When substitutes were eventually introduced in 1965, they were allocated ascending numbers from 12 upwards, although if those on the bench were of a superstitious disposition, they could decline wearing the No. 13 shirt.
In England, players were assigned those numbers on a match-by-match basis. So during that era, even the greatest players didn’t really have a number that was wholly synonymous with them. When George Best, a player typically associated with the No. 7, was at his majestic best for Manchester United, he’d don myriad numbers depending on where he’d start on the pitch.
While that was the case in England up until the inception of the Premier League, across the globe and on the international football scene, things were a little different. The most notable example perhaps being Argentina.
When the Albiceleste named their squads for the 1974 and 1978 World Cup. Instead of going with their own traditional methods—which would see the right-back wear No. 4 amidst other minor variants from the archetypal English model—they decided to allocate their numbers to the squad in alphabetical order of the players’ surname.
So Ossie Ardiles, an intricate, technical midfield player, would regulary be seen in the No. 1 jersey.
As shirt numbers became an increasingly big deal though, exceptions were made. The Argentinean squad for the 1982 World Cup were once again allocated their numbers alphabetically, but one player was allowed to choose his: Diego Maradona.
The man subsequently dubbed “El Diez” and his No. 10 Albiceleste shirt are perpetually iconic, so much so that the Argentinean Football Federation tried to retire it in 2001.
But it was quickly thrust back into the fold when FIFA demanded the nation enlist 23 players for the 2002 competition all numbered from 1-23 accordingly; Argentina submitted a list containing 1-9 and 11-24 instead. So Ariel Ortega was eventually given the honor of wearing the shirt for that tournament, and now Lionel Messi is a seemingly worthy bearer of it.
At club level though, there’s a lot more freedom when it comes to shirt numbers. When the Premier League and the rest of Europe’s more illustrious divisions abolished the notion that the starting XI had to don 1-11 back in the early 90s, clubs and players could essentially do what they want.
Indeed, Maradona may not have his No.10 out of commission at national level, but at Napoli—where he is a deistic figure after inspiring the Partenopei to the Scudetto—it’s retired in tribute to the diminutive genius.
At Milan, Franco Baresi and Paolo Madini’s respective No. 6 and No. 3 shirts are both retired, but in the case of the latter, if one of Maldini’s sons—both Daniel and Christian Maldini are currently in the Rossoneri academy—were to progress into the first team, then they’d be afforded the honor of wearing their father’s shirt.