Manchester United’s Number Seven Shirt Brings An Enduring Symbolism
There is something about numbers. There are ultra-rationalist humans who pay them little mind in terms of symbolic importance, but society has humanity’s fascination with numbers baked into its core. We celebrate birthdays to mark our passage through life in numerical chunks. We pay particular attention to round numbers—turning 20 or 30 or 40 is a big deal because both numbers in your age change at once. In cricket, batsmen get nervous when they’re edging through the 90s during an innings, in spite of the fact that scoring 99 runs and 100 runs has a remarkably similar effect on helping your team win. It’s just that humans really like numbers.Football has lots of numbers in it. There are pragmatic numbers like the goals scored and minutes played and important analytical numbers like key passes per 90 minutes and number of dabs per season. But there are, of course, also symbolic numbers.
Once upon a time the number on a player’s shirt represented where they played on the pitch. But, of course, given what people are like, players were drawn to their “lucky numbers” or numbers associated with their favourite players, or their numerological significance. Asamoah Gyan, that profound bucker of numerical tradition who plays up front but wears the number 3 shirt told the Mirror “Three is the shirt I wore as a teenager in Ghana. It is a powerful number. If you are lifting something heavy, you count to three before you lift. If you want to warn someone, you warn them once, then twice and the third time you take action.”
Squad numbers formalise this relationship, though players like Bryan Robson were associated with a number separate from their position long before that formalisation occurred. At United the number seven has taken on a mythological status for two reasons. One, it was associated with loads of great players—George Best (sort of), Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo and two, some of those players were among the most marketable ever to play the game. Best, Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo might just be the four players with the most mass-market appeal in the history of the club.
There is genuine cool in the mix, certainly, especially in the case of Best and Cantona, but there was also carefully constructed image. When Sir Alex Ferguson told Roy Keane he did not want Beckham to have the number seven shirt he might just have had half a mind on not wanting the player’s personal brand to benefit by association. Personal brands are only good for the team as a whole to a point.
Ferguson’s brilliant specificity when it came to man management meant he suspected Beckham’s personal brand might become a distraction, whereas Ronaldo’s would be central to his development. He was always going to be an individualist, might as well try and get the best out of him. Perhaps when he handed Michael Owen the shirt he was hoping it would prove he had real faith in the one-time Balon d’Or winner to have a significant impact at United. Antonio Valencia was given it as a reward for hard work and progress. It weighed too heavy on him in the end, but the intent is clear.
Any rationalist worth their salt would argue that it does not really matter what shirt number a player wears, of course.
But it clearly does. Because humans have never been entirely driven by rationality. Numbers are important to us, and will continue to be so. Who wears the number seven is important at United, whether we like it or not.
It just is.
**To view the video around the Manchester Utd infamous number 7 shirt, click here.**