The No 10 was once a sacred jersey in Italian football. A second skin for the game’s most gifted and creative players, an instant indication of a team’s source of inspiration, today it continues its sliding transition from the shirt kids dreamed about wearing to just another squad number.
In a country where players of the calibre of Gianni Rivera, Giancarlo Antognoni, Michel Platini, Roberto Mancini, Giuseppe Giannini, Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti and Alex Del Piero have had their fantasy, class and genius recognised by a number on their back, the majority of today’s 17 Serie A players who have been given that mythical 10 by their club have little in common with its tradition.
Juventus are one of three top-flight clubs, along with Napoli and Cagliari, where the numeral remains unassigned. While Napoli’s has been withdrawn in honour of the great Diego Maradona, the Turin giants opted to keep the number free following the departure of previous owner Alessandro Del Piero – who was against its retiring – this summer.
“Del Piero is missed a lot, but I would not put on his No 10 shirt,” stated Claudio Marchisio. “Whilst it was an ambition of mine when I was younger, I was an attacker back then and now I am a midfielder. I am not Platini, Baggio or Del Piero. I’m not one who can decide a game, so I do not deserve to ever wear that shirt.”
Not everyone, unfortunately, holds the jersey and its historical significance in such high regard. Fiorentina goalkeeper Cristiano Lupatelli did the previously unthinkable while at Chievo and asked for the 10. The club, unbelievably, gave it to him. “The value of numbers in football is changing,” the custodian noted. “The No 10 is not as special as it once was.”
That was further highlighted by the events at Genoa this summer when a dispute between Alexander Merkel and Cristobal Jorquera over who would get the jersey ended up in a blind auction. Although the money ended up going to charity and Merkel is a promising player, he’s not your archetypal – or what we once perceived as a typical – No 10.
So what’s changed? There is no doubt that a combination of factors have seen the jersey lose its uniqueness. The introduction of stable squad numbers in the 1990s worked wonders for merchandising, but allowed players worthy of the 10 to go and pick other digits. Antonio Cassano, for example, has opted for the 99 in recent years.
The evolution of tactics in Serie A may also be a factor given the downturn in true trequartisti, whereas the economic crisis has also had a part to play, given that the peninsula has lost more than one high class player with the ability to shine in a No 10. Take Milan, for example. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was all set to inherit the 10 from Clarence Seedorf until he was sold to Paris SG this summer. Kevin-Prince Boateng subsequently filled the void.
Boateng can be a great player on his day, but he’s no Wesley Sneijder or Francesco Totti when it comes to being a natural fit. But the Ghanaian isn’t the only man on the Serie A landscape whose ability and squad number don’t add up.
Alberto Aquilani, a mezz’ala, was handed the status symbol at Fiorentina this summer despite being half a player on the evidence of his last two seasons on the peninsula. While it seems bombers now have a right to the combination of the one and the zero after Maxi Lopez and Alberto Gilardino took up the number following moves to Sampdoria and Bologna respectively.
“I’ve come here to score goals, not set them up,” admitted Gilardino, perhaps with a hint of embarrassment, after attacking schemer Gaston Ramirez opted for a switch to Southampton. “I admit that it’s a bit weird to have the No 10 jersey with my name on it, but it was one of the only shirts left.”
And for those who’ll no doubt question what all the fuss is about, that the 10 is only a number, well, that’s now the point…
Serie A’s present No 10s: Giacomo Bonaventura (Atalanta), Alberto Gilardino (Bologna), Francesco Lodi (Catania), Luciano (Chievo), Alberto Aquilani (Fiorentina), Alexander Merkel (Genoa), Wesley Sneijder (Inter), Mauro Zarate (Lazio), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Milan), Fabrizio Miccoli (Palermo), Jaime Valdes (Parma), Mervan Celik (Pescara), Francesco Totti (Roma), Maxi Lopez (Sampdoria), Gaetano D’Agostino (Siena), Alessandro Sgrigna (Torino), Antonio Di Natale (Udinese).