The January transfer window saw Milan sign Mario Mandžukić, with the Croatian attacker charged with being the latest to try to break the ‘curse’ of the Rossoneri number 9 shirt.
Since Filippo Inzaghi retired at the end of the 2011-12 season, the shirt has led a less-than-charmed life – but, beyond 9 itself, other numbers featuring the digit have had interesting histories.
Squad numbers were introduced in Serie A for 1995-96. Of course, numbers on a red-and-black background calls to mind a roulette wheel and it’s interesting to note how many popular football-related slots games there are. An unusual inclusion in the Milan list back in 95-96 was first-choice centre-back Alessandro Costacurta wearing 29. A year later, the Italian international switched to the just-as-strange 11 before moving the suitable number 5 for 1997-98.
Costacurta intended to retire at the end of 2001-02, but he was persuaded to return – however, by the time he agreed, Fernando Redondo had taken over the number 5 and Costacurta took 19. He reverted to 5 for 2003-04 and kept it until his ‘real’ retirement in 2007.
It was the newly-signed George Weah who was assigned number 9 back in 1995-96 and he wore it successfully for two seasons, but when Patrick Kluivert arrived from Ajax in 1997, Weah agreed to let the Dutchman wear 9 and the Liberian moved to 14, his national team number (which the country has recently retired). However, Kluivert’s stay in Milan wasn’t enjoyable and he departed for Barcelona after just a season, allowing Weah to reclaim 9 for 1998-99.
After Weah left, Gianni Comandini wore 9 for 2000-01 but it was a short-lived stay and it wasn’t until Inzaghi’s arrival in the summer of 2001 that the shirt had a long-term owner again. Inzaghi was still in situ when Ronaldo joined Milan in the winter transfer window of 2006-07 and so the Brazilian opted for 99.
In fact, this was the first time a Milan player had worn a number in the 90s – prior to that, Nicola Pozzi’s number 86 in 2003-04 was the highest. Milan won their seventh and most-recent Champions League in 2006-07 but Ronaldo was cup-tied and so the 44 worn by Massimo Oddo remains the highest number to appear in a European final for them.
Now, every number from 86-99 inclusive is occupied – goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma wears 99, the year of his birth and looks set to stick with it, having passed up the chance to move to 1 more than once. Incidentally, if he were to switch, the drop of 98 would exceed right-back Davide Calabria’s move from 96 to 2 in 2016.
A big move in the opposite direction occurred the following year. When Milan signed Ivorian midfielder Franck Kessié, he was initially set to wear the number 19 shirt, as he had at previous club Atlanta.
He wore the shirt in two pre-season friendlies, but then Milan signed Leonard Bonucci from Juventus. He had worn different numbers earlier in his career, but had had 19 at Bari and then Juve and sought to wear it at the San Siro too. It meant having to ask his new team-mate nicely:
I went on tiptoes, I talked to Kessié and we agreed. I thank him, he’s a smart and sensitive lad, he’s a great investment for this club. For me 19, is an important number, I relied on it in difficult moments in my personal life and my career, so thank you again. The fans warmth has given me so much enthusiasm, I hope to give them a lot of victories down the years. Milan deserve to do better in Italy and Europe.
Kessié could have changed to 14 but instead opted for 79 as it looked like 19 and he still wears it for the club – while he could have gone back to 19 when Bonucci left after a season, he wanted to fair to those who had bought shirts with 79 on them.
Instead, the next player to wear 19 was Polish striker Krzysztof Piątek, signed midway through the 2018-19 season after scoring 19 goals in just 21 games for Genoa. He sought to wear 9, freed up after the departure of Gonzalo Higuaín, but Milan’s sporting director Leonard felt that he had to show he deserved it:
To be honest, he asked for the number 9, but at this moment it is something which has to be earned because it’s an important number.
To be fair to Piątek, he did that with 11 goals in 21 appearances in the second half appearances and was rewarded with number 9 for 2019-20. Unfortunately for him, he could only manage a return of five goals in 20 games before being sold to Hertha Berlin in the January.
The shirt has lain idle since and now Mandžukić will hope to fare better than Pato, Alessandro Matri, Mattia Destro, Fernando Torres, Luiz Adriano, Gianluca Lapadula, André Silva, Higuaín and Piątek in living up to Inzaghi’s legacy.