Explained: What do football squad numbers mean?

Striker Bethany England wears the number 9 jersey for Tottenham.
Bethany England of Tottenham Hotspur wears a rainbow-coloured captain's armband during a WSL match against Aston Villa in February 2024. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

From the False Nine to the squad’s No. 1, if you’ve been around the beautiful game, you’ll have heard references to squad numbers. You may also have scratched your head about them. After all, sometimes the player ‘playing at 10’ is actually wearing No. 22.

Traditionally, squad numbers were given logically to distinguish each player’s role on the pitch. For example, those in defence were given lower numbers, while the superstar strikers donned double digits. 

These squad numbers are also often used within national teams. Under FIFA competition rules, 23-person squads must wear strips with the numbers 1–23. With such strict parameters and little room for personal choice, traditional numbering conventions can be relied on.

However, in the modern club game, squad numbers have little meaning. Players are generally free to choose any two-figure number, though some clubs enforce different numbering rules. Players often select their number for branding reasons, superstitions, or simply to accommodate the wishes of their teammates. 

You’ll often hear references to the traditional squad numbers in tactical discussions. For example, Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema moved back from her No. 9 role to make way for Stina Blackstenius in 2022. But what does that actually mean? Keep scrolling to find out.

Traditional football squad numbers explained

In a classic 1–11 system, players would wear numbers based on their position on the pitch:

Number 1

The No. 1 shirt was given to the team’s first-choice goalkeeper. This is a tradition preserved through both national teams and club football. The likes of Alyssa Naeher and Merle Frohms wear it for both.

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Number 2

The No. 2 historically belongs to the right-back. Lucy Bronze plays in the No. 2 for England, while Barcelona teammate Ona Batlle wears it for Spain.

Number 3

Switching sides, the No. 3 is often worn by the left-back. Notable examples include Spain’s Laia Aleixandri, the USWNT’s Jenna Nighswonger, and England’s Niamh Charles.

Number 4

The No. 4 typically belongs to central defenders. In a break from tradition, midfielder Keira Walsh wears England’s No. 4. However, first-choice centre-back Millie Bright wears it at her club, Chelsea. Mapi León also wears the No. 4 for Barcelona, while San Diego Wave and USWNT defender Naomi Girma sticks to the number year-round.

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Number 5

The No. 5 shirt can go to a centre-back or a central defender. Alex Greenwood takes the No. 5 for England, and Becky Sauerbrunn wears it for the USWNT.

Number 6

In recent years, teams give the No. 6 to defensive midfielders. Germany’s Lena Oberdorf wears the No. 6, as does Colombia captain Daniela Montoya.

Number 7

Strikers and wingers traditionally wear the No. 7. Lauren James wore England’s No. 7 at the 2023 World Cup, though it had belonged to Beth Mead at Euro 2022.

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Number 8

The No. 8 goes to box-to-box, playmaking midfielders, or those who are more attack-minded. England’s Georgia Stanway is the perfect example.

Number 9

The first-choice central striker will often wear the No. 9. Notable players who don the coveted shirt include the USWNT’s Midge Purce, the Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, and Mayra Ramírez of Colombia.

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Number 10

Like the No. 9, the No. 10 shirt comes with a certain level of prestige. Teams often give it to the squad’s primary playmaker or attacking midfielder. USWNT captain Lindsey Horan bears the responsibility, as does Ireland’s Denise O’Sullivan, and Arsenal skipper Kim Little.

Number 11

The No. 11 is another attacking number, often given to a left winger. The Netherlands’ Lieke Martens, Norway’s Guro Reiten, and England’s Lauren Hemp all wear the double digits for club and country.

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