What does a shirt number really mean? To some it doesn’t mean a great deal, which is why you sometimes see centre-backs wearing the number 26. To others though, a shirt number means a great deal.
It speaks to their importance to the team, it informs how they feel about their own abilities and at times, forms an important part of their brand. CR32 wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it would it?
In the wake of the news that Chelsea fans are once again clamouring for the number 26 at Stamford Bridge to be retired in honour of their iconic captain John Terry, we decided to look at what it takes to get a shirt number retired. Terry led Chelsea to five Premier League titles, he was the captain in the most successful spell in the club’s history.
Current club captain César Azpilicueta – who has worn 28 during his time at Stamford Bridge – will be hoping to lead Chelsea to their first title for five seasons, and the football odds suggest they have a chance, they are second favourites, just behind reigning champions Manchester City.
So, let’s take a closer look at what exactly requires a shirt number to be retired.
Tragedy – Marc-Vivien Foé #23
On June 26, 2003, Cameroon were playing Colombia in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup in Lyon, France. With 73 minutes on the clock, Cameroon and Manchester City midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé was jogging along innocuously by the centre circle.
Suddenly he collapsed to the ground with no one around him. He was rushed by medical staff down the tunnel where they attempted to resuscitate him but their efforts were in vain, he had died as a result of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a heart related condition that increases the risk of sudden death.
In the wake of the midfielder’s death there was an outpouring of grief across the football world. In honour of Foé, Manchester City decided to retire his number 23 shirt. French club Lens, for whom Foé had previously played, also took the decision to retire the number 17 shirt which he had previously worn at the club.
Cringe – The 12th Man
The life of a lower-league football fan is nothing short of grim, but amongst the dreariness and disappointment there are moments of wry smiles and joy.
One such experience of lower league schadenfreude comes when you travel the length of the country to a pokey, provincial away ground and read the home programme.
On the back page you look through the squad numbers to see if the opposition have anyone you’ve heard off and you notice ‘#12 – The Fans’. It’s a lower-league phenomenon in the UK that tends to only be done by clubs with a reputation for sterile atmospheres. On the continent though it isn’t viewed in the same ‘tinpot’ way that it is here in England. Bayern Munich, Lazio and PSV are just three clubs with a vociferous home backing that employ the same tactic of dedicating the number 12 to their fans.
Legend – Diego Maradona #10
In 1984 FC Barcelona took on Athletic Bilbao in the final of the Copa del Rey in a game which no one now remembers for the football – in fact, many Spanish football fans would be able to even tell you the result of the game.
That’s because the match was marred by a mass brawl at the final whistle when Diego Maradona finally reacted to 90 minutes of fouls and racist abuse from his opponents. The Argentine head-butted Bilbao’s Miguel Sola, elbowed another player and knocked one more out with an errant knee.
Footage from the boxing football match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao in the 1984 Copa del Rey final
That brawl would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened for Italian team Napoli. In the aftermath of the brawl, Barcelona decided they could no longer keep Maradona and quickly began drumming up interest in the player.
Napoli, a team who had never won a league title were the fortunate beneficiaries of this farce, signing Maradona on July 5, 1984. The diminutive forward was heralded as the saviour of the club and so it turned out to be.
In his time in Naples, Maradona helped to lead his new club to two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. In honour of his heroics in Naples, the club retired his number 10 shirt and fans still revere it almost as much as the man who wore it.
Not Much – Stefan Maierhofer #39
You are forgiven for not knowing who Austrian journeyman Stefan Maierhofer is, unless you’re a fan of SC Wiener Neustadt, Millwall or the 17 other clubs that the towering centre-forward played for.
Maierhofer was not the most gifted of footballers to have graced the turf, but according to fans of SC Wiener Neustadt, he is one of the most legendary. The lanky striker joined the Austrian Bundesliga side from Millwall in 2014 with the aim of helping his new side avoid the drop.
Stefan Maierhofer – the unlikely Austrian cult hero
After two months, four games and one goal, Maierhofer activated a clause in his contract which allowed him to leave on a free if a foreign club came in for him, re-joining Championship side Millwall.
His short with the beleaguered Austrian outfit had a big impact on club officials who decided to retire his number 39 shirt. That decision wasn’t taken in lieu of any outstanding achievements on the pitch in his four games, rather it was taken in respect of his attitude. Which, according to the club hierarchy was exemplary and inspirational to the other players.
Unfortunately, Maierhofer’s inspirational attitude wasn’t enough to inspire his former team-mates for the rest of the season as they ultimately fell through the trap door.
Have any interesting tales about shirt numbers to share? Tell us about them in the comments section below.