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The Netherlands’ World Cup Rehabilitation

The Netherlands’ World Cup Rehabilitation

We’ve already looked at alphabatical numbering at the World Cup and the role the Netherlands played in that.

While the 1974 numbering was acceptable (bar Johan Cruyff’s ego), the 1978 system – or lack of it – was a bit of a mess, with the veterans from ’74 keeping their numbers and others taking what was free. While subsequent World Cup appearances by the Dutch had the numbers fairly normal, there was the occasional questionable call, such as Ronald de Boer wearing 9 in 1994 and Dennis Bergkamp 8 in ’98 with Clarence Seedorf 10.

Since then, though, the Netherlands have been very impressive in how they have done things numbers-wise. Having missed out on the 2002 World Cup, they returned in ’06 and manager Marco van Basten – or someone at the KNVB – had taken great care in allocating the numbers.

While the players from 1-11 never appeared together, they could be arranged in the classic Dutch formation. But for right-back Khalid Boulahrouz wearing 3 – he would go on to wear another non-RB number at Chelsea – and central defender Kew Jaliens having 2, it would have been perfect.

The Dutch went a step further with the rest of the squad, however. Back-up goalkeepers Henk Timmer and Maarten Stekelenburg wore 22 and 23 respectively, with every other player wearing a number 10 greater than what he would wear if he were in the first 11. For instance, as the notional second-choice right-winger to number 7 Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie was 17 (though van Persie would start more games there) while left-back Tim de Cler was 15, behind the 5 of Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Interestingly, while regarded as a centre-back and wearing 14, John Heitinga played at right-back for much of the competition, though as the alternatives were Boulahrouz and Jan Kromkamp, that’s hardly surprising.

2006a 2006b

Come 2010 and the Netherlands would continue to do things right. Rafael van der Vaart’s request for 23 upset the pattern of the 11-plus numbers slightly (goalkeeper Michel Vorm wore 16) but he lost his place in the knockout stages and in the last-16 game against Slovakia, they fielded 1-11.

While there were changes to the side for the quarter-final against Brazil and the semi-final against Uruguay, the final saw them 1-11 again – the first time since the introduction of squad numbers in 1954 that a team in the final had done so:

  1. Maarten Stekelenburg
  2. Gregory van der Wiel
  3. John Heitinga
  4. Joris Mathijsen
  5. Giovanni van Bronckhorst
  6. Mark van Bommel
  7. Dirk Kuyt
  8. Nigel de Jong
  9. Robin van Persie
  10. Wesley Sneijder
  11. Arjen Robben


It was a more pragmatic approach by Holland as they didn’t win too many fans in reaching the final, but it was effective and, just as importantly, the numbers fitted the system. Having lost 1-0 to Spain in the decider, the Netherlands’ next World Cup game almost four years later was against the same opposition and again they fielded 1-11:

  1. Jasper Cillessen
  2. Ron Vlaar
  3. Stefan de Vrij
  4. Bruno Martins Indi
  5. Daley Blind
  6. Nigel de Jong
  7. Daryl Janmaat
  8. Jonathan de Guzman
  9. Robin van Persie
  10. Wesley Sneijder
  11. Arjen Robben


While the 4-2-3-1 wasn’t a million miles from what we were used to with Holland, this three-man-defence system employed by Louis van Gaal was a change. Numerically speaking, the left-back (5) shifted to wing-back with the rest of the defence ‘sliding’ across and 7 dropping back to play right wing-back.

The Spanish game turned out to be a 5-1 win and this system took them all the way to the semi-finals, where Argentina beat them. Apart from Spain, the 1-11 was also used against Australia but the team changes thereafter.

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  1. Lalle
    December 10, 2017 at 15:28 — Reply

    I don’t really like the way that Holland give #3 to a CB instead of a LB. Even tough it seems to be a tradition, it doesn’t look to good.

    The Swedish way of numbering is even worse since it is just numbered from right to left, with the exception of #7 to the right. #3 and #5 should be shifted since a CB shouldn’t be playing in #3, especially when the LB is playing with #5. But the worst part is having to see a winger playing with #9.

    Sweden were doing things right during the 50’s but some time in the 60’s the defense started to be numbered the wrong way. And by World Cup 78 a midfielder like Lennart Larsson had #9.

    Nowadays (since Hamrén came in charge) the players seem stuck with their number. LB Ludwig Augustinsson is playing with #6 since LM Emil Forsberg took over #10 from Ibrahimovic. A good thing is that the striker Marcus Berg is in #9 but his partner Toivonen is stuck with #20.

  2. November 11, 2015 at 23:13 — Reply

    I can see a lot of logic in what you’re saying Adde, but I must say that England wearing 1-11 in all games outside of major finals is something I really like – I just wish that other countries still adhered to that, it made the finals ‘special’ then!

    If you were going to change the England numbers as you specified, then I can’t argue with any of your choices as at least there is thought behind them – ditto the Netherlands though, again, that they had 1-11 in a World Cup game was worthy on applause.

    On Sweden – I’ve often wondered when the numbering system there came into use? It’s not based on any other country’s, as far as I know, from what I can make out it’s simply ascending right to left, though with the wide midfielders slightly ahead of those in the centre, like so:


    Wikipedia lists the midfield as 7-6-8-9, so maybe I’m wrong and it’s a 4-1-3-2, with 6 as the holding player and the other three ahead?

    Mellberg wearing 4 would have made sense but 3 is accepted as CB number in Sweden so I’m fine with it – it’s like Jaap Stam wearing 3 for Holland, Fernando Redondo 5 for Argentina when he was 6 with Real Madrid or Roy Keane always wearing 6 for Ireland.

  3. Adde
    November 11, 2015 at 22:39 — Reply

    The Netherlands and England are two countries that often go 1-11 in the qualification groups rather giving a player the number they got in their club, outside the 1-11.

    I´ll give two examples on how I would do it. My first is a game between Norway and England, 03/09/2014. Players with * have a new number from me.

    My squad would be:
    1 Hart
    2 Chambers* = 21 in club, like 2
    3 Baines
    4 Henderson
    5 Cahill
    6 Jagielka* = 6 in club
    7 Sterling* = Wingernumber, number now in MC
    8 Wilshere* = Close to 10
    9 Sturridge
    10 Rooney
    11 Welbeck* = Played in 11 in England, had 21 in MU
    12 Stones*
    13 Foster
    14 Jones* = Like 4
    15 Oxlade-Chamberlain* = 15 in Arsenal
    16 Delph* = No he had in Aston V
    17 Milner* = Like 7
    18 Townsend
    19 Lambert*

    If I´ll take the squad of Holland from 2014 as an short example on how I would do it:
    I would give Janmaat no. 2. He´s a RD (this tournament a def. winger, but still) and 2 is his number!
    7 is the number for Kuyt! That would give Vlaar no. 15 which is “like” 5.

    My home country Sweden had 1-11 for the starting eleven in all friendly and qualification games until we got our new manager. That could result in a player who had no. 10 one game as a striker could in the next one have 11 on his shirt, same position. Mellberg played with 4 in his European clubs, but had 3 as a central defender since the numbers where 2-3-4-5 and he took place to the right in the central. I would hand him the no. 4 shirt in the national team.

  4. Alex Howells
    July 26, 2015 at 13:54 — Reply

    An earlier example of this numbering system was Benfica when they played Man Utd in the 1968 European Cup Final. They played 4-2-4 adjusting to 4-3-3. Nominal right winger Augusto No 8 dropped into midfield to acompany midfielders Coluna No 6 and Graca No 7.

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The Netherlands’ World Cup Rehabilitation