The Evolution of Players’ Jersey Numbers

Back when I played (about a 100 years ago) a team’s starting eleven were assigned numbers 1-11 and you knew the player’s position by the number on his back. We were assigned a number on a game by game basis and players would turn up to the dressing room and look to see which number was hanging on their peg. Each team literally only had 12 players, so avoiding that #12 jersey was the first priority. 

Back in those days if you had the 12 jersey you were the only sub and you would only play as a replacement for an injured teammate or as a tactical decision late in the game.  May I say, sitting in the cold, rainy British weather with soaking wet boots and hearing the “gaffer” say the looming “get in there son, and make a difference” was never welcoming.

Make a difference? Heck thinking about kicking the ball with your frozen feet was terrifying in itself. Anyway I digress.

Back in those days the slow, lumbering but tough guy would be the center half and would always wear number 5. The tricky little left footer who would never pass the ball was always number 7, and the target player up top who would only head the ball was always number 9. While other countries had adopted “squad numbers” for years, I think the change happened in Britain along with the introduction of the Premier League in 1992.

What were once regarded as being unorthodox numbers in the game became common place. Jorge Campos, the Mexican national goalkeeper who later played in the MLS, wore number 9 while Gigi Buffon, the most “capped” Italian player, wore number 88 and one of the greatest players of all time, Ronaldinho, wore number 80 for AC Milan.  Numbers had no significance to a player’s position on the field.

Just like everything else, you wait long enough and everything comes back.

Today coaches again refer to positions on the field to numbers. Although a player may not actually wear the number, his playing position will actually be referred to by a number similar to “the good old days”.

Confusing?  Not really. Just use this “cheat sheet”. When players are told to play a certain number they would play in these positions.

1. Goalkeeper
2. Right outside back (defender)
3. Left outside back (defender)
4. Right Central back (defender)
5. Left Central back (defender)
6. Defensive central Midfielder
7. Right outside Midfielder/Forward
8. Central Midfielder (plays in-between the #10 and #6)
9. Central attacking player
10. Attacking Central Midfielder (the “playmaker”)
11. Left outside Midfielder/Forward



Do you like this system with numbers to corresponding positions? Weigh in, in the comments below.


Huw Williams

Huw is an owner/operator of GSI Sports. He has worked in sports management and soccer coaching in KC since the mid 80s. He also holds the dual roles of General Manager for FC Kansas City and Director of Operations for the KC Comets.

3 thoughts to “The Evolution of Players’ Jersey Numbers”

  1. I am confused. My son’s school in Leeds uses the number system for their jerseys. However, he plays right halfback (right center back) and wears the number 3. They seem to start with the right fullback as 2 and go to the left with successive numbers.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      What we outlined is the internationally recognized system. However, every team or coach can use their own version, which seems to be the case with your coach. For example, Argentina at one time numbered the players alphabetically. Hope this clears it up!

  2. I see that England’s national team has returned to the old convention when they get a chance and generally players who know the game ask for particular shirt numbers according to aspirations.

    Why not try it out with FC Kansas City women and see what happens!

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