The Fascinating Stories Behind 13 Famous Shirt Numbers


Most footballers feel a great affinity with their shirt numbers. In many ways a number may define them, have deep intrinsic meaning, or even be integrated into their personal 'brand'.

Have you ever wondered why certain famous players wore the numbers they did? From Pele to David Beckham, Johan Cruyff to Mario Balotelli, here's a look at 13 intriguing stories.

13. Bixente Lizarazu #69

​Plenty of lewd claims have been made regarding Bixente Lizarazu's choice of number 69 at ​Bayern Munich - the World Cup winner wore it for 18 months when he returned to Bavaria for a second spell at the club in 2005.

The answer is really quite simple, though, because the number was loaded with personal information. Lizarazu was born in 1969. He also stands at 1.69m tall and even weighted 69kg at the time.

Wearing it for his final season as a professional, Lizarazu helped Bayern to another Bundesliga title and a domestic double with victory in the DFB Pokal, adding to the numerous honours he'd already won with the club in previous years.

12. Nicklas Bendtner #52

​Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner took the rather odd step of changing his squad number from 26 to 52 on the eve of the 2009/10 season - he did offer to personally reimburse fans who had already bought a number 26 shirt for that season.

Speaking to at the time, he said, ​"Before it starts I wanted to change my squad number from 26 which I’ve obviously had for a number of seasons now. I chose to move to 52 because it’s a special number to me personally, and I hope that it brings me good luck for the new season."

It was jokingly suggested that the Danish international doubled his number because he thought he was twice the player he was before. Still struggling to 'make it' at the very top, perhaps if he was half as good as he thinks he is, he'd be twice as good as he actually is.

Oddly, Bendtner currently wears the number 3 shirt for Wolfsburg.

11. Stephen Bywater #43

Journeyman goalkeeper Stephen Bywater is far from a household name - the 34-year-old recently joined Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League - but the motivation behind his favoured number 43 shirt is a touching story.

As a 16-year-old, he joined ​West Ham where he worked under the coaching guidance of former Manchester United and Aston Villa goalkeeper Les Sealey. The influence was vital to Bywater's development, but Sealey died suddenly of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 43 and the youngster has worn the number as a tribute ever since.

Speaking to the Independent in 2007, he explained ​"He was like a second dad to me. He taught me about life. He was mental. He was like that off the pitch as well. Maybe that's why I get aggressive but, to be honest, I've always been like that. Les Sealey was a winner and I think winners have that fire in their belly."

10. Ivan Zamorano #18

​The story of Ivan Zamorano's number 18 shirt at ​Inter has long been one of football's most popular anecdotes. Having signed for the club from ​Real Madrid in 1996, the Chilean legend was made to give up his number 9 shirt in the summer of 1998.

Zamorano then opted to include a '+' sign between the digits of his new number, because 1 + 8 = 9.

The number 9 went to rising Brazilian superstar Ronaldo, but a fact often overlooked is that contrary to popular belief it wasn't actually the youngster's arrival from Barcelona which prompted the shift. Ronaldo had joined Inter a year earlier and wore number 10 during his first season. It was only when Roberto Baggio then arrived at the San Siro in 1998 and was given the 10 that Ronaldo took the 9, leaving Zamorano with 1+8.

9. Mario Balotelli #45

​On a similar theme to Zamorano, the story of Mario Balotelli's famous number 45 shirt is also one of simple addition, which came about when he had to choose a shirt as an up and coming youngster at Inter.

Speaking about the subject when he joined Liverpool in 2014, the striker explained to his new club's official website, "When I first played three or four games with Inter Milan, when I was young, I had no.45 because the numbers for young players were from 36 to 50.

"I took No 45 because I was joking that four plus five is nine - and I scored in all four games. It brings me luck and that's why I've always kept No 45."

Unfortunately, it brought him little luck at Anfield and he's now back at ​Milan in what could be his very last chance to make it at the top level.

8. Ronaldinho #80

​Ronaldinho established himself as one of the world's all-time great number 10s during his peak years with ​Barcelona, but wore the 80 shirt instead when he traded La Liga for Serie A and AC Milan in 2008.

Born in 1980, it represented the Brazilian's birth year, something which was and is still a common trend in the Rossoneri. Around that time, Andriy Shevchenko wore number 76, Robinho had 83, Mathieu Flamini sported 84 and Stephan El Shaarawy, 92.

It's a theme visible in the rest of Italian football as well. Former Italian international full-back Marco Cassetti wore number 77 during his time at Roma, while new Watford midfielder Valon Behrami chose number 85 at ​Napoli.

7. Ossie Ardiles #1

​Tottenham Hotspur cult legend Ossie Ardiles is widely known for wearing number 1 for Argentina during the 1982 World Cup - a rather odd choice for an outfield player. The reason being that the Albiceleste numbers for the tournament were actually assigned alphabetically. That is, all except for Diego Maradona, who was given his favoured number 10.

It wasn't a new phenomenon for the Argentinians either. Numbers had been assigned alphabetically in 1978 (Ardiles wore number 2 on that occasion) and in 1974 when defenders Jorge Carrascosa, Ruben Glaria and Ramon Heredia were assigned 7, 9 and 10, respectively.

The Dutch have also travelled down the alphabetical route, too. At the 1974 World Cup, midfielder Ruud Geels was handed the 1 shirt, while first choice goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed wore number 8.

6. Dani Alves #22

​A marauding full-back of the highest order, Dani Alves had worn a typical number 2 shirt for the first five years of his Barcelona career. However, in the summer of 2013 he surprisingly opted to change to 22, the reason for which soon became clear.

The number had previously been worn by the Brazilian's friend Eric Abidal, who had battled liver cancer during his latter years at Camp Nou.

Speaking about it soon after, Abidal revealed that Alves had actually wanted to donate part of his own liver but was unable to. "The story with Dani goes beyond the jersey," the Frenchman said. "He knows it. Me too. We are friends and we talk about everything. He wanted to support me. And besides, he's a very good person. He was my neighbour and his ex-wife and my wife are friends."

Alves has since taken over Xavi's legendary number 6, stating, "My challenge is to defend a very special number, like 22 was."

5. Gianluigi Buffon #88

Gianluigi Buffon caused quite a stir when he wanted to wear number 88 for Parma ahead of the 2000/01 season. The Italian goalkeeper had previously promoted a pro-Mussolini fascist phrase on his jersey, leading many to assume that '88' was neo-Nazi symbolism - referring to 'HH' or 'Heil Hitler'.

However, Buffon publicly explained, ​"I have chosen 88 because it reminds me of four balls and in Italy we all know what it means to have balls: strength and determination. And this season I will have to have balls to get back my place in the Italy team."

He added, "At first I didn't choose 88. I wanted 00 but the league told me that was impossible. I also considered 01 but that was not considered a proper number. I liked 01 because it was the number on the General Lee car in the TV series the Dukes of Hazzard."

Buffon later settled for 77 instead during his final Parma season and has worn a conventional number 1 jersey ever since joining Juventus in 2001.

4. Andrea Pirlo #21

Modern day ​Italian legend Andrea Pirlo has become synonymous with the number 21 shirt over the course of his glorious career, wearing it with distinction for both club and country on the world's biggest stages.

In his 2013 autobiography, Pirlo explained that 21 is his favourite number for several reasons. "My dad was born on the 21st. It's also the day I got married and made my debut in Serie A," he revealed, adding, "It became my shirt number early on and I've never let it go."

The star also recalled that when he rejected an incredibly lucrative move to Qatar in 2011, the time was 9:21pm, or 21:21. A few months later he opted to join ​Juventus instead and enjoyed four more stunning years at the very top.

3. David Beckham #23

David Beckham became rather synonymous with the number 7 after becoming a global star at Manchester United in the late 1990s. But when the England captain joined ​Real Madrid in 2003, the shirt was already occupied by Bernabeu legend Raul, leaving Beckham to look for inspiration from 23 instead.​

Discussing the subject years later, he explained it was because of an admiration for then recently retired basketball superstar Michael Jordan - who made the number famous during his momentous career.

"Everything that he represented, everything that he did in his career, I was a huge fan so it was a no-brainer," Beckham said. "And then when I moved over (to LA Galaxy), it was a number that I wanted to keep because I'd been successful with it with Real Madrid, and like I said being a fan of Michael Jordan."

When he later joined AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, Beckham opted for 32 - the reverse of 23.

2. Pele #10

​Brazilian legend Pele is still widely considered the greatest player in history and is certainly one of the most prominent figures to have ever worn the number 10 on his back. But the 1,200-goal striker was only initially given the shirt by chance.

When the Brazilian federation submitted their squad for the 1958 World Cup, they did so without a list of designated shirt numbers, which were later assigned randomly instead.

A 17-year-old Pele, with just a handful or international appearances to his name, was given the number 10 shirt ahead of the first game against Austria. He finished the tournament with six goals, including two in the final, to announce himself to the world and never wore another number again.

1. Johan Cruyff #14

After calling time on one of the greatest playing careers ever known, ​Johan Cruyff later embarked on a coaching career that put in place the tiki-taka legacy that shapes Barcelona to this day. But the Dutch legend often liked to flout the rules and his famous number 14 shirt stems from that famous trait.

In the days long before club squad numbers, Cruyff suddenly turned out for a game against PSV Eindhoven in 1970 wearing number 14. He had given his usual number 9 to colleague Gerrie Muhren in the dressing room before the game when the midfielder hadn't been able to find his own usual number 7.

Speaking to ​Voetball International in 2012, Muhren recalled that the first shirt Cruyff subsequently picked out of the basket was number 14. A week later Cruyff told his team-mate, "Gerrie, PSV went so well, let's just play with the same numbers." - much to the disdain of the authorities who still insisted on numbers 1-11. The rest is history.

Cruyff was later the only player exempt from the alphabetical system that governed the assigning of Dutch squad numbers at the 1974 World Cup. He wore his usual 14 when he had actually been due to wear number 1.