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Number 7: The evolution of soccer’s mythical & lucky shirt number

What do Billy Meredith, Stanley Matthews, Raymond Kopa, Manolo Garrincha, George Best, Allan Simonsen, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, Luis Figo, Raúl González, Andrei Shevchenko, David Villa and Cristiano Ronaldo have in common? Besides all of them being legends of soccer, they have all played a crucial role in making number 7 a mythological shirt number in the history of soccer.

Outside the world of soccer, the number 7 also has a long and glorious history with many meanings that contribute to making the number loaded with references and connotations on the soccer pitch. There are the Seven Hills of Rome and Rome’s seven emperors, and preceding the Roman heyday there was, in Greek mythology, Seven against Thebes, adapted and immortalized in dramatic form by both Aischylos and Euripides. There was also the Seven Wonders of the World. In addition, we refer to the Seven Seas, and with the naked eye humans are capable of seeing seven planets. As some will know, water’s pH value is 7. Seven is supposedly also the amount of hours that humans need for their optimal sleep.

However, it is in the religious sphere that the number 7 draws the majority of its symbolic potential. In Judaism, the number is associated with the spirituality and divinity that was blown into Creation. The seventh day is Sabbath and day of rest and repose in Judaism and Christianity respectively, and in the latter religion the very act of creation – Genesis – lasted seven days. We also speak of the seven good and the seven bad years. There are even seven cardinal virtues and seven cardinal sins. Apart from that, the number 7 generally refers to perfection within the Christian faith. In Islam, there are seven doors to the seven earths and seven heavens, and in Buddhism Buddha walked seven steps when he was born. The superstitious believe that a broken mirror is followed by seven years with bad luck.

In popular culture, most people know the agent “double o seven,” agent 007, alias James Bond, and many remember the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe’s dress in the movie The Seven Year Itch. There is also Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurais and John Sturges’s American version of Kurosawa’s Japanese movie, The Magnificent Seven. Or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In 1849, the English intellectual John Ruskin published The Seven Lamps of Architecture and two years later came Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables.

Incidentally, it is a fact that most people choose the number 7 if they are asked to think of a number between 1 and 10.

Right after number 10, the number 7 is undoubtedly the most myth-ridden number in the history of soccer. It might even be the most mythic number since a certain degree of indeterminacy is attached to number 7, which is not in the same way bestowed upon number 10. Number 10 is traditionally (and I deliberately write “traditionally” because in recent years we have witnessed an uprooting in what used to be rather rigid relations between shirt number and position on the pitch) the creative fulcrum whose base is the center of the pitch occupying a free role in front of one or more defense-oriented dustmen and behind one or two attackers. In contrast, number 7 is harder to define and his position more difficult to pinpoint. If number 7 shares the attack-oriented tint with number 10, he can, in turn, be found both out wide and centrally.

Originally, number 7 was right wing in the 2-3-5 and W-M formations while number 10 was inside left forward. Everybody agreed on that. In England, two of the most famous number 7 from the classical wing era are Billy Meredith (Manchester City and Manchester United, 1894-1924) and Stanley Matthews (Stoke and Blackpool, 1932-65), while Raymond Kopa from France (Stade de Reims and Real Madrid, 1949-67) and Mané Garrincha from Brazil (Botafogo, 1953-72) are two others. Among the most famous number 10s from the epoch of 2-3-5 and W-M we can mention Ferenc Puskás (Honvéd Budapest and Real Madrid, 1943-66), Dennis Viollet (Manchester United and Stoke, 1950-67), and Eusébio (Benfica, 1957-78). However, in the 1950s the first transformation took place courtesy of Gusztáv Sebes’s Hungarian national team that played a sort of 4-2-4. Sebes pulled number 9 back to a deeper-lying and free forward position behind number 8 and number 10 who now represented the two central attackers. This paved the way for the classical number 10 who in Sebes’s team was played by Nandor Hidegkuti with number 9 on his back, though.

Where number 10 in the 2-3-5 and W-M formations had the same role as number 8, it now differentiates itself and becomes a unique number attached to a unique position on the pitch. This is the time when a player like Pelé starts to define number 10 as the creative fulcrum who also scores a lot of goals. The classical number 10 period comes later, though, and is associated with players like Michel Platini, Diego Maradona, Enzo Francescoli, Michael Laudrup, Carlos Valderrama, Gheorghe Hagi, Roberto Baggio and Zico in the 1980s and 1990s. With players such as Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, the classical number 10 role is already under transformation since both these players, when playing for their club teams, often had their base on the left. A player like Francesco Totti is also at first glance a typical number 10, but at AS Roma under Spaletti he often operated as sole attacker in the Italian’s hyperflexible 4-5-1/4-6-0 (although he was an atypical sole attacker since he often dropped deep and participated a lot in the build-up – his role was thus a typical number 9, but he behaved more like a number 10). Zinedine Zidane is perhaps the last classical number 10, but even he was often used on the left in Real Madrid. Lionel Messi and Neymar are the latest additions to this long history of number 10s in soccer. The former’s favorite position seems to be a mix of and an oscillation between right and central attacker (a “false 9”), while the latter is mostly based on the left.

Number 10 is thus historically speaking a role undergoing change: from inside left forward to the centrally based creative fulcrum to the current more indeterminate role as attacking talisman, but it is beyond doubt that the heyday of the classical number 10 as we understand it today was in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Number 7 can also be said to be associated with a role that changes historically, but at the same time this is a change that results in far greater indeterminacy. Originally, number 7 was always right wing, but in the 1970s the softening and transformation of the old 2-3-5 and 3-2-2-3 truly begin and the player wearing the number 7 jersey can now be central midfielder, winger or center forward. As we will see shortly, there are great number 7’s in all three categories.

It is also interesting that the number is associated with much prestige in certain clubs and on certain national teams. In my own country, number 7 has been an important component in central midfield on the Danish national team in modern times. In the 1980s, Jens Jørn Bertelsen wore the jersey with the magical number. However, there was nothing magical about the diminutive, yet “great” Bertelsen. He was quite simply the team’s point of balance, the team’s invisible laborer, without which players such as Preben Elkjær, Michael Laudrup, Allan Simonsen, and Frank Arnesen would never have been able to express themselves creatively. Bertelsen was perhaps the closest Denmark ever has been to a Claude Makelele. This tradition was renewed by John “Faxe” Jensen (who played for Brøndby and Arsenal) who like Bertelsen was a sort of garbage man in midfield, although he was more visible and aggressive than Bertelsen ever was. Allan Nielsen (who played for Brøndby and Tottenham), also a central midfielder, represented a short intermezzo before Thomas Gravesen (Everton, Real Madrid, Celtic) conferred the number 7 a new dimension on the Danish national team. Still centrally positioned in midfield, Gravesen added to the number attacking gloss with his visionary passes and dangerous long range shots. However, in Gravesen’s style there were still elements of garbage man and snappy watch dog.

A totally different tradition exists on the Brazilian national team where Bebéto in modern time made number 7 synonymous with the intelligent second striker, either besides Romarío or Ronaldo. After Bebéto, players such as Ronaldinho and Robinho have worn number 7, and in that sense one can say that the shirt often indicates who will be Seleção’s next number 10.

In several of the world’s leading clubs, the number 7 is a shirt number with a great tradition. But there are also examples of clubs where the number 7 is associated with something ominous. In Chelsea, Brian Laudrup initiated an unlucky trend when he was given the number 7 jersey after Gustavo Poyet. Laudrup, a typical second striker who thrived in free roles with a license to roam around in the margins, simply did not fit into Chelsea’s system, and his stay on Stamford Bridge was short and without success. After Laudrup arrived, the Romanian Adrian Mutu, a typical number 10 full and of self-confidence, but the latter was quickly taken out of him by Claudio Ranieri and José Mourinho. After having proven his worth in the Italian Serie A, Mutu became yet another victim of the system, and his difficulties of adapting to the English culture resulted in drug abuse. After the Chelsea failure, Mutu returned to Italy where he helped Fiorentina put pressure on the four big clubs. Following the departure of Mutu, Chelsea imported another “Italian,” AC Milan’s Andrei Shevchenko, who in several seasons had been Milan’s attacking star and top scorer. In addition, the Ukranian had even been elected the best soccer player in Europe before his arrival in London, but like his predecessors he never was comfortable with Chelsea’s number 7 on his back, a number that he had otherwise made legendary in Milan. Yet again the system was part of the problem because Shevchenko had been bought as a striker, but in Mourinho’s system there was only room for one of those, and his choice fell upon Didier Drogba.

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