No. 10 reserved for soccer’s best
YOU can say what you want about soccer, and we usually do. Americans find it boring. There's not enough scoring. We're tired of being told how important this game is to the rest of the world. We don't care.
That's OK. I don't have any complaints with any of those complaints.
But once every four years I find myself being overwhelmed by the enormity of the World Cup, with its passion and tradition. Even staunch soccer non-fans should find themselves run over, if not won over, by the greatness of this event.
So, today, let's talk about one reason why even those who dislike soccer should love the World Cup.
The tradition of the No. 10 shirt.
These days, it seems every would-be great basketball player wants to wear No. 23. For a while it was 33 (Magic Johnson wore 32 because Kareem already had 33). In the 1970s it seemed all the great quarterbacks were 12s. Sometimes, to make a statement, a player will ask to wear No. 1.
But these things vary. They're in and out of vogue.
In soccer, no. It's a constant. It is one of the sport's biggest individual honors to wear your team's No. 10.
Think about it. Why was Mia Hamm No. 9? Because the greatest American women's soccer player ever, the captain, that team's indomitable will -- Michelle Akers -- wore the No. 10 shirt. That was that. No questions asked.
Go through the sport's history. In soccer, there is no greater number.
I asked our soccer expert, Al Chase, why this is so. He thought it had to do with that number traditionally being given to forwards. That is true. Originally, No. 10 went to an inside left. Just like Babe Ruth was No. 3 because he batted third, Lou Gehrig wore No. 4 because he was fourth in the batting order, protecting the Babe.
But of course, numbers soon meant more, in sports. In soccer, the No. 10 shirt became part of the game's lore. It would become an honor, a legacy, passed down from one great to the next.
"People said to me it's just like Da Vinci or Michelangelo -- you are going to leave something for the next generations," Internet scribe Dave James quotes Pele.
Young star Ronaldinho has the honor of wearing the No. 10 jersey for world soccer power Brazil.
Today the great Ronaldinho wears Pele's old No. 10 for Brazil.
Pele. He wore 10, yes, for the old reason, because he was an inside left when he first led Brazil to the World Cup title in 1958 (then again in 1962, then '70). But soon, the number would mean so much more. The greatest player in the world wore the No. 10 shirt.
He was the greatest. But not the first.
Hungary's Ferenc Puskas wore the No. 10 shirt in the early '50s when he was the sport's transcendent player. The line of succession hasn't stopped since.
Geoff Hurst, the only player ever to score three goals in a World Cup championship final. The hero of England's only title. He wore the No. 10 shirt.
The great Diego Maradona. Argentina, in a rare move in the soccer world, even tried to retire his No. 10. They already know there will never be another.
For the United States team, Landon Donovan wears our No. 10 shirt (OK, let's not get into that).
There is something magical, almost mystical, about a great player wearing No. 10.
English sportswriter Richard Williams even wrote a book about it, "The Perfect 10." In it, he writes essays about 10 of the greatest to wear the No. 10 shirt. In the foreword, he writes about the first soccer match he ever saw, as a young boy: "One man alone appears to view the play from some more elevated plane, spotting and shaping its emerging patterns. And on his back, sewn on to the black and white striped shirt, is the number 10."
He writes: "This book is about football's No. 10s, and Ron Wylie of Notts County was my first, the first of many. Even now, so many years after Wylie made such a mark on an impressionable young mind, the No. 10 is the player I look for first in any team and in whom I tend to invest my principal hopes for the entertainment to come. They are an exotic species ..."
Today, turn on the World Cup. And watch the men who have earned the honor of wearing the No. 10 shirt.