In the beginning, there were no jersey numbers. Simple. In today’s game from the U10 youth level (or even below) to the FIFA World Cup that would seem extraordinary. Numbering allows for better game and player management, quick identification and coach communication. Its part of the modern game.
Though there was some use of numbering in the early 1900s, it was the English 1933 FA Cup final which is marked the real debut of the use of shirt numbers. Everton were numbered 1-11, and Manchester City were given the numbers 12-22. In a strange twist, City decided to give goalkeeper number 22, and assigned the numbers in descending order. In 1939 numbers on the back of players’ shirts became mandatory in the English Football League although many teams had used them before.
The move to a fixed number being assigned to each player in a squad was initiated for the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland, where each man in a country’s 22-man squad wore a specific number for the duration of the tournament. Thus creating the relationship between a player and a roster number. Previous to this the jersey number had a specific relation to the position on the pitch – the obvious being the Goalkeeper was always assigned the No 1.
Though there are differing versions of number assignment, the traditional use of the numbers in a 11 a side team (on a 5-3-2 formation and we are talking in the 1960s) went something like this:
1 = Goalkeeper
2 = Right Fullback
3 = Left Fullback
4 = Centre Half/Back
5 = Centre Half/Back
6 = Centre Half/Back
7 = Right Wing/Midfield
8 = Centre Midfield.
9 = Centre Forward
10 = Centre Forward
11 = Left Wing/Midfield
In the 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cups Argentina decided to allocate jersey numbers on an alphabetical basis to their players. This resulted in the great playmaker Osvaldo Ardiles donning the No 1 jersey, Maradonna ended up with No 10. Superstition
In 1993, England’s Football Association switched to persistent squad numbers, abandoning the mandatory use of 1–11 for the starting line-up. It became standard in the FA Premier League in the 1993-94 season, with names printed above the numbers. Most European top leagues adopted the system over the next five years and today few soccer teams from 10 year old up don’t have assigned jersey numbers to players.