Retiring squad numbers and the winning mentality

Recently, I spoke to some London-based Napoli fans who were understandably in buoyant mood with their club flying high in Serie A and playing some of the best football in Europe. For the second time in recent years, it looks like Napoli have a real chance of winning Serie A.

After their first two scudetti in 1987 and 1990 the Partenopei famously retired the number 10 shirt worn by Diego Maradona. I’m a big fan of Lorenzo Insigne, the Neapolitan winger who plays alongside Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon in Napoli’s attack, and I wondered if they thought Insigne deserved to bring the number 10 shirt out of retirement. A diminutive and highly technical attacker, currently sporting the number 24 (his wife’s birth date), Insigne bears certain similarities to El Pibe D’oro and is a local boy to boot. Surely if anyone deserved the honour, it was him.

The fans response was unequivocally no, nothing against Lorenzo but no one ever will deserve the number 10 because nobody is Maradona. I found this a bit surprising, even taking into account the particular affection with which Maradona is treated by Napoli fans and it started to make me wonder about why we retire shirt numbers at all.

The first shirt number to be retired from professional sport was that of the Toronto Maple Leafs star Irvine Wallace “Ace” Bailey. In an NHL game against the Boston Bruin’s in 1933, Bailey was upended by the Bruin’s Eddie Shore, hitting his head on the ice and fracturing his skull in the process. Bailey began convulsing as he lay on the ground and was so severely injured that it was feared that he might not survive.

Although Bailey pulled through, he would never play professional ice hockey again. In response to this near-tragedy the Maple Leafs retired Bailey’s Number 6 shirt permanently.

The practice of retiring the squad numbers of successful players quickly became widespread in American sport to the point where in baseball the New York Yankees have retired every single number from one to ten and somehow managed to retire the number eight twice.

By contrast, the idea did not catch on in the world of football until much later, for the simple reason that until the 1990s players didn’t have fixed squad numbers: the players would usually wear the shirts 1-11 allocated according to who had been picked on the day. It wasn’t until 1993, when shirts began to bear the players’ names as well as numbers, that it became necessary to keep the numbers fixed from one game to the next.

Almost as soon as squad numbers were allocated, clubs started to permanently retire them from use. The frequency with which numbers are retired, and the reasons for it, vary significantly from club to club and offer an interesting insight into the mentality of a team and its fans.

For example, it is fairly common for teams to retire the number 12 in honour of the fans, the mythical “12th man”. I find it quite telling that few truly big clubs have ever done this: in England, the sides to have done so aren’t currently playing in the Premier League. However, Lazio, Atalanta and Genoa have in Italy. It’s a gesture that slightly smacks of condescension towards the supporters: something that requires neither imagination nor expenditure from the board and provides scant consolation for an underperforming side.

A lot of the numbers that have been retired belonged to players who have tragically died in their prime, some, such as Piermario Morosini of Livorno, on the pitch during competitive games. This reaction is entirely understandable as a mark of respect to the player and particularly to their families. To me it is an acknowledgment of their irreplaceability, that someone else can’t step into the place that they have so suddenly vacated.

Far more intriguing, however, are the numbers retired for players who are either still alive or who died long after their retirement, like Bobby Moore’s number 6 at West Ham or Javier Zanetti’s number 4 at Internazionale. There’s something slightly grandiose about this, fans like to think that they are commending the player to the ages, like a Viking warrior pushed out to sea on a ship with his shield and battle armour.

This is nowhere more true than in the case of Paolo Maldini’s number 3 shirt at Milan. When Maldini hung up his boots in 2009, the number 3 that he wore for almost the entirety of his career was not completely retired, instead it was held until one of Maldini’s sons, Daniel and Christian, both then in Milan’s youth system, could come forward and take it. On the one hand this is a romantic, almost fairytale gesture, acknowledging the club’s history, Paolo’s father Cesare having also been Milan captain, while nodding to the future. The implication, surely, is that only someone from that illustrious Maldini line could be capable of filling that role, heirs to the throne in an almost literal sense. On the other hand, with the 21 year-old Christian currently playing for S.S. Racing Club Fondi in Lega Pro and the 16 year-old Daniel currently in Milan’s under-17s, it is hard to see that number 3 shirt as anything other than another albatross around the necks of two youngsters who already have an incredible legacy to live up to.

The underlying motive for these decisions also seems to me to come from the idea of a player being impossible to replace: “There’ll never be another number x like him” so why even try?

However, the example of Roberto Baggio shows how relative the concept of irreplaceability can be. The beloved Italian trequartista is probably most closely associated with the number 10 shirt of Italy’s national team, but that number was never retired for him. Nor was his shirt at Juventus where he won the Ballon d’or and his first scudetto, or at Milan, where he won his second. Instead when Baggio retired it was his final club, Brescia, who retired his number 10 shirt.

This might seem odd, or even slightly insulting, to a player who is such an icon. Many outside of Italy, and probably quite a few within, might well forget that Baggio ever played for Brescia. A cynic might think that Brescia, a club whose ground holds around 16,000 fans and whose best ever finish in Serie A was seventh place, was merely trying to wring the last drops of glamour from its association with a player who was really out of their league. A more charitable view would be to note that Baggio played more games and scored more goals at Brescia than anywhere bar Juventus and that, freed from the dressing room politics and injuries that blighted his career at Italy’s biggest clubs, he was able to be truly influential, leading the club to that all time best league finish and the final of the Intertoto Cup.

This is all true but it is also an acknowledgment that for Brescia, but not for Inter, Juve, Milan or Fiorentina, Baggio, was irreplaceable. To put it another way, to retire a squad number is to say “It won’t get better than this” and it’s useless for a side like Brescia to pretend otherwise. Anyone who saw Baggio’s Pirlo-assisted golazzo against Juventus would be inclined to agree.

It may seem right, even obligatory, to express this sentiment but for me there is something that can be damaging and ultimately anti-sporting about it. It is inherent in sport, and in fact a significant part of its appeal, that it is endlessly renewing, as soon as you are crowned champion you need to prepare your title defence because when the new season starts everyone will reset to zero. This is what keeps fans coming back over and over again each time convinced that this will be their year.

For this reason I find it unsurprising that the most successful clubs have little interest in retiring numbers, to do so would be suggest that this or that victory was freakish or unusual, instead they seek to convey endless renewal in the pursuit of excellence.

For example, Manchester United would never retire their iconic number 7 shirt, nor Juventus their number 10. On the contrary, both clubs take pride in the long list of illustrious wearers, suggesting that those shirts will continue to be worn by the superstars of the future. Similarly when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo hang up their boots I would be surprised to see their clubs retire the number 10 and number 7 respectively in spite of both players’ delirious careers.

Contrast this with Napoli, and their fans feeling that Maradona could never be replaced. In Naples, he is worshipped like a saint, visible in icons of all shapes and sizes on walls across the city. This is because fans rightly regard his achievements with the club as little short of miraculous.

However, when a side’s only period of success is so strongly linked with one man, it can feel like when Neapolitans believe there’ll never be another Maradona, what they mean – or perhaps fear – is that there will never be another league title.

If Napoli wish to win an historic third scudetto they will need to overcome these hang-ups and try to adopt more of the mentality of their hated rivals Juventus: to view success as both a right and an obligation, rather than a miracle.

In the meantime, Insigne could do worse than to consider the words or one Napoli fan who said “Instead of thinking about the number 10 Insigne should concentrate on making them retire the number 24.” If he and this Napoli side can hold their nerve this season, they might do just that.

Words by Ricci Potts: @rjpotts84