Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Dutch Were World Cup Final Devils but Their One to Eleven Is My Idea of Heaven

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Dutch Were World Cup Final Devils but Their One to Eleven Is My Idea of Heaven

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Jones

WHAT difference does a number make? Well, it depends on the number. Some don't matter much at all. Others have enormous psychological significance.

In sport, numbers are very important.

You could argue we use them to express the whole fabric of what sport is.

Sport is awash with digits. We use them most obviously as the measure of victory or loss, when they form the discrete digits of a scoreline -- be it 2-1, 433-9dec, or 3&2. To know a sport is to know instantly what these otherwise unintelligible numbers mean about the contest, and they can contain all the heartbreak or joy in the world.

We also use numbers to express team strategy and collective behaviour. This week Harry Redknapp (who has said before he doesn't think tactics matter much) discovered the difference between the numerical sequences of 4-4-2 and 4-3-2-1 when Spurs came unstuck against Young Boys.

We also use numbers to analyse performance.

Manchester United fans know Wayne Rooney's goal-to-game average of 0.48 over his Old Trafford career is pretty healthy, just as England fans gnash their teeth that Rooney averages only 0.38 in his country's shirt. But there is another side to the sporting number -- the superstitious, mythical quality with which they are imbued. And nowhere is this more evident than in the numbers sportsmen wear on their backs.

I tell you all this because in 11 days, every Premier League club will have to submit their 25-man squad lists for this season. It sounds dull but has important implications for the way we think about football -- and sport -- at large.

This season, a squad's numbers are being regulated like never before. Premier League clubs must not just pick a fixed 25 but this must include eight 'home-grown' players. Injuries must be covered by drafting under-21s. For some clubs this will be easy. For others -- Manchester City -- it will be much harder. For those who view English football as a rampant, uncontrolled monster, this new rule doesn't go far enough. Some have suggested all teams should wear the shirt numbers 1-25, as they do in Spain. Innocuous, nerdy suggestion? Or would it, in fact, change the whole basis of the relationship between players and their teams? In football, the relationship between players and teams is, to use the naval phrase, buggered. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the quasi-acquisition by certain players of the numbers on their backs. Take Cristiano Ronaldo. Since moving to Real Madrid, he has taken his shirt number and tried to knit it into his own, personal brand.

When he arrived at Real, Raul already had the No7 shirt number Ronaldo had at Manchester United. In response, Ronaldo took over the No9 with a zeal that suggested he wished it evermore to reek of him and his own brilliance. …

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