Pele, so good they retired his number twice
There are many things that come across from the United States that are readily embraced in Europe and the UK.
Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and the humble hamburger are near, if not at, the top of the list. There are others that simply do not work on this side of the pond, and when Americanisms start to encroach on the beautiful game, we are perhaps right to be wary. The retiring of the shirt is something that fits squarely into that category.
The Beginning of the Retirement Age
The act of retiring a shirt or squad number began in North American sports in the middle of the last century, and it was seen as the ultimate token of recognition the club could pay a former legend. At the time, the way shirt number were used in the US was different than in the rest of the world, especially when it came to football. In Europe for example, the player and the shirt were not tied together. The shirt number indicated the position on the pitch, and the player wearing that could change from game to game, depending on injuries, tactics and formations. That was never the case in the US, so when they formed the NASL in 1967, it is no surprise they followed their own system of giving an individual player a number.
As a result, a club from the United States – New York Cosmos – were the first to formerly retire a football shirt, and it is fitting that it was for arguably the greatest player of all time – Pele. In fact, they were so keen on retiring his number 10 jersey, they tried to retire it twice. Decades later, the practice of squad numbers given to individual players as opposed to the positions they play in has spread throughout the world, and as a consequence so has the practice of retiring that shirt number.
A Connection with the Past
Football means different things to different people. To some it is about meeting your mates for a couple of pints before the game every fortnight, sitting through 90 minutes of frustrating tedium, and moaning about it on the way home, before looking forward to doing it all again in a fortnight’s time. To others, it’s all about following the results on their online weekly accumulator. To others still, it is associating yourself with a group; an external identity.
From a club’s perspective, football is very much about associating themselves with a glorious past. By drawing on past glories, even if some of the time they weren’t that glorious, they can deflect from perhaps poorer times they are going through. If they haven’t got a bulging trophy cabinet, then there are always players who have lit up an era, who fans took to and will reminisce endlessly about even at the expense of putting present and future stars, no less equipped, in the shade. Retiring the shirt is the ultimate display of this. It does not cost anything, it is a sign of respect, and perhaps most of the time it is even done for the right motives.
Paolo Maldini’s number 3 shirt was retired by AC Milan when he retired
Is there a Future in Retirement?
There are obvious flaws in all of this. First of all, the act of retiring a shirt sets the precedent, and clubs need to be careful they do not start doing it willy-nilly. Once a shirt has been retired, if a subsequent player has an equally or even better career at that club, he would be in his rights to feel aggrieved if the same honour was not bestowed upon him. Or on his number at least anyway.
Before long, a club that has been in the fortunate position of achieving a couple of decades of success, with a run of teams packed with star players, may be struggling to pick a number lower than their chairman’s waist size. The Milan clubs are already on their way there, with AC not using numbers 3 or 6 and Inter 3 or 4. One route out of this, if teams do insist on retaining the practice, could possibly be the other annoying habit that is becoming a larger part of the modern game, namely the use of increasingly large and bizarre numbers.
Either way, it’s far from ideal.