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Everything you wanted to know about soccer, but were afraid to ask: What do the numbers mean?

Explaining one of the most confusing aspects of soccer tradition.

Hello, and welcome to soccer for dummies. Or futbol for football fans. Or footy for Americans. Or how to enjoy a soccer game without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Regardless of where you come from, I hope to bring a little more clarity and a deeper understanding as you support Columbus Crew SC.

One of the most confusing aspects of soccer for newcomers is the relationship of a number to a position. You may have heard a soccer broadcast talk about a team’s “No. 10” or heard a crowd sing out “our No. 4” and wondered what that meant. While sometimes it might refer to the number on the jersey of the player, often there is a lot more behind it.

Like football, soccer has certain numbers that generally are associated with certain positions. The difference is in soccer, the number is more reflective of a player’s role on the team. It is a tradition from early “association football” (the original fancy term for soccer). Players were numbered 1-11 based on their position. While players aren’t beholden to this any longer and can pick a number based on significance to them, the tradition remains and oftentimes players pick a number based on these traditions. While the development of unique systems in national teams has led to different numbering systems in different countries, there are some consistencies that we will explore.

Original number placement in soccer (or association football)

No. 1 is almost always reserved for the goalkeeper. We will explore formations and how they relate to the Crew in later articles. But generally speaking, all formations start from the back, so it makes sense that the furthest back player would be No, 1. The Black & Gold’s starting keeper, Eloy Room, continues this tradition as a No. 1.

Moving all the way up to the front, the most iconic number in soccer is the No. 10. Some of the biggest names in the game have had No. 10 on their back, everyone from Pele to Messi to Wayne Rooney, even Neymar. The No. 10 is generally associated with the playmaker, the second striker, the biggest name on the side. There is no coincidence that the Crew’s potential Most Valuable Player and biggest offseason signing, Lucas Zelarayan, currently holds this distinguished position. Previous No. 10’s for the Black & Gold include Federico Higuain, Alejandro Moreno and Kyle Martino.

All the way forward is the No. 11, usually representative of a striker, or final stop for the ball before it enters the net. Mohamed Salah currently wears No. 11 for Liverpool, additionally, Neymar has worn No. 11, as well as Didier Drogba. The Crew’s striker, Gyasi Zardes conforms to this tradition, wearing the No. 11.

In between Nos. 1 and 11 are eight other players. And most numbers are generally associated with specific positions. And while some of the specifics depend on what country you are in, the Crew has some great examples of standard numbers.

Joining No. 10 and 11, it would make sense that the No. 9 is another offensively-minded player on the side. Greats like Alan Shearer, Johan Cruyff and the Brazillian Ronaldo have worn No. 9. While not a first side option, Fanendo Adi is certainly an offensive No. 9. Adi joins Justin Meram, Pedro Santos (for a time) and Dante Washington as No. 9’s in Crew lore.

No. 7 is generally associated with the second offensive option, the prolific winger. Pedro Santos, No. 7 for Columbus, certainly fits this description. Santos follows in the footsteps of Christiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and Kenny Dalghlish. Locally, Guillermo Barros Schelotto is probably the most famous No. 7 in Crew history, obviously big shoes to fill for Santos.

The No. 4 has traditionally been reserved for center back defenders. Great central defenders like Sergio Ramos, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Virgil Van Dyke currently wear No. 4. Michael Parkhurst and Gino Padula, Crew defensive greats, also wore No. 4. Currently, the Black & Gold’s captain and center back continues the No. 4 tradition.

Perhaps the most recognized for their position, however, are the No. 8 and No. 6. These are generally the two central midfielders, with the No. 6 often occupying a deeper role and the No. 8 playing higher up the field in the midfield. Columbus fits this perfect with Darlington Nagbe, and Wil Trapp before him, wearing No. 6, while his central midfield partner, Artur, wears No. 8

While not every player and number adhere to these traditions, colloquially these numbers listed above are often used as both a jersey description and a short-hand for a position philosophy. Like No. 23 in basketball, No. 99 in hockey, No. 42 in baseball and No. 8 in football: some of these numbers carry historical significance as well as positional identity.

What’s your favorite number and why? What player shaped your number preference. Comment below!