Resting his head on his favourite club-branded pillow at night, club scarves, posters and other regalia cover every square inch of the bedroom walls, none more prominent than the prestigious replica shirt placed front and centre above his bed, its two imprinted digits boldly silhouetted despite the darkened room.
His eyes close as his mind is teleported to an iconic football pitch in a packed stadium where he – the team’s superstar – has just netted an injury-time winner to seal cup glory. He envisages running to the corner flag, the rapturous crowd barely containing themselves as he celebrates, jumping high in the air before spinning around, pointing with both hands to the infamous number emblazoned on the back of his jersey.
The iconic No 10.
It’s a number worn by the game’s greats, representing a position associated with creative genius, silky skills, artistic flair, a team’s untouchable playmaker – the best. Alfredo di Stefano, Pele, Michel Platini, Lothar Matthaus and Roberto Baggio are just a sprinkling of global superstars to have donned the historic shirt.
And when greats such as those mentioned above are brought up in conversation, a natural follow-up discussion often includes the retirement, or not, of those players’ jerseys in their respective teams.
The symbolic gesture of retiring a player’s jersey – out of respect for their unrivalled contribution, their untimely passing, or both – is more popular in some countries than others.
The retirement of Pele’s No 10 jersey at New York Cosmos in 1977 is deemed the first ever act of this kind in football, with the practise having thereafter become a popular means of celebrating players across an array of clubs in Italy.
Franco Baresi’s No 6 jersey at Milan, Javier Zanetti’s No 4 at Inter, Gigi Riva’s No 11 at Cagliari and Marco Rossi’s No 7 at Genoa are just a handful of shirts that have all been hung up for the last time within the clubs’ museums in honour of their players’ legendary status.
Similarly, Federico Pisani’s No 14 at Atalanta, Piermario Morosini’s No 25 at both Livorno and Vicenza and more recently Davide Astori’s No 13 at Cagliari and Fiorentina were posthumously retired as a long-lasting tribute.
The late Diego Maradona’s cherished No 10 jersey was retired at Napoli in the year 2000, almost a decade after his 259th and final match for the Partenopei, having scored 115 goals in a seven-year spell which included UEFA Cup victory as well two league titles – the only two Scudetti in the club’s history.
Two years later, Argentina’s attempt to retire Maradona’s No 10 national team shirt was blocked by FIFA as a result of the strict numerical protocol used by all squads at international tournaments.
After the Argentinean maestro’s recent passing, Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo and Cumana Metro Station as well as Argentina’s Copa Liga were all renamed in his honour, while fresh calls were made to retire El Diez’s No 10 shirt at the other teams he played for – Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys – by his eldest son Diego Maradona Junior.
This followed a statement made by Marseille manager Andre-Villas Boas, who called upon FIFA to retire the No 10 shirt across the globe in Maradona’s honour.
Paying tribute to a footballer by retiring his jersey at a club where he excelled is one thing, but retiring his jersey number in every team he featured, and even those he did not, may seem extreme to many. Granted, Maradona’s decorated and well-publicised career can in itself be described in extremes, yet to what degree can the Argentine’s heroics be fairly levelled against all the records, accomplishments and impact made by countless other impressive No 10s the world over?
Endless heated discussions regarding football’s G.O.A.T. never end in a satisfactory answer for everyone involved, therefore retiring the jersey in honour of just one great surely undermines the feats achieved by others.
Loyal Lionel Messi fans would argue that The Flea’s contribution and impact made in Barcelona’s No 10 jersey supersedes the scandalous, injury-plagued two seasons Maradona spent wearing the very same number in the 1980s.
While the 1986 World Cup winner was undoubtedly a generational talent, his controversial lifestyle and the fact that he was undeniably far from his peak at several of the six clubs he turned out for would certainly raise the voices of critics opposed to retiring his jersey in each of those teams.
While the romantic gesture of retiring the jersey worldwide would be the grandest way to pay tribute to the fallen star, the act in many ways freezes his particular era in time and cuts short future memories and unforgettable moments by upcoming no 10s, that would be relished and savoured by fans at innumerable clubs. It also places the individual over the collective, the player over the team, the standout star over the badge – and any player, regardless of their personal achievements, will always claim that the badge comes first.
In the same way that Cristiano Ronaldo opted for the No 7 shirt at Manchester United to continue the legacy of David Beckham, Eric Cantona and George Best, so should it be encouraged that such iconic jerseys are continually celebrated and passed down to inspire the next generation of stars to continue the exploits made by former club icons.
This rings none truer than the recent exquisitely timed and spell-binding photo of Messi pulling his current Barcelona No 10 top over the Newell’s number ten jersey displayed in his tribute to Maradona, the two No 10s on his back lining up perfectly in a mesmerising metaphor of La Pulga taking up his predecessor’s mantle.
While the traditional use of jersey numbers to depict certain positions on the pitch has somewhat waned in recent years, the glorified No 10 will forever be associated with the team’s playmaking kingpin.
It’s the position most youngsters gun for in almost every street football game, and like in the hypothetical scene that all aspiring footballers can relate to, it is a magical number that captures the hearts, imagination and dreams of countless young football fanatics across the globe.
Taking away the No 10 forever will not only create a symbolic void in the final third of the pitch, but cull the hopes and aspirations of future No 10s, forming an impenetrable barrier that upcoming stars can no longer strive to break through.
The game will always be bigger than any individual will ever be, even Maradona in his iconic No 10 shirt. As young Diego himself did in the favelas of Bueno Aires, let the children dream.