As most people know, a football team typically assigns numbers between 1 and 99 to their players. However, over time the eligible numbers do tend to dwindle, with few numbers left to choose from. There is often a selection process in place that details which numbers the players are allowed to choose from. The available numbers are affected by several things, one of the most significant being retired numbers. Let’s Explore.
An Introduction into Football and Retired Numbers
Football teams – among other sports – do retire numbers on occasion, but it isn’t a particularly frequent practice. Most football teams have a long history stretching back at least a decade which means that retiring numbers willy-nilly simply isn’t sustainable, as there wouldn’t be any left. Originally, retiring numbers wasn’t the done thing in the first days of the sport; the players only had the numbers 1 to 11, which meant that all of the numbers were always in use on gameday.
Eventually, this changed, and a rule was implemented whereby the clubs would assign players a squad number on an individual basis. This then meant that the players could keep their number regardless of whether they were in the starting line-up or not. This change in policy meant that retiring numbers was now an option.
What Does it Mean to Retire a Shirt?
To put it simply, retiring a number means that it can no longer be chosen or worn by any future or current player(s) of that club. The number is taken off the table and indefinitely reserved for a specific player out of respect or to honour their contribution to the club. This is because the number itself is often synonymous with a certain player who has made it iconic in their own way.
Like football players, a lot of people have a lucky or favourite number, although they don’t have as much opportunity to use it. Their lucky numbers – which may or may not be tied to football – are often used in a betting or gambling setting; for example, playing the latest live games of roulette allows you to bet on your lucky number.
An Important Caveat
As mentioned above, retiring numbers is not necessarily a standard practice; while there are plenty of teams and leagues around the world that do retire numbers, not every league does. If a certain player has achieved greatness while playing in their number, reaching legendary status in the sport, then they might instead choose to pass the number down to a new player with the same potential for greatness.
There has been several instances where great players have been set to retire, and when questioned by the media about the status of their number, they have stated that they want their number to be passed down to a new, talented player. This is often easily done because some teams are known for finding and honing gifted players. The act of retiring numbers comes down to the league and the club too.
Why is a Number Retired?
There are several reasons why a club may decide to retire a number, and often individual clubs have their own criteria. Some clubs simply retire a number because they feel it is unlucky or sees it as a bad omen, although this is, admittedly, pretty unusual. Most of the time, retiring a number is often done for more sombre reasons.
The most common reason that a club will decide to retire a player’s number is because the player has passed away. While most football players are obviously young and fit, they still might pass away while under contract for a club for a number of reasons. Some players pass after long after they have played, but they made such a mark on the club during their career that they might still decide to retire the number. The number is retired out of deference to the player’s service to the club.
The club might also decide to retire a number simply because the player who had it was so iconic to the club that neither the club nor the fans can imagine any other player using it. Obviously, this is not applicable to every player that plays for the club; they don’t all achieve ‘legend’ status. Most of the time, it comes down to the loyalty shown to the club and, often, the length of service too. They may also consider fan favourites.
Lastly, a player’s number may also be retired in order to celebrate a certain achievement or milestone that a player has made while at the club. If an exceptional player rises up to become the youngest player that club has ever seen or scores the most goals for the club, or whatever the case may be, the club might decide to retire their number. This then inspires the other players to step up and work harder if they want to receive the same accolades and recognition.
Making the decision to retire a number is often not taken lightly by a football club, purely because there is obviously a finite set of numbers to choose from. This is why when they do retire a number, it is often because a player has passed away, either while they are under contract or after retirement, but they were a huge figure for the club, or they were simply so iconic in that number for the club that no other player can even be thought to wear that number or perhaps the player has achieved something truly monumental. Whatever the reason, a club choosing to retire a number is often out of deference to a player. Arguably, it is an incredibly touching mark of respect that can put a tear into even the most hardened fan’s eye. The mark of respect is universal across many different team sports, too, numbers aren’t just retired in football, but it is perhaps the most prevalent in this sport because football is arguably the biggest international sport in the world.