The stories continue to unravel and regenerate, even after an ending. We knew Lionel Messi would somehow pay tribute to Diego Maradona in his first match since his passing. With Barcelona seeing out a 3-0 lead against Osasuna, Messi dribbled to the top of the box before unleashing a trademark strike for the fourth goal of the match. He then took off his Barcelona jersey to unveil a Newell’s Old Boys No. 10 jersey that Maradona wore during his brief stint at Messi’s childhood club. With the present reinvigorating the past, it was revealed that a six-year-old Messi performed half-time tricks on Maradona’s debut with Newell’s. And when Messi put his Barcelona jersey back on, there was a brief moment when the numbers overlapped to create a single No. 10, bound across almost 30 years.
The following week, current Boca Juniors No. 10 Carlos Tevez scored the match-winning goal in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores round of 16 match against Internacional. He took off his jersey to show a 1981 Boca Juniors jersey worn by Maradona himself, which he personally gave to Tevez. Tevez revealed that the jersey was previously framed on his wall, to which he broke open for the occasion.
“That shirt is heavy. When I put it on, something which I cannot explain entered my body,” said Tevez after the match.
Of course, regulations had to find their way into the moment. Both players received a customary yellow card for taking off their jerseys. La Liga went one step further by fining both Messi and Barcelona for the unplanned tribute, cutting through the emotions and meaning of history by simply citing Article 93, which prohibits the removal of a jersey no matter the reason.
Shortly following Maradona’s death, Marseille manager Andres Villas-Boas called upon FIFA to permanently retire the No. 10 jersey in his honor. Villas-Boas said that hanging up the jersey would be the “best homage” for Maradona. We understand his initial impulse, but still question how to best honor an outsized personality. Retiring a number is a finality. To maintain a number gives the possibility for current and future players to embody and re-interpret an individual’s style, to have a standard to be measured by. What higher way is there to keep a memory active?
From a traditional perspective, soccer is defined by jersey numbers. Even in this current age of half-spaces and versatile positions, you can still get a high level summary of a player’s role by number. With small differentiations across continents, a backline ranges from 1-6 starting with a keeper. We talk of midfielders as 6s and 8s. A playmaking winger is No. 7, with the striker a No. 9. And of course, the playmaker wears No. 10.
Those numbers are in active conversation with historical roles. There is a weight to every number, and that meaning can inhabit several forms: one rumored reason for the current rivalry between Jose Mourinho and former player Frank Lampard was in how quickly Mourinho gave away Lampard’s No. 8 jersey to an untested Oscar. It was a symbolic slap in the face to the career-spanning depth that Lampard gave the No. 8; it’s successor needed to be chosen with caution, preferably with Lampard’s blessing.
The debate surrounding retiring the No. 10 is layered due to the disappearance of the role in today’s game. And we’re trading the magic of the past for contemporary efficiency in many ways. The lack of design elements on both Newell’s and Boca jerseys showed the simplicity of nostalgia. There was no advertising, only the colors, stripes, and our imaginations to fill in the open space. That supposed innocence and purity of the past only adds to Maradona’s mystique of undefinable genius in contrast to the commerce and branding of today (though none of us are immune - Newell’s Old Boys re-released replicas of that jersey from ’93 for online purchase after Messi’s tribute).
Advertising income is an essential component in remaining competitive in today’s global game. And you wonder how branding would have affected the ability for Messi and Tevez to speak so clearly with the past. Barcelona once paid Unicef $2 million to promote their logo on the jersey. When the club decided to sell the space for advertising, former club president Joan Laporta said that Barcelona “sold the shirt for four cents.” Johan Cruyff described the move as “vulgar.”
“No one has kept their jersey intact throughout their history…we have sold this uniqueness for about six percent of our budget,” added Cruyff. The club’s current deal with Rakuten is worth over $66 million per year.
The alchemy of a jersey balances the personality of a team and a city through the constraints of font, color, and layout. It must strike a balance of pushing a team’s story forward while not leaving the past behind (unless it’s the Miami Heat, in which their most forward pushing jersey colorways generated five times more revenue than their three championship replicas combined). And while the focus is on the immediacy of an upcoming season, is there room to think about history? Can a jersey designed in 2020 carry the weight of a memory thirty years from now?
And the importance of numbers takes on different shapes depending on the sport and context. In the leadup to the upcoming NBA season, Carmelo Anthony admitted that he wanted to wear Brandon Roy’s No. 7 jersey, currently retired by the Portland Trail Blazers. Roy gave his blessing and said he would be honored by the tribute, to which modernism intervened again: the number swap would be too costly considering how many of Anthony’s No. 00 jerseys were already printed.
This idea of inhabiting numbers continued with the movement of players. Russell Westbrook switched from the No. 0 jersey (symbolizing his new beginning in the league) he’s worn throughout his career to the No. 4 with the Wizards, as Gilbert Arenas’ No. 0 is unofficially retired in Washington. Unlike soccer, basketball numbers are not linked to a specific position on the court and lack the weight of historic roles. A close synergy is Michael Jordan’s No. 23 jersey – though as opposed to Maradona’s No. 10, players may intentionally avoid the No. 23 to forge their own legacy. Soccer aims to fill its numeric roles; in basketball, the numbers are spaces to make one’s own.
But regardless of the sport, jerseys today are caught in the middle ground of commerce and competition for a global audience. If there is any open space – whether on the front, the back, or a shoulder - it is an opportunity to generate revenue. We’ll even make up space in search of optimization, with patches on practice jerseys fetching eight-figure sponsorship prices.
In asking whether there could be another Maradona, we concluded that it was impossible just by the structures and context of a digital modern life alone. With a camera easily accessible at all times, there are no more mysteries, only branding opportunities. And the use of those spaces are only becoming more dynamic and innovative with time. We may agree with Cruyff and consider it vulgar, but we all have some implicit understanding of why. So when Messi and Tevez paid tribute with their jerseys, it was to bring Maradona to the present. But it was also Tevez and Messi, along with us, reaching back to the simplicity of the past.