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Brazil and their numbering maze

Brazil and their numbering maze

A few months ago, we attempted to ascertain the origins of the Brazil numbering system. While large parts of that article were correct, recently reader Alexander Howells got in touch and left a comment with examples of deviation from that style. It was quite informative and we felt it would be best expanded into a full article, so take it away Alexander:

The numbering of football shirts started in the 1920s or 30s when the pyramid formations (2-3-5) was in common use. As a result shirts were numbered accordingly – 2 and 3 full-backs, 4, 5 and 6 half-backs and 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 forwards [see here]

In Britain and most of Europe, the pyramid evolved into the W-M formation, although most countries retained the numbering system from the 2-3-5 with the third back being numbered 5.  In South America, the adoption of W-M was not as common and numbering varied from country to country.

During the late 1940s, a hybrid formation called the “diagonal system” was introduced in Brazil which was a cross between the 2-3-5 and W-M. The system involved the full-backs and half-backs tilting, resulting in the left-half (number 6) playing deeper than the other half-backs, becoming a virtual left-back; further explanation can be found in Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson. This was the system used by Brazil in the 1950 World Cup, where they were unexpectedly beaten by Uruguay, who were still using their own version of 2-3-5. The number 6, Bigode, was roasted all game by Uruguay right-winger Ghiggia, who set up one goal and scored the winner (the few film clips from 1950 available on YouTube show the Brazil number 6 at left-back and 3 at centre-back). The team was set up as follows:


By the 1954 World Cup, however, Brazil were trying to adopt the W-M and their back three were numbered 2-5-3, as in the British convention, with wing-halves 4 and 6 and forwards unchanged. Forward to 1956 and the visit of Brazil to Wembley, where they were beaten 4-2 by England. Right-back Djalma Santos, who was number 2 in 1954, now wore 4, while centre-back Pavao was 2 with left-back Nilton Santos number 3, just as he had been in 1954. The right half was 5 and the left-half 6, with the forwards as usual 7-11. This numbering is in line with that used by Argentina during the same time period and is highlighted in the England Football Online website.

At the 1958 World Cup, which Brazil won for the first time, their shirt numbers appeared to be random. It has been reported that Brazil failed to assign shirt numbers to their squad and a FIFA official assigned them randomly. Some of the numbering, however, does not appear to confirm this but seems to fit the system they used in 1956. For example, the first-choice keeper from 1954, Castilho, was number 1, as he had been four years earlier – nothing random there! Right-back Djalma Santos was number 4 as in 1956, Bellini (centre-back) was 2 and right-half Dino was 5.

Some players seem to have swapped shirts, specifically wingers Garrincha and Zagalo with numbers 11 and 7, and left-back Nilton Santos and second goalie Gilmar with numbers 12 and 3 respectively. Finally, of course, Pele was number 10. What are the odds on this happening randomly? As the numbers are so inconsistent, it is hard to draw a conclusion about which system was intended.

Now we move on to the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where we find that Brazil has introduced a new system altogether. They now line up as follows:


The 4-2-4 system used in 1958 has been adapted to 4-3-3, with left winger Zagalo (21) dropping back into midfield. The other midfielders are defensive midfielder Zito (4) and playmaker Didi (8). They continue to use this system up to the 1966 World Cup, where they number the keepers 1 and 12, defenders 2 through 9, midfield 11 to 15, forwards 16 to 22 and of course Pele number 10. As in 1958, the actual numbering system is blurred.

In 1970, the World Cup is played in Mexico and Brazil has adopted a numbering system similar to the one used by Uruguay over many years. So they line up like this:


(The alternate left back Marco Antonio is number 6 but does not play in any matches.)

The system used in 1970 is maintained for 1974, though with 10 now in midfield and 11 as the left-side attacker. On to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and Brazil starts to use the defensive numbering system that we are familiar with in 2015 and line up as shown below:


From 1978 onwards, the back four of 2-3-4-6 has been consistent, although 3 and 4 have been interchangeable. Number 5 has been a constant in midfield, usually accompanied by 8 and 10. As 4-3-3 migrated to 4-4-2, the two forwards have generally been number 9 and either 7 or 11, for example Ronaldo was 9 and Romario was 11.

Over the years, a few other formations have been used for brief periods. For example, in the late 1950s and early 60s they used the ‘Hungarian’ defensive system in some matches with the back four 2-3-6-4 and during the 2002 World Cup they used three centre-backs, numbered 3-5-4, with wing-backs 2 and 6.

In Argentina, the transition from 2-3-5 to W-M and later systems can been seen as a progression, first with number 4 moving from midfield to defence, followed later by the number 6 (see here). In Uruguay, they skipped W-M and moved from 2-3-5 to a virtual 4-3-3 with the wing-halves, numbers 4 and 6, becoming full-backs and the number 8 and number 10 dropping into midfield to form a trio with number 5.

By contrast, Brazil drifted from one numbering system to another without any apparent  progression. The reason for how they changed, why they changed  and how they finished is far from clear.

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  1. February 15, 2016 at 09:53 — Reply

    Thanks for the kind words Stephen, and good question – I must admit I’m not fully sure off the top of my head!

    As mentioned by Alex, Uruguay went straight from 2-3-5 to a four-man defence, with the wing-halves dropping back to play full-back, so their defence was like this:


    I must check others!

  2. Stephen
    February 15, 2016 at 02:52 — Reply

    First of all, I love this blog – especially the history of (country)’s numbers section, please do more!

    I was wondering, do other South American countries tend to follow the Brazilian system, the Argentinean system, or something else?

  3. chuck
    August 5, 2015 at 17:01 — Reply

    why is this historical piece written almost entirely in present tense?

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Brazil and their numbering maze