Shirt numbers were first introduced into professional football in the late 1920s, although it wasn't until the 1954 World Cup that players wore the same number throughout the duration of a competition. It was after this that the traditional system, moving up from #1 for the goalkeeper to #11 for the left midfield or wing (traditionally speaking) gradually became the norm. In the decades since, certain shirt numbers have developed a level of cultural significance, and we've come to associate different digits with different skills and responsibilities.
Perhaps the most glamorous and widely-mythologised shirt number of all is the Number 10. Demarcating not just a rough area of the pitch, but also a unique creative role within the team, this is a number that holds much importance to many fans and players across the world. In this article, we'll guide you through why that is. We'll explain what a number 10 in soccer does, detail the key duties, responsibilities and qualities associated with this role, and ultimately answer the question: why is number 10 special in football?
Over the years, attacking midfield players have been given a wide variety of different labels by different fans, coaches and pundits across the world. The trequartista role was coined in Italy in reference to players who operate roughly "three-quarters" of the way up the pitch in the margins between midfield and attack, while Germany talisman Thomas Muller came up with his own term to describe the role he occupies at club side Bayern Munich: the raumdeuter, literally meaning "space investigator". These two labels are both closely tied to the position we're discussing today.
Essentially, a Number 10 in soccer is an attacking player who operates in the spaces between midfield and attack, with key parallels with the trequartista position (one of the primary differences being that the Number 10 label is one that is used largely by English football fans).
That being said, Number 10s can be found across the world, with nations such as Argentina and Brazil known for giving their primary creative force the famous Number 10 on the back of their shirt, even if the role is referred to using a different title (for example, it's known as "enganche" in Argentina, which translates as "the hook").
The role became particularly important during the 1980s, when players such as Diego Maradona and Michel Platini led the charge in underlining how useful it can be to station a creative player in a fluid role behind the main striker(s). Crucially, the Number 10 position in soccer is primarily a central one, with these players expected to thread together wide players, attackers and central midfielders by floating around the spaces between each zone.
And while a No. 10 will usually play behind a lone central striker, perhaps in a 4-4-1-1 formation, it's also not uncommon to see a Number 10 operate behind a striking duo in a formation such as 4-3-1-2. There's a level of versatility here, boosted by the attacking freedom that these kinds of players will tend to have.
There's a level of mythology and magic surrounding this jersey number that arguably isn't replicated by any other position. When soccer players wear the number 10 shirt, it instantly marks them out as a key creator for their team. Often, they will be the most technically proficient and creatively-minded player on the pitch, and with that level of talent comes great responsibility and pressure.
Number 10s will be relied upon to make something happen; and time after time, they'll live up to this expectation. These attacking midfielders are known for sending through a killer pass that leaves a striker one-on-one, or curling a jaw-dropping free-kick into the top corner of the net, just when their team needs it.
Some of the greatest soccer players to have played the game have operated in this position, and as a result the Number 10 jersey has a special place in the hearts and minds of soccer fans.
As we've mentioned, technical quality is essential for any decent Number 10. These central attacking midfielders should be able to receive the ball in tight spaces, controlling adeptly and moving on possession quickly, displaying great footwork and technical proficiency at all times. But these are just the basics — No. 10s are needed for far more than that.
To effectively connect midfield players with the front line, their movement needs to be extremely clever, finding pockets of space in the final third that allow them to thread together a through-ball, play a one-two, pass in midfield triangles or simply dribble forward into more dangerous areas.
Pressure from defenders will be constant, so Number 10s need to be able to complete these dribbles, touches, passes, crosses and combinations even when they're being pressed hard.
When this role first developed, these creative responsibilities were the be-all-and-end-all for the classic number 10 player; however, things have changed. In the modern game, pretty much all attackers also have defensive responsibilities, and the #10 is no exception.
They will often be required to push forward and press the opposition back-line, putting particular pressure on the centre-backs in order to force the ball out wide. Opposition full-backs may often find themselves being pressured by Number 10s too, with high-energy attacking midfielders offering a great opportunity to win the ball back high up the pitch (this idea is the founding principle behind the philosophy of gegenpressing).
No. 10s can also screen the midfield, stationing themselves in positions that allow them to make interceptions and block forward runs and passes into central areas of the pitch.
On top of these out-of-possession responsibilities, attacking midfielders need to be selfless off-the-ball, providing constant movement and runs in the final third that create space for other teammates, as well as for themselves.
While the Number 10 in soccer is primarily a central player, they will regularly drift out wide or into the inside channels to help support wide midfielders and full-backs or create space for other central midfielders. These movements are an essential part of the No. 10's job, even when they don't end up receiving the ball.
Some of the greatest players to have ever graced a soccer field have done so whilst wearing this famous number on the back of their shirt. To further flesh out what the role of a number 10 in their team is, it will be useful to look through the best players to have ever operated in this role.
Long before he become a high-ranking football administrator — Platini was UEFA president before being banned from involvement in football in 2015 due to ethics violations — legendary French footballer Michel Platini showed the world why many fans believe the best soccer players wear the Number 10 shirt more often than not.
Winning the prestigious Ballon d'Or award a remarkable three times in a row in 1983, '84, and '85, Platini was known as an intelligent, graceful player, with outstanding passing abilities, great vision, excellent dribbling skills, and set piece proficiency that more than made up for his lack of obviously exceptional physical attributes.
The mark left on the global game by Argentina legend Diego Maradona is perhaps greater than any other player. As well as winning trophies such as the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Cup and Serie A and pioneering skills such as the maradona turn, Maradona also caused fans across the globe to fall madly in love with him in a way few players do.
This was down not just to his phenomenal dribbling skills, magical footwork, wonderful passing ability and efficacy in front of goal, but also to his unique personality.
The Napoli, Boca Juniors and Argentinos Juniors legend has an iconic status in the game, and a big part of that is his pioneering of the Number 10 position.
Known as Il Divin Codino ("The Divine Ponytail") due to his unusual but utterly iconic hairstyle, Roberto Baggio is a true great of Italian football.
Playing for multiple Serie A clubs including Juventus, Inter and AC Milan during the 1980s and 1990s, he became famed for being an excellent technician, capable of scoring beautiful volleyed or chipped goals, as well as turning playmaker and demonstrating outstanding creative vision, passing ability, and movement in the final third.
His prolific record in front of goal is also remarkable — registering 291 goals in 643 career appearances, he is the joint-highest Italian goalscorer of all time in the World Cup, with nine goals, and the only Italian to have scored in three World Cups.
It would be remiss of us to construct any list of iconic number 10s without mentioning Argentina's latest World Cup-winning captain, Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona legend, who recently moved to the States to enjoy his final playing days at Inter Miami, has followed in the footsteps of Diego Maradona, and in terms of pure footballing success, arguably surpassed him.
Messi's exquisite passing range, clever movement, beautiful first touch and consistent ability to show up when it counts — scoring two goals in the 2022 World Cup final and seven in the tournament overall — means he more than deserves his status as probably the best number 10 of all time, and arguably the greatest player in soccer history full stop.
Want to find out more information about the rest of modern football's key roles and responsibilities? Start by checking out our guide to soccer positions explained.
A number 10 can operate in a number of different formations, including 4-4-1-1 and 4-1-2-1-2. However, perhaps the best-known and most widely-used formation that takes advantage of the qualities of a Number 10 is the well-balanced, possession-based system 4-2-3-1.
The term 'Mezzala' evolved in Italy to describe a creative central midfield player who plays an important role in attacking moves by shifting into half-spaces and attacking key areas of the opposition's final third.
A trequartista is a creative, goal-oriented player who primarily operate in the spaces between midfield and attack. This position is what gives them their name — they generally play around three-quarters of the way up the pitch. Find out more about the trequartista position here.