The Return of the Number 10

By | July 9, 2010

Traditionally, the number 10 jersey has been assigned to a team’s most skilled and creative player, who is usually responsible for setting up offense, is given license to roam, and remains relatively free from defensive duties. However, the growing emphasis on tactics at the expense of individual expressiveness over the past fifteen years has rendered this original position almost obsolete. Teams both at club and national level have preferred formations that rely on box-to-box midfielders who are as adept at defending as they are at attacking.

Yet, this world cup has marked the return of the number 10. In fact, most of the teams that made it past the group stage, relied on the inventiveness of a 10, including all four semifinalists. It could be argued that Diego Forlan carried Uruguay on his shoulders, and Germany, often criticized for its boringly effective style of play, added some pazzaz with Ozil. Additionally, the finalists, Holland and Spain, have played the most attractive football of the tournament, and are dependent on 10’s. Holland’s success is widely attributed to Wesley Sneijder, who is probably the favorite to win the tournament’s Golden Ball, while Spain’s play improved visibly after Iniesta recovered from a nagging groin injury.

Historically, men adorning the number 10 jersey have regularly left their mark on the world stage. Pelé was perhaps the first player to make the number famous, and was followed by other Brazilian greats such as Zico, and Ronaldinho. Maradona’s impact wearing the number 10 was so great that any other Argentine wearing the famous shirt is immediately compared to the man who led Argentina to world cup victory in 1986. Almost two decades later, Messi may have finally fit the bill. In 1994 Roberto Baggio graced America with his elegant football, taking Italy to the brink of a championship against Brazil, who was led by Rai, younger brother to football legend Socrates, and possibly the worst player to wear the number 10 for the seleção. Four years later Zinedine Zidane won the world cup with France and redefined what a number 10 should play like. He also established what not to do in a world cup final when he head-butted Marco Materazzi for insulting his sister.

Forlan carried Uruguay to the semis 

Just as they’ve been and continue to be influential on the field, number 10’s have always been inspirational for those of us off the field. Look at the stands of any stadium in the world, and most of the replica jerseys being worn by fans will bear the number 10, as will the t-shirts of street soccer players all over the world. Hopefully, the reemergence of the number 10 at the world cup will translate to the club level, and we wont have to wait four years to see it again.