3 while at Wolfsburg).

More recently, in 2022, Newcastle signed Brazilian star Bruno Guimaraes from Lyon. The £33m defensive midfielder might have been expected to want the number six, or perhaps number four, or whichever the lowest available number was. However, Bruno, as the Geordie fans know him, wears 39 in honour of his dad! His father is a taxi driver in Rio and drives the number 39 cab!

Manchester United’s Number 7

White 7 Against Red Background

When it comes to the numbers players have taken over the years there really are so many interesting stories to look at. The number seven at Manchester United was historically an important one at the club, with greats including George Best, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona wearing it. Reportedly Sir Alex Ferguson did not want David Beckham to have the number, believing there was already more than enough attention on the young star.

Fergie wanted Roy Keane to wear 7 but the Irish midfielder revealed in his book that he refused. He had long worn 16, felt comfortable in that number and also believed it served to remind him that he still had to work hard. He said that as it was outside the 1-11 it kept him on his toes and made him work as hard as a player trying to force their way into the team, rather than an established stalwart.

Donnarumma 99

Gianluigi Donnarumma
Image: vverve, Bigstock Photo

Last of all let’s finish with one of the highest numbers going, 99. Indeed, as far as we know no player has donned a shirt with a triple-digit number, so Italian Gianluigi Donnarumma can lay claim to being at least the joint “top-shirter” in football. Given the PSG and Italy star is a goalkeeper, he can also probably lay claim to the title of Player With the Biggest Gap From Their Traditional Shirt Number too.

As a 16 year old at Milan he wore 99, which sort of made sense as he was a kid coming through and was born in 1999. However, he rapidly became the club’s number one and yet retained that incredibly high shirt. What’s more, the shot-stopper wears 21 for Italy and 50 for his current side PSG. As in some other nations, the French authorities are rather strict when it comes to shirt numbers and goalkeepers must normally wear 1, 16 or 30. However, when you are as wealthy as PSG, three keepers clearly isn’t enough and with those numbers already taken at the Parc des Princes, the young Italian was allowed to wear number 50.

Strict Rules Can Apply

We have provided you with some examples of weird and non-traditional numbers above but there are some leagues that will simply not tolerate such behaviour. La Liga, for examples, states that players in the senior team must be allocated numbers 1 to 25. In addition to this, goalkeepers in the side must take the numbers 1, 13 and 25. The Spanish top-flight is particularly strict when it comes to numbers as even the Bundesliga, which used to issue numbers 1 to 11 each matchday based on positions, allows players to choose between 1 and 40. The only requirement is that 1 must be allocated to a goalkeeper.

Retiring Numbers

Football on Wooden Table with Dark Background

The decision to retire a number is one that comes internally from a club and is not something enforced by the league. Traditionally it has been something more associated with American sports, for example the Chicago Bulls retiring the number 23 in honour of Michael Jordan (and also 33 for Scottie Pippen, to give just two examples).

However, it is becoming a little more normal in the English game too. When selling English starlet Jude Bellingham to Borussia Dortmund, then-Championship club Birmingham retired his number (22). Reversing a retired number is extremely rare but there is nothing actually stopping the Blues from doing it, as they are imposing the restriction themselves.

Most clubs are therefore free to retire numbers as they see fit but La Liga’s inflexible rules means it is damaging to do so in Spain. Barcelona had wanted to retire Lionel Messi’s number 10 following his emotional farewell but in doing so they would only be able to register 24 players. This is because all squad members require a number between 1 and 25 so the retired number would mean one less available choice.

History Of Shirt Numbers

Old Effect Football PitchIf you are wondering if the shirt numbers have always been decided and allocated in such a way, the answer is most definitely not. In fact, when football was in its infancy during the 19th century, players did not have a number on their shirt nor there shorts. Instead, it was a player’s position that would allow you to recognise who it was because this was an era when almost all teams played a 2-3-5 formation. Additionally, no subs were allowed so you would not suddenly see a new face midway through the game.

It was only until 1928 that players began running about with numbers on their back. The first matches to see this novel idea in action were Arsenal v Sheffield Wednesday and Chelsea v Swansea Town. Widespread take-up of numbers did not follow immediately afterwards mind you, as it took the England national team an extra nine years before they adopted numbers. It seemed to help too as they ended up thrashing Norway 6-0 in Oslo. By 1939, the governing body at the time, the Football League Management Committee, ruled that all clubs must number player shirts.

There was little flexibility provided with the numbering in these early years, with players required to wear shirts 1 through to 11. The numbers would reflect the position played with a goalkeeper starting with number one and the numbers moving up from right to left across each line of the pitch. As previous defences only featured a right back (2) and left back (3), albeit by different names, this is why modern fullbacks often have these numbers.

When rules allowed a substitute to enter the field of play, starting in 1965, the man on the bench had to wear the number 12 shirt. When two subs were permitted (in 1987) the extra reserve often did not take 13 as you might expect, due to its unlucky connection, and instead wore 14. You might consider it to be a little silly but there are still plenty teams today that avoid the number 13. Ahead of the 2019/20 Premier League season, nine teams chose not to issue any player with the number 13 shirt.

As formations evolved, with 4-4-2 eventually becoming the standard, the shirt numbers no longer directly related to position and variations began to emerge. This actually caused England some problems when facing Hungary in 1953 as the Eastern Europeans played their number five in midfield, whereas at the time in England it was normal for five to play at the back. In these times, numbers were simply issued pre-match, meaning they could change game on game.

This carried on for decades afterwards but in 1993 the Premier League decided players needed to keep their number for the entire season (if not moving clubs) and it was not long before leagues elsewhere began to follow suit. With modern society less and less rigid and football more and more commercialised, it would be no major surprise to see even more weird and wonderful numbers in the near future. What will be next?