Some numbers in soccer are iconic at certain clubs. Gradually, and often over the course of several decades, these numbers have grown in significance. Admittedly, there may be a few lacunae or outright failures disturbing the otherwise smooth rise to prominence, but they are never enough to question the iconicity of the specific number in case. On the contrary, it is as if the failures only contribute to heighten the importance of the number, making it all the more important to get it right with the next player wearing the famous jersey.
In the history of Manchester United, the most iconic number is without a doubt number 7. Yes, Duncan Edwards wore the number 6 jersey, and Ryan Giggs has played his part in making number 11 a coveted number. Back in 1960s, Denis Law often wore number 10 when he excited the fans at Old Trafford and became European Player of the Year in 1964.
But a long list of formidable legends has made sure that number 7 is the most prestigious number to wear if you are a Red Devil. In the beginning of the 20th century, soccer’s first super star Billy Meredith made the number into something special when he performed his Welsh wizardry on the right flank for Ernest Mangnall’s first Manchester United championship winning team. The next true legend to wear it was George Best, and then came Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Players such as Johnny Berry and Steve Coppell are other prominent names to have worn the jersey at Old Trafford, but they don’t quite fit the bill of true legend.
Sir Alex Ferguson signaled very clearly what he thought of the young Cristiano Ronaldo when he chose to give him number 7 after Beckham. Remember, this was a time when “Ronaldo” was almost synonymous with the Brazilian striker of that name, and remember too that the Old Trafford faithful expected Ronaldinho to become Beckham’s replacement.
When Ronaldo left Manchester United for Real Madrid, the number 7 jersey was vacant for a while. Ferguson hoped he had done some shrewd business when he snapped up the former Liverpool striker Michael Owen on a free transfer. With Owen’s track record of goals, Ferguson not only thought he had secured Manchester United a lot of goals, he also thought Owen could shoulder the burden of wearing the number 7 jersey after Cantona, Beckham, and Ronaldo. Neither really went as Ferguson had hoped.
After a couple of good seasons on the right wing, Antonio Valencia – Van Gaal’s preferred right back last season – decided to step up to the challenge and swapped his number 25 with the number 7. After one season he swapped back, having played badly, perhaps even miserable at times.
One year ago, most Old Trafford faithfuls thought the club had finally nailed it when Manchester United signed Angel di Maria for a British record fee of £59.7 million and they saw him inherit the number 7 jersey after his now former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. Initially, it seemed to be the perfect continuation of the tradition of talismanic players wearing the number 7 at Old Trafford. But only initially. Before half the season was completed, Di Maria’s decline had begun.
Several factors were behind this. For one, Di Maria’s preferred destination last year was Paris Saint Germain, but FIFA Fair Play rules prevented the mega rich French club from buying the Argentinian. Perhaps the collapsed move and the lure of Paris, the City of Light, sedimented into Di Maria’s subconsciousness and from there constantly simmered until it boiled over some time during the spring. Another reason was the attempted burglary at his house while he and his family were present. This nasty experience clearly unsettled Di Maria to an extent from which he never recovered as a footballer while wearing the United kit. A third factor is Van Gaal’s difficulty of finding the best position for Di Maria – perhaps we could even say he mismanaged him, not only with his failure to find the best position for him, but also with his rigid and systematic way of “thinking” soccer. The Argentinian is arguably more intuition than rationality, and he was thus one of the casualties of the Van Gaal brain revolution at Old Trafford.
However, if there is one thing that Van Gaal cannot be accused of it is obscurity when it comes to communicating with his players, both when it comes to tactical matters and matters of their future role. Van Gaal had thus made it clear to Di Maria what he expected of him if he was to re-establish himself in Van Gaal’s starting eleven. Van Gaal had also accepted that if Di Maria decided to leave, then Manchester United should let him leave. In other words, the ball was in Di Maria’s court. He had some decisions to be made. Would he be willing to adapt to the Iron Tulip’s much hyped “philosophy”? And would he stay in Manchester? In both cases, Van Gaal indicated the answers should come from Di Maria.
The way Di Maria has chosen to answer Van Gaal is through silence and by going AWOL. At one point Van Gaal frankly admitted that he simply didn’t know where Di Maria was when the Argentinian had failed to link up with the Manchester United squad in the US after his prolonged vacation due to his participation in the Copa America. Recently, he then showed his face for the first time in weeks when he arrived in Qatar for his PSG medical. Among the disgusted Manchester United fans jokes were floating around on the Internet about Di Maria not passing the medical because his lack of a spine.
United fans are right to be disgusted by the Argentinian. His behavior is disgraceful and childish – and could perhaps even be seen as a modern disease in the sport. Di Maria will go down as the worst number 7 in Manchester United’s history, even worse than Owen and Valencia, because the expectations were never that high with Owen and Valencia. But in Di Maria’s it is not even his failure to live up to the enormous expectations on the pitch.
Radamel Falcao also failed in that sense. But the Colombian kept trying, whereas the Argentinian gave up – first visibly on the pitch, and now invisibly by going into hiding. Van Gaal had more or less made it Di Maria’s own decision. Di Maria didn’t have the guts to tell the Dutch manager his decision face to face. He didn’t have the decency to report back for duty and link up with the teammates who had supported him during a difficult year in Manchester. Di Maria’s shameful departure from Old Trafford will ensure him a red hot and devilish welcome if he ever returns. In soccer, people may forget quickly, but Di Maria has ensured himself a legacy – at least among the Old Trafford faithful – as the unmanly coward and as the player unworthy of wearing the number 7 jersey.
Is the number cursed after the anonymity and failure of Owen, Valencia, and Di Maria respectively, or have they only contributed to making it even more iconic. Soon, perhaps, we will learn who will inherit Cantona’s and Ronaldo’s – and Di Maria’s – number at Old Trafford.
25+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, Liga MX, MLS & World Cup
- Includes ESPN, FOX, Univision, TUDN and more
Favorite Leagues At The Best Price
- Starting price: $7.99/mo. for Live TV Package
- Watch Argentine league, Brasileirāo and Copa Libertadores
- Includes beIN SPORTS, GolTV, TyC Sports and more
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $6.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $13.99/mo.)
- Features LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, Copa del Rey & more
- Also includes daily ESPN FC news & highlights show
Live TV, Soccer & Originals
- Starting price: $4.99/mo.
- Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & more
- Includes CBS, Star Trek & CBS Sports HQ
175 Premier League Games & PL TV
- Starting price: $4.99/mo. for Peacock Premium
- Watch 175 exclusive EPL games per season
- Includes Premier League TV channel plus movies, TV shows & more
Get All 3 And Save 30%
- $13.99/mo. for ESPN+, Disney+ & Hulu
- Includes Bundesliga, LaLiga, NHL & the home to UFC
- Features Marvel, Star Wars + shows & movies for your entire family