Following on from alphabetical numbering and Scotland’s idiosyncratic 1990 style, we take another look at different World Cup numbering systems, with France and Italy in the spotlight for their ‘block’ styles.
The first time that countries were mandated to give players set numbers at a World Cup was in 1954 and various approaches were used. Most teams tried to stay true to what they normally did with 1-11, though unsurprisingly there was no pattern followed with the higher numbers.
France and hosts Switzerland did something novel, though. Both selected three goalkeepers and numbered them 1-3, with defenders next, then half-backs and the forwards taking the higher numbers. If you look at the Wikipedia page with the squads from ’54, the blocks look to be a little bit out of kilter, with a midfielder among the forwards or vice-versa. However, it can be assumed that these positions relate to those that we perceive today, as each ‘block’ in the squad is arranged alphabetically.
Switzerland weren’t at the 1958 World Cup, leaving France as the only side with that block method. In ’62, the USSR and Colombia did something similar, albeit without the players sorted alphabetically within their position. Spain’s goalkeepers were 1, 2 and 3 but the rest of players were done alphabetically. For the 1966 World Cup, France were properly alphabetical and it was Argentina – who would later popularise the alphabetical style – who had something resembling the block format. Italy made the first steps towards the block as their goalkeepers were 1 and 2 and the outfielders alphabetical while Portugal had 1-3 as goalkeepers but no logic beyond that.
Italy returned to a straightforward system in Mexico in 1970 and only the Soviets had a goalkeeper wearing number 2 (though, oddly, Lev Yashin was 13). In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1978 that the Italians would first utilise the blocks as France had, though this numbering excluded goalkeepers. They were 1, 12 and 22. Defenders were 2-8, midfielders 9-11 and 13-17 and forwards 18-21, with each position sorted alphabetically – for example, Paolo Rossi would become associated with 20 after his Golden Boot in 1982 but he was 21 in ’78.
They would continue with the block-numbering until the 1998 World Cup. One point of interest with the ’82 squad was that wingers were separately grouped, with Franco Causio, Bruno Conti and Daniele Massaro wearing 15, 16 and 17 respectively. France also adopted the system in 1982 (goalkeepers 1, 21 and 22) though, as we have seen with Argentina and the Netherlands and alphabetical numbering, egos could get in the way – Michel Platini was allowed to wear 10 when he should have been 13.
In 1986, Alain Giresse followed Platini’s lead and sought a change too, coincidentally also avoiding 13, which was worn by Bernard Genghini while Giresse got 12. Individual demands would also eventually affect Italy’s numbering too. Franco Baresi had worn 2 in 1982 and ’90 (he didn’t play in ’86 though his brother Giuseppe wore 11 as the first-named midfielder) but for the 1994 World Cup he was allowed to wear his favoured 6 instead of 3 (Luigi Apolloni was 2). Roberto Baggio also bucked the trend as he wore 10.
At France ’98, Baggio had fallen into line as he was 18 (he also wore that number at AC Milan) but he should actually have been 17 as Alessandro Del Piero had now taken 10. Captain Paolo Maldini followed Baresi’s example from ’94 as he wore 3 when he should have been 5, as he had worn in America. France had missed the 1990 and ’94 World Cups and when when they returned, as hosts, their numbering was logical-ish (if we overlook Marcel Desailly wearing 8 at centre-back, Didier Deschamps’ 7 as anchorman and Youri Djorkaeff as an attacking midfielder with 6).
Looking at their games, Italy didn’t appear out of place, however, as their first-choice back three of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Costacurta and Alessando Nesta wore the ‘correct’ 4, 5 and 6, with Maldini wearing 3 on the left. Maybe it was this which persuaded the Italian federation to relax things for the 2002 World Cup (also the first time a manufacturer’s logo was seen on an Italy shirt at the World Cup) and subsequent editions. Maybe it wasn’t. Whatever the reasoning, World Cup numbering is certainly a lot more boring since then.