How are football shirt numbers decided?

Many people enjoy watching football and understand the rules of the games perfectly; however, when it comes to knowing how football shirt numbers are decided, many of us are left in the dark.

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Origins of shirt numbers

Footballers in times gone by did not wear numbered shirts. It was only in 1928, during a match between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday, that numbered shirts were introduced. According to Football Bible, the printing of shirt numbers came about to allow referees and fans to easily distinguish players on the pitch.

Starting players had shirts bearing the numbers 1 to 11, based on the position they played on the pitch, with higher numbers assigned to the substitutes.

In 1954, fixed numbers for players – called squad numbers – were introduced. The squad number system is still used today by many top football teams in the world.

Player position

Despite the introduction of the squad numbering system, football team kits, such as those supplied by, include numbers that denote a first-choice position on the pitch. The traditional number system relates to a 4-2-3-1 formation, so you find number 1 as the goalkeeper, number 2 as the right fullback, number 3 as the left fullback, numbers 4 and 5 as centre backs, number 6 as a defending midfielder, number 7 as a right midfielder or winger, number 8 as a central or box-to-box midfielder, number 9 as a striker, number 10 as an attacking midfielder, and number 11 as a left midfielder.

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Rule variations

Football shirt numbers do not always correspond to position; in fact, teams can give players whatever number they want. In some cases, this could be by alphabetical order of surname. During the 1982 World Cup, England chose to use the alphabetical surname system for the squad – apart from the goalkeeper and the captain at the time, Kevin Keegan.

Retired numbers

Some football shirt numbers are no longer used and are referred to as retired numbers. Often, this relates to honouring a player. West Ham United, for instance, has retired the number 6 as a mark of respect to football legend Bobby Moore, who wore this number.

Football supporters are deemed the 12th player and clubs that have received outstanding support from fans sometimes retire the shirt number 12 from the team in honour of their dedicated followers.