Experimentations through the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought about assigning team numbers to different positions on the field, with results curiously varying from country to country. The advent of commercialism in sports, greater media exposure and such the ability for spectators to resonate with players later in the decade added personality to the digits.
Jersey numbering were thought to have first come about in a rugby union game between representatives of Queensland and New Zealand in July 1897. Player names on the shirts were a much later innovation, believed to have been initially tried out by the New York Americans for the 1926-27 National Hockey League season.
Names on the back became consistent in North America through the 1960s, as its major sports were regularly taking to the airwaves. Just like its reputation over there, soccer was late to catch on, the NASL made naming a requirement in 1975.
On the other side of the Atlantic, they were a bit more wary of the modernisation but Scotland tested the waters in 1979. One of their eminent clubs, Celtic, gave it a go a year later for Danny McGrain’s testimonial. Considering how reluctant they were to taint the backs of their hallowed hoops with numbers, it’s odd how they allowed such sacrilege for a legend.
South of the border, player naming became mandatory in the Premier League from its second season, Manchester United’s laundry room reportedly being too small prevented this from being in place straight away. Liverpool can boast to be the first English team to utilise the practice, in their 1981 Intercontinental Cup tie against Flamengo.
Its permanent adoption in the country coincided with the use of persistent squad numbers for the players, both concepts were trialled in the finals of the Football League’s and Football Association’s cup competitions for 1992-93, both contested between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday in another English football first.
Arsenal claimed a then-unprecedented cup double and the latter triumph earned them the right to face inaugural Premier League champions Man United for the Charity Shield. Arsenal used squad numbers for the 1993-94 curtain raiser but United stuck with the 1-11 numbering system once more, creating an anachronistic mess between them.
Premier League rules stipulate that players should use sport their family name on their backs, anything else would be subject to approval. Typically, nicknames and that are permitted if players have established themselves under such alias, Everton’s Predrag Radosavljević was allowed to have ‘Preki’ in the formative years, before he returned to his adopted homeland.
An early example, if not the earliest, to fall foul to this ruling was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Joining Leeds United the season the League introduced their own Optima-derived typeset, 1997-98, he opted to wear ‘Jimmy’. In spite of impressing against eventual champions Arsenal on his debut, Premier League officials weren’t happy as his birth name is Jerrel. He was made to use his surname from then on.
South American teams were late to catch onto it all, typically featuring names in competitions that were overseen by FIFA. They didn’t become compulsory in the Copa América until 2004 and in the 2010s, their big teams were still using the classic 1-11.
For the 2002 World Cup and 2004 Copa América, Cristian González of Argentina was registered under his birth name, despite going by Kily on club duty. Both instances had his initial preceding his family name although it was only the latter there was another namesake in the squad; Luis, AKA Lucho.
Cristian and Luis were joined by Mariano González for the 2004 Olympics who — owing to the popularity of his surname — went through the true form of his given name through his club career to distinguish himself. Strangely, Kily went by his nickname for the tournament but the other two used their surname, with their initial now following it.
Returning to England, via the USA, Eric Djemba-Djemba was part of the Manchester United contingent on a pre-season tour. He went by the single name whilst on their excursion but come the proper competitive football, he had to revert to the double-barrel, using smaller lettering so it could fit.
Eric was allowed to go by ‘Djemba’ for the Community Shield and Champions League qualifying at the start of 2004-05, presumably making use of the shirts that were left over from the summer. This meant he concurrently went by two different names, as the qualifiers sandwiched two Premier League games, which he featured in.
One United player to go by a nickname is Javier Hernández, better known as Chicharito (Little Pea). The League permitted this as he established himself under that in Mexico, although not all footballing bodies are supposedly this lenient.
Allowed to go by ‘Chicharito’ for his country under the auspices of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL (as Copa América invitees), he hasn’t made a World or Confederations Cup appearance under that name. Instead, he follows his teammates and uses his initial and surname. Despite not making an appearance for Real Madrid in the 2014 Club World Cup, he was registered under the nickname so it being outlawed by FIFA can be up for debate.
Raúl de Tomás going just by his initials is one of the biggest pet peeves in modern football. Fortunately, UEFA saw sense for once and were not amused by his antics so during his brief stint at Benfica, they forced him to go by something proper on his back in the 2019-20 Champions League.
An additional oddity is Wesley Sneijder for the Netherlands in 2014, this instance being more to do with aesthetics than abiding to governing bodies or national associations. The Dutch alphabet contains the digraph ‘IJ’ which can be rendered as those two separate characters, a single ligature or as a ‘Y’.
The typeset for the country included the combined digraph for the upcoming World Cup in Brazil and Sneijder duly used it, whereas Stefan de Vrij stuck with the two letters. Their blue away strip was replaced with a white one a year later, with the numbers receiving a slight cosmetic update but weirdly, the ligature was ditched from the new batch of identical orange lettering.