Search icon


11th Aug 2021

The worst crimes against shirt numbers in football history XI

Danny Jones

A suitably selected kit number is a thing of beauty, but when shirt numbers go wrong, it’s a crime against the very culture. We’re here to name and shame the culprits

What was your favourite number growing up? The seven? A classic choice; Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo all come to mind – and that just at United. How about the 14? Cruyff, Henry, Xabi Alonso. There are so many iconic digits, we could go on forever and trust us, if left to our own devices, we would. But what about the players whose numbers just didn’t look right?

After it was recently announced that Gareth Bale would not be wearing his trademark no. 11 upon returning to Real Madrid, we did a little over on FootballJOE asking whether you lot still care about shirt numbers. Surprisingly, it was more evenly split than we expected:

As it panned out, the yeses took it in the end – and rightly so, might we add – and it made us think back on all the worst affronts made against shirt numbers that still make this phenomenon such a serious issue (because it just is). They might not indicate positions on the pitch like they used to anymore but they clearly still matter to many of us.

So, with all this in mind, we thought we’d do a ‘worst kit numbers starting eleven’ to make things more interesting. We’re playing a 4-3-3: it’s more modern and it was the only way we could fit in everyone on this numerically nauseating list, ok?

GK: Gianluigi Buffon – #88

Now, not to start off on too strong a note, but we needed a keeper and we couldn’t think of one with so much talent that also happens to have such a problematic shirt number story. Any first-choice keeper not being the number one irks us, for starters.

As alluded to above, the Buffon got in hot water back in 2000 after people claimed that his shirt number for Parma, 88, was a reference to neo-Nazism: the eighth letter of the alphabet being H and ‘HH’ supposedly referring to, well, you can figure it out.

To this day, the 43-year-old denies this was ever the dog-whistle some people thought it was, instead stating that he simply picked the number because it looked like two sets of testicles i.e. a masculine statement of ‘I’ve got balls’. Bit of a weird one, Gigi, but better than the alternative.

RB: Glen Johnson – #8

Glen Johnson wearing the number eight at Stoke

Just no. We have nothing personal against Glen Johnson – a model professional by all accounts with some good clubs on his CV, not to mention 54 England caps – but we simply cannot abide a right-back taking what is categorically the most midfield number, perhaps, of all.

Johnson moved to Stoke from a faltering Liverpool side at the start of the 2015/16 season. As for the reasons for picking the number, some have argued that his few appearances playing closer to left-wing on Merseyside could be a reason but, in truth, he didn’t really have much choice; the only other alternative being 14 (also wouldn’t look quite right).

He announced his retirement back in 2019, bringing an end to a 16-year career in which he spent most of the time wearing the right number, 2, or at least more acceptable ones – i.e. 4 or 5, as is a defender’s right. However, it is his three seasons as Stoke’s buccaneering, number-eight-wearing right back that earns him a spot in the starting 11.

CB: William Gallas – #10

From bad to worse. William Gallas is genuinely a Premier League great and his inclusion on this list is by no means any slight on his ability as a footballer, but giving a defender the coveted and undeniably historic number 10 is pure heresy.

Gallas moved to Arsenal from Chelsea in, essentially a swap deal plus extra with Ashley Cole. Unfortunately, upon arrival, Belarusian Alex Hleb (remember him?) already had his favoured number 13, so the Frenchman saw an opportunity to finally take the ten – a number he hadn’t worn since his youth days when he did play as a midfielder.

Apparently, it took Arsene Wenger some convincing too as just to make things even harder to swallow, he was the first Gunner to don the shirt since Dennis Bergkamp. Now, we’re not going to go so far as to say this was a decision that disgraced the Dutchman’s legacy but it’s just not on. Gallas was great but the ten is for the creators, the attackers, the forwards — end of.

CB: Marcel Desailly – #8

Defender Desailly wore the eight for both France and AC Milan

As far as centre-backs go, you can’t really go far wrong with a defensive duo of William Gallas and Marcel Desailly. Both Les Bleus and Chelsea have had some truly magnificent partnerships over the years, but a pairing that has shared the pitch for both club and country is dream level chemistry.

Now, we would largely let Desailly off in this instance had it only be a season or two and his preferred/more suitable number was taken. However, this bloke not only wore the 8 for five consecutive seasons at AC Milan but throughout his entire 12-year national team career. Simply unacceptable behaviour.

We don’t know much about the story as to why he kept this number other than having been a midfielder before he was a defender – maybe just to be a bit cool and different (which probably was the case for a lot of people, to be fair) – but we simply cannot abide, especially when he could have just lobbied for the 6 as he wore at Chelsea. Regardless, he’s also in at centre-half.

LB: Bixente Lizarazu – #69

There’s also one, isn’t there?… The name Bixente Lizarazu might not be quite a household one, but the third Frenchman on our list did rock this comedic albeit a bit immature number for Bayern Munich, of all clubs.

It’s worth stating that he didn’t start off like this: his initial seven-year spell at Bayern started with the number 11 and then move to the more traditional three. However, after a year over in Marseille, he returned to the German giants wearing the most schoolboy of all shirt numbers.

While Lizarazu said that he obviously knew the connotations of this naughty little number, he insists that it was chosen because not only was he born in 1969 but, rather staggeringly, his height was 1.69 metres and even his weight was 69 kilos. Yeah, we’d go with that excuse too.

CM: Edgar Davids – #1

Edgar Davids. The hair, the shades, the number 1—wait, hang on. The Netherlands international had a glittering career, being a crucial cog in the midfield of Ajax, AC Milan and, of course, Juventus. Crikey, what an era that was: Davids, Zidane, Nedved, Deschamps – oof. However, ending his playing days as player-manager at League Two Barnet remains unparalleled content.

To make things even more ridiculous, Davids came out of retirement to snap up this opportunity and his first big decisions as manager were to drop himself into the middle of the park, appoint himself captain and give himself the number one shirt. Standard and completely normal behaviour.

His reason for this unorthodox kit number? He just wanted to start a trend. Well, he may have believed his own clout was big enough to break the mould but the biggest wave he made during his two seasons at the North London side was to get sent off in three times in six games. Quality content and the perfect playmaker to have in our mystifying midfield.

CM: Steven Sidwell – #9

No, just no. Just like the 8, the number 9 couldn’t be further entrenched in the position it used to denote on a football pitch – we still refer to certain centre-forwards as a ‘proper, old school number nine’. So seeing Steven Sidwell rocking it in the middle of the park for a total 25 Chelsea appearances was just wrong, as swift as it may have been.

The former Reading man joined Jose Mourinho‘s side for the 2007/08 season after having always done a solid job in the midfield but, if we’re being totally honest, the Blues had a pretty solid squad already. That being said, he was never going to be stealing the spotlight from the likes of Lampard, Ballack, Essien and so on.

Now, don’t get us wrong, we love Siddy – we’ve done a fair bit of stuff with the ‘Ginger Iniesta‘ here at JOE – but I think even he’ll admit that stealing the number nine from a prospective forward player just isn’t on. We’ll forgive him purely for that goal from the halfway line alone; his only punishment is being on this list.

CAM: Ronaldinho – #80

Ronaldinho wore the 80 because Clarence Seedorf already had the 10

Part of us cannot believe we are doing anything other than bowing to this absolute magician; Ronaldinho is part of the reason that many people fell in love with football in the first place – a true entertainer and someone who played with a smile on his face.

Nevertheless, we’ve already touched upon the significance of the number 10 and the names it brings to mind, so to witness the Brazilian genius wearing anything other than that never stopped being jarring.

In fairness to him, the former Barcelona Ballon d’Or winner would have naturally gravitated towards the number ten had it been available, but fellow legend Clarence Seedorf already had it, which left him to pick the number 80 as it was the year he was born. All in all, not so horrendous, we could just never get used to it but we’d certainly take watching him in the ten of our team.

RW: Iván Zamorano – #1+8?…

What do you do when you can’t have the number 9 anymore? Just casually do some maths on the back of your shirt. That’s what Chilean striker Iván Zamorano did when Ronaldo – as in R9, Ronaldo Nazário – turned up at Inter Milan.

In fairness, given how brilliant Ronaldo was in an Inter shirt, or any shirt for that matter, it would have been sort of strange to give Zamorano the quintessential striker’s number. However, most players would look for the next best thing, as opposed to asking for 1+8, i.e. = 9. It might be a little bit different and kooky, but it just looks like a novelty shirt.

Nevertheless, Zamorano wore it for three out of his five seasons with the Nerazzurri and did so with confidence, in fairness. I suppose he thought he’d had the marquee number for two years and that was enough – we more take issue with whoever allowed it in the first place. Where does it end? Question marks for the players who might not deserve it yet? Not a bad idea, actually…

LW: Thierry Henry – #12

Right, we know this one might ruffle a few feathers but hear us out. We’ve already mentioned what Thierry Henry means to the number 14 and vice versa, which is exactly seeing him wearing the 12 both for France and on his brief return to Arsenal doesn’t chime with us.

As brilliant as this moment was, for many football fans (especially of my generation), that number and the Gunners’ all-time leading goalscorer simply cannot be divorced. But, apparently, the Premier League legend wanted the number 12 to begin with.

Speaking with former teammate Cesc Fabregas during an Instagram live, he revealed his first choice was in honour of one of his idols, the legendary Marco van Basten, who wore that number in an iconic performance at Euro ’88. However, upon arriving at Highbury, Christopher Wreh had it and so the legacy of the 14 was born – and that’s how we’re keeping it, alright?

ST: Nicklas Bendtner – #3, #26, #52 and so on

Last but not least, who could forget another Premier League legend, European journeyman and all-around numerical nightmare, Nicklas Bendtner? This man has had every wrong number under the sun, from wearing the 3 up top for Wolfsburg to wearing three different numbers for Arsenal alone.

Though arriving as a second-choice/rotation striker and being given the 33, then the 26 is perfectly acceptable, they are obviously not the most luxurious numbers you could hope for. However, to actively choose the 52 the season after is just nonsensical to us. That being said, he did have his reasons.

There has been some debate over why he picked the 52 – he scored 26 in one season and wanted to double his tally; his favourite number is 7 (i.e. 5+2), or some special reason we don’t know about – but what we can agree on is it just the number you pick if you want to back yourself as “one of the best strikers in the world“. He may not have ever been but he’ll do just fine for our team.

Here’s your line-up…

A starting 11 of the worst shirt numbers ever

Look at her, she’s utterly beautiful and equally disgusting all at the same time; an absolute dream team and simultaneously the stuff of nightmares.

See you at the best Sunday league ever, lads!

Related links