It’s been almost thirty years since squad numbers became an established feature of the football landscape. Naturally, traditionalists mourned the loss of the unfussy 1 to 11 numbering system and continue to lament outlandish number choices and the flighty use of nicknames on players’ backs.
The English Premier League spotted the commercial and branding opportunity for fixed squad numbering and introduced the system for the 1993/94 season. The broad concept had been used at World Cup tournaments since 1954, though the addition of players’ names went one step further. As we would become accustomed to, Serie A was a couple of steps behind, introducing the same idea for the 1995/96 season.
In the summer of 1995, Italian clubs began to navigate the precarious internal politics of allocating numbers. Many Italian clubs relied on established dressing room hierarchies to determine the outcome; the captain and star players took the first pick, followed by senior players. New signings and young pros fought it out for the remainders.
AC Milan faced a particularly challenging dilemma over the Fantasista shirt. Dejan Savicevic was the incumbent number 10 and widely regarded among the world’s best. But the summer signing of Roberto Baggio, who had worn the same number with distinction throughout his career, created a point of tension. Despite being runner-up in the Ballon d’Or, as the newcomer, Baggio abided by the unwritten rule of the dressing room and took the number 18 shirt. However, with UEFA yet to introduce squad numbers, Baggio did get to wear the coveted 10 on one occasion that season. With Savicevic on the treatment table, Baggio donned the 10 for an insipid 3-0 Champions League defeat to Zinedine Zidane’s Bordeaux.
Down in Florence, they reached for an economics textbook to determine an efficient allocation of squad numbers. Francesco Flachi recalls that Fiorentina players arranged an auction (with proceeds going to charity) to allocate numbers. The starting bid for each shirt number was set at 0.5 million Lire, except for numbers 1, 9 and 10 which were seemingly destined for the shoulders of Toldo, Batistuta and Rui Costa. The bidding for those shirts began at the 2.5 million mark, in the expectation that junior players would respectfully not attempt to outbid their seniors. However, Rui Costa had made such a fuss about the number 10 shirt in the lead-up to the auction, the temptation to pull a prank on Rui Costa proved too great for the Fiorentina players. Through a coordinated bidding effort they managed to increase the price to 5 million Lire before allowing Rui Costa to have his way.
Atalanta chose an altogether different approach to take the heat out of the issue. La Dea allocated shirts on an alphabetical basis, except for handing the number 1 jersey to goalkeeper Fabrizio Ferron. This was similar to the approach taken by Argentina at the 1978 and 1982 World Cups. In the latter tournament, Ossie Ardiles wore the number 1 shirt with distinction whilst Diego Maradona only wore the number 10 because Patricio Hernandez had agreed to swap with him. In Bergamo, this led to some unusual configurations, such as no-nonsense defender Paulo Montero wearing number 9, his central defensive partner Massimo Paganin wearing 10 and Christian Vieri consigned to the number 20 jersey.
Meanwhile, Sampdoria adopted a variant of the alphabetical approach which had previously been used by the Italian national team at major tournaments. As noted by squadnumbers.com, I Blucerchiati first organised the squad into positional blocks (defence, midfield and attack) and then allocated shirt numbers alphabetically within those blocks. This meant that Samp defenders wore shirt numbers 2-9, midfielders wore 11 to17, and attackers 18-21. And what about the number 10 shirt? Well, Roberto Mancini got to keep that, of course.
Just as the backpass rule had thrown the goalkeeping profession into a state of disarray a few years earlier, numeri fissi created a whole new set of challenges for magazzinieri (kit men) up and down the peninsula. In Udine, the kit room struggled to source a coherent set of materials for the opening day of the season. Oliver Bierhoff can be seen wearing two different fonts to make up his number 20 – neither of which was the Hummel-branded number sets used for the remainder of the season.
At Napoli, the great Tommy Starace was presumably involved somewhere in the decision to use white numbers with black lettering on the opening day of the season. The white numbers were perfectly visible on Napoli’s famous blue shirts, but the same cannot be said of the players’ names. From matchday 2, Napoli switched to all-white namesets.
Several clubs adapted their approaches as they settled into the rhythm of this brave new world. Vicenza kicked off the season with a three-dimensional number placed in a white box on the back of the red-and-white striped jersey. However, not long into the season they re-appraised and began using a solid number on top of continuous stripes. Other changes were more nuanced; for example, Milan, who quietly changed fonts and substituted their plain number sets for ones bearing the logo of their kit manufacturer, Lotto.
With squad numbers now an integral part of the football furniture, these uncertain and, at times, quaint beginnings seem like a world away.