Shirt numbers in association football used to tell you as much about a player as the shirt numbers in rugby or American football, but that is no longer the case.
There are still a few rules which tend to be observed, from a club’s first choice goalkeeper wearing the number one shirt, to the number nine still largely being reserved for centre-forwards. Certainly the lines have been blurred ever since the 1990’s though, when most leagues switched from a starting XI being numbered from 1-11 to players having fixed shirt numbers throughout a season, meaning a starting XI included players with shirt numbers higher than 11 for the first time.
Today I wanted to take a look at some of the best players with exceptionally high shirt numbers. You could assign shirt numbers to four-and-a-half starting XI’s before you had to start numbering players 50 and above, so in theory, only really obscure youth team players – if anyone – ought to be numbered 50+. In reality, traditional customs mean little now, and particularly in Italy, lots of established first team players opt for unusually high numbers. I’ve picked the seven I think are the best, but if I’ve missed anyone, do let me know in the comments. I forgot that Aston Villa existed in a recent video, so I can no longer claim to be the scrupulous, diligent YouTuber that I once was. Honourable mentions go to the likes of Ricardo Rodriguez, Antonio Candreva, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Justin Kluivert, Tomas Rincon, Gedson Fernandes, Sofiane Feghouli, Yuto Nagatomo, Gokhan Gonul, Robinho and Gokhan Inler.
Here are my views on 7 of the best footballers with shirt numbers higher than 50:
7. Gianluigi Buffon
The greatest player in this seven, but not the best right now, it is a legend of the game who gets us started in this seven. Aged 41, Buffon returned to Juventus in the summer, where he was offered the number one shirt by Wojciech Szczęsny and the captains armband by Giorgio Chiellini. Humble as ever, the Italian great said no to both, insisting he was coming back to assist the team, not to take anything away from them. He opted instead for the number 77 shirt, which he wore more than two decades ago at Parma. Assessing Buffon’s talents in his third decade in football isn’t easy, but I think he still deserves seventh place in this video.
6. Steven Nzonzi
Steven Nzonzi hasn’t had the best 12-16 months of his career his leaving Sevilla for Roma, but those of you who subscribe to this channel will know that he’s a player I’ve long admired. Enormously underrated outside of Staffordshire during his time in the Premier League, Nzonzi proved his class in La Liga and with France. Roma looked to move him and a couple of other high earners on in the summer, and Nzonzi joined Galatasaray on-loan, where he will wear the number 92 shirt. Why, exactly, I’m not sure, but Ryan Donk already had his preferred number 15 shirt.
5. Arkadiusz Milik
An excellent centre-forward who has had a rotten time with injuries since signing for Napoli, we got a reminder last season of just how good the Polish frontman could and indeed can be. Following two seasons with very little football under his belt due to a serious anterior cruciate injury and a knee injury, Milik returned to bag 20 goals in 47 games. Most people expected Milik to take the number nine shirt when he joined Napoli, which had recently been vacated by Gonzalo Higuain, but Milik’s shirt number for Poland is 7. Jose Callejon had the number 7 shirt, and instead Milik opted for 99, the number he has worn ever since.
4. Josip Ilicic
I mentioned in the introduction that high shirt numbers were particularly common in Italy, and that is reflected in this seven. We stay in Serie A in fourth place, which brings us to Slovenian attacking midfielder Josip Ilicic. Ilicic has been playing in Italy for almost a decade now, having starred for Palermo and Fiorentina prior to his 2017 transfer to Atalanta. A prolific scorer and creator of goals from midfield, Ilicic’s preferred shirt number is 27, but with that having been taken, he has regularly worn the number 72 shirt as he does in Lombardy right now.
3. Gianluigi Donnarumma
We’re back to Milan for third place, but it is to AC Milan rather than Inter Milan that we head for our bronze medalist. Gianluigi Donnarumma has played 150 Serie A games for AC Milan and has won 15 caps for Italy at the age of 20, an age in which most goalkeepers consider themselves lucky to get a run out in a cup competition here and there. Donnarumma may have been around for four years now, but we ought not normalist what are extraordinary accomplishments, and he’s still the best young goalkeeper in the world. Donnarumma wears the number 99 shirt at AC Milan, despite the fact that the club has no assigned number one.
2. Marcelo Brozovic
From a defensive or central midfielder who had a tricky 2018-19 season in Serie A in Nzonzi in this seven to one who was absolutely superb, Marcelo Brozovic has firmly established himself as one of the most important players at Inter Milan. A tireless runner and an excellent passer of the ball, the 26-year-old Croatian international wears the number 77 shirt like Gianluigi Buffon, despite being a key man at the San Siro. A fantastic all-round footballer, Brozovic probably isn’t appreciated quite as much as he ought to be outside of Italy, and he takes second place in this seven.
1. Trent Alexander-Arnold
Italian football may dominate this seven with five out of the seven inclusions, but it is a Premier League player who steals in to take top spot. Marcelo Brozovic gives him a mightily tough challenge, but I think young Trent Alexander-Arnold deserves to take top spot in this seven. Gary Neville has been echoing what I have long said on this channel about Alexander-Arnold over the last week, he must only recently have become a subscriber. Alexander-Arnold can obviously improve certain aspects of his game, but that is true of anyone, particularly a 21-year-old. The young right-backs deliveries into the box are almost without peer in world football right now, and his 12 Premier League assists last season are testament to that. Following his performances last season, one suspects Liverpool would happily have obliged should Alexander-Arnold have requested a shirt number more reflective of his status within the squad, but he seems happy to stick with his now almost iconic 66.