When it comes to honouring former players, there are a few options that football clubs tend to opt for. For players who have risen to the dizzy heights of “club legend”, it is not at all unusual to see stands renamed or statues built just outside the stadium entrance. Clubs also have the option of retiring a player’s number and there is a long list of examples of this being employed from across the world of football.
While many teams buy into the tradition of retiring numbers, the reasons for doing so does vary. There are no fixed rules on what is deemed worthy for a number retirement so it is solely at the discretion of the club in question. In most cases, the decision goes down well with the fans but there have been odd instances of somewhat controversial number retirements that have resulted in backlashes from the faithful.
Are Shirt Retirements Permanent or Temporary?
Whether or not a shirt retirement is a permanent move is purely down the club itself. In some instances, they may initially announce that they will retire the number for a set period, often a decade. This is not overly common but you can find some examples of it happening, such as when Swedish outfit Hammarby IF announced they would retire the number 10 shirt for as many years (between 2019 and 2028) when Kennedy Bakircioglu hung up his boots. Announcing a retirement shorter than 10 years is rare but occasionally it does happen. Another Swedish team, Östers IF, retired Mario Vasilj’s number six shirt for six years following the player’s 12-year stint at the club.
Other number retirements end up being temporary because the club decides to revive the number later down the line. Although this will not have been pre-planned per se, a club may feel like they have acquired a player (often a big-money transfer) who is deserving of this cherished number or perhaps circumstances have changed for whatever reason. In the case of Wolverhampton Wanderers, they decided to retire the number one shirt in 2018, a number formerly held by goalkeeper Carl Ikeme who had been diagnosed with leukaemia. Three years later though and upon signing the new shot-stopper in Jose Sa, Wolves reintroduced the number, partly as Ikeme himself said it would be nice to see it return.
A new signing also saw the return of the number six shirt at Roma, which had not been used since Brazilian defender Aldair left the club in 2003. A decade later and when Dutchman Kevin Strootman signed from PSV in a €19m deal, he requested to have this special number and his request was granted following Aldair’s approval.
As said, there are no set rules governing this phenomenon, so any retirements of shirt numbers can end at any point, even if the club originally intended them to be permanent. There is nothing legally or otherwise preventing a number from being reissued. You will find though that most clubs do retire numbers with the view that the decision remains for several decades at least. Napoli retired the number 10 shirt, formerly worn by Diego Maradona in 2000. Although they were forced to use the number when playing in Serie C due to league rules, it has always been avoided since the initial retirement when possible. This is despite speculation that club legend Lorenzo Insigne could don the shirt before he retires. Responding to the suggestion though, the Italian insisted that “the number 10 can’t be touched”.
When Did Clubs Start Retiring Numbers?
For much of footballing history, it was not really possible to retire a number given that players were not allocated specific digits on their back. In the past, squad numbers were simply handed out on matchdays, often based on a player’s position. This meant that it could easily change on a game-by-game basis. With a lot of early players having no strong affiliation with any particular number (with the exclusion of goalkeepers) retiring a number would not have worked as a gesture.
The now-defunct North American Soccer League was one of the first to introduce permanent numbers, doing so when it was established in 1967. This enabled New York Cosmos to retire the number 10 shirt when Pele left the club in 1977. North America was far ahead of their time with this though as many leagues across the globe only adopted persistent squad numbers during the 1980s and 1990s. Given that any player would need to wear a shirt for several years in order for a number to be retired, the symbolic gesture only really took off at the start of the 21st century.
Although retiring numbers is largely a relatively new phenomenon, this does not stop players from decades gone by being commemorated in such a manner. In 2008, West Ham decided to retire the number six shirt in honour of the World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore. The London-born defender departed West Ham in 1974, so long before the introduction of persistent numbers, but six was the number he spent most of his time wearing including when guiding England to World Cup glory in 1966.
Do Restrictions Apply?
In most football leagues, you will find clubs are free to retire any number they like, for whatever reason they like. Squad numbering rules however can limit what clubs can do in a minority of leagues and competitions. La Liga is perhaps the best example as they have long had strict rules regarding squad numbers, which has made it tricky or impossible to retire a number.
For the 2010/11 season, third-tier side Real Oviedo wished to retire the number 10 following the tragic death of their Slovakian striker Peter Dubovsky. The Spanish Football League allowed this special request but only for one year. Similarly, Barcelona were allowed just a two-year retirement of the number 21 shirt won by Luis Enrique.
More recently, Spanish sides have struggled to even gain even a brief exception. When Antonio Puerta suffered a fatal cardiac arrest in 2004, Sevilla wanted to preserve his number and would only reissue it if his son were to play for the club. The Royal Spanish Football Federation rejected this though with Sevilla instead compromising that the number 16 would be reserved for academy-grown talents. It is this Spanish requirement to use numbers one to 25 which also prevented Barcelona from retiring the number 10 shirt that Lionel Messi had so famously worn during his time in Catalonia.
You may think Spanish rules are needlessly inflexible but they are not the only place where strict squad number rules are upheld despite special requests. South African outfit Orlando Pirates retired the number 22 after Lesley Manyathela died in 2003. They were free to avoid using the number 22 when registering players for the domestic league but Confederation of African Football rules are more rigid. This means the Pirates have sometimes had to re-issue it when involved in the African Champions League.
Reasons for retirement?
Providing league squad number rules do not prevent a number from being retired, clubs can essentially do what they like. Often numbers are retired as a tribute to a legendary player or one that has tragically passed away or become seriously ill but this is not always the case, as you will soon find out.
A very lengthy stay at a club is perhaps not in itself worthy of a number retirement if many of those years were full of mediocre performances or time spent on the bench. However, if a player can produce many years of high-quality output at a particular club, then it is a different story as such players will almost always enter “legend” status. The stay does not even have to be that long if the player was so good they managed to have a transformative impact on the side. Roberto Baggio only spent the final four years of his illustrious career at Brescia but despite his age, the Italian was an inspiration, scoring 45 goals across 95 league games. Similarly, Spanish striker Jonathan Soriano saw his number retired by RB Salzburg after he netted 172 goals during a five-year stay.
Four or five years appears to be the absolute minimum to end up being rewarded with a shirt retirement for purely footballing reasons. In many cases though, many commemorated players have put in a much longer shift. AC Milan are lucky enough to have two world-class long-term servants: Paolo Maldini who played between 1984 and 2009 and Franco Baresi who stayed between 1977 and 1997. As a show of appreciation for their years of excellence, both the number three and the number six shirts were retired in their respective honour. It is worth noting though that Maldini’s number three is not fully retired as the fullback has given the club permission to reuse it should either of his sons follow in his footsteps
Posthumous Shirt Number Retirement
Sadly, this is the most common reason for retiring a shirt number. Occasionally it will be retired when a legend from years back dies of old age or in relatively non-tragic circumstances. Such examples are somewhat rare but you can look to Giacinto Facchetti of Inter Milan who died aged 64 in 2006. Very soon after Inter were granted permission to withdraw the number three shirt which Facchetti had worn 634 times. Cordoba also did the same following the death of the 72 year old Juanin who had not only played over 200 times for the club but had continued to work as a coach following his retirement.
In the majority of instances though, the retirement of a number will be triggered by the death of an active or only recently retired player. Tragically, Derry City were involved in this situation twice in back-to-back years. All-time club-record goalscorer Mark Farren died two years after retirement following a battle with cancer and the next year club captain Ryan McBride died in his sleep aged just 27. Other recent examples include Cheick Tiote who died while training for Beijing Enterprises, Fiorentina’s Davide Astori and the promising young talent Junior Malanda of Wolfsburg.
Whether illness, a traffic accident or anything else, the reason for the death is largely irrelevant when it comes to retiring a number in honour of a player who has died. It is seen as a fitting and appropriate way for a club to pay their respects and it is a tradition that is likely to continue for some time.
Other Reasons To Retire A Shirt Number
We wanted to be a little more precise with the heading here but the list of other reasons simply varies too much. Greek side AEL decided to retire the number 24 following the sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant as the country has such love for the sport. Although AEL also have a basketball team (AEL Limassol B.C.) they had no connection whatsoever to Bryant, making it a rather curious, albeit respectful, decision.
Another non-football-related retirement comes to us from neighbouring Turkey where Istanbul Basaksehir retired the number 12 as it was the number Turkish president Recep Erdogan wore on their opening ceremonial match.
To give you some more rather obscure examples, Leeds retired the number 17 shirt in 2014 because it is viewed as unlucky in Italian culture, the birthplace of their former chairman Massimo Cellino. Although another Italian, Andrea Radrizzani, took over the club in 2017, he was clearly less superstitious as he brought back 17 a little over a year after completing the takeover.
Sticking with English clubs, we also have Birmingham City who took the largely ridiculed decision to retire Jude Bellingham’s number after he clinched a £25m move to Borussia Dortmund. The teenager had only played one full year for the senior team before moving on to bigger things so, to most fans, he hardly seemed worthy of such a tribute.
Finally, there is an odd case from Slavia Prague who partially retired the number seven, worn by Stanislav Vlcek. The initial decision was not particularly controversial given that the forward had spent six seasons at Slavia Prague; the strangeness came from when the number could be reissued. Rather than a full retirement, Slavia Prague stated they would only allow the number to be worn if a player ticks seven specific boxes. This included things like playing for the national team, being the top goalscorer for a season and scoring at least three goals against rivals Sparta Prague. Milan Skoda met all the requirements by 2016 but opted to keep his existing number 21 shirt. A year later Slavia abandoned their strict criteria and handed the season to new signing Danny. The Portuguese international pledged to meet all the requirements but left Slavia a year later having scored just one goal.