The Greatest First 11 Players to Wear Each Shirt Number in Football

In mood for some sporting gig? Join us as we take a look at the players who have made a specific shirt number iconic.

However, it is important to note that this is the view of the author.

Although we appreciate that the list is open to debate. Hence, shall we? Yes, we shall.

1. Iker Casillas

A Real Madrid legend, Iker Casillas is the best goalkeeper in Madrid’s history and in the history of Spanish football.

Iker Casillas

He arrived at the club aged 9 and wore the Whites shirt for 25 years.

Throughout that time he became one of the benchmarks in the club’s history.

He won the respect, affection and admiration of Madrid supporters.

He made his debut with the first team in 12 September 1999 at the San Mamés and went on to play in 725 official games, winning 19 titles.

In addition to those triumphs he also won 1 World Cup and 2 European Championships with the Spain first team.

Madrid fans will never forget the images of the captain lifting those trophies, and nor will they forget his incredible stops.

His saves have led Real Madrid to many victories, such as in the final of La Novena against Bayer Leverkusen.

2. Cafu

Marcos Evangelista de Morais known as Cafu is a Brazilian former professional footballer who played as a defender.

With 142 appearances for the Brazil national team, he is the most internationally capped Brazilian player of all time.

Cafu

He represented his nation in four FIFA World Cups between 1994 and 2006, and is one of the players to have appeared in three World Cup finals, winning the 1994 and 2002 editions of the tournament.

Also, he took part in four editions of the Copa América, winning the title twice, in 1997 and 1999.

He was also a member of the national side that won the 1997 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Cafu is the most-capped Brazilian men’s player of all time with 142 appearances, including a record 21 World Cup games.

Cafu also held the record of winning the most matches in World Cups with 15 (along with two games Brazil won on penalties), before being surpassed by Germany’s Miroslav Klose in the 2014 World Cup.

At club level, Cafu won several domestic and international titles while playing in Brazil, Spain and Italy.

Best known for his spells at São Paulo, Roma and Milan, teams with which he made history.

Although he also played for Zaragoza, Juventude and Palmeiras throughout his career.

Known for his pace and energetic runs along the right flank, he is regarded as one of the greatest full-backs of all time.

One of the best defenders ever to play in the Italian Serie A.

As one of the greatest Brazilian and South American players of his generation.

3. Paolo Maldini

Paolo Cesare Maldini is an Italian former professional footballer who played primarily as a left back and central defender for A.C. Milan and the Italy national team.

As the Milan and Italy captain for many years he was nicknamed “Il Capitano” (“The Captain”).

Paolo Maldini

He is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever defenders, with some considering him to be the best ever, and as one of the greatest players of all time.

Made his debut for Italy in 1988, playing for 14 years before retiring in 2002 with 7 goals and 126 caps.

An appearance record at the time, which has since been surpassed by Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon.

Captained Italy for eight years and held the record for appearances as Italy’s captain (74), until overtaken by Cannavaro and Buffon.

With Italy, Maldini took part in four FIFA World Cups and three UEFA European Championships.

Although he did not win a tournament with Italy, he reached the final of the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000, and the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1988.

Maldini held the record for most appearances in Serie A, with 647, until 2020, when he was overtaken by Gianluigi Buffon.

Maldini spent all 25 seasons of his playing career in the Serie A with Milan, before retiring at the age of 41 in 2009.

He won 25 trophies with Milan: the European Cup/UEFA Champions League five times, seven Serie A titles.

Also, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana titles, five European/UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup.

Maldini won the Best Defender trophy at the UEFA Club Football Awards at the age of 39, as well as the Serie A Defender of the Year Award in 2004.

Maldini came second to George Weah for FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995.

He also placed third in the Ballon d’Or in 1994 and 2003.

Following his retirement after the 2008–09 season, Milan retired his number 3 shirt.

4. Patrick Vieira

Patrick Donalé Vieira is a French former professional football head coach and former player.

Vieira began his career at Cannes in 1994, where several standout performances in his debut season earned him a move to Serie A club Milan a year later.

Patrick Vieira

His single season in Italy was marred due to limited playing time, and he featured mainly for the reserve team.

This allowed him to relocate to England, in order to join countryman Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, for a fee of £3.5 million in 1996.

During his nine-year stint in the Premier League, Vieira established himself as a dominating box-to-box midfielder.

Noted for his aggressive and highly competitive style of play, an attitude that also helped him excel as captain of the club from 2002 until his departure in 2005.

He was named in the Premier League PFA Team of the Year for six consecutive years from 1999 to 2004.

He helped Arsenal achieve a sustained period of success during his time at the club.

Lifted four FA Cups and three league titles, including one unbeaten. He then returned to Italy, playing for Juventus.

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However, quickly departed after the club sustained relegation for their part in a match-fixing scandal.

He then signed for Inter Milan, where he consecutively won four league titles, before featuring for Manchester City, where he won another FA Cup before retiring in 2011.

Vieira featured at senior level for much of his international career, representing France over a period of 12 years.

Also, he spent some part as captain and played in the final in his nation’s victorious campaign.

He won at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, and featured heavily as the team also won Euro 2000.

Vieira was used sparingly by France in the latter stages of his career, and he retired from international competition in 2010, after amassing 107 appearances for the side.

5. Fabio Cannavaro

Fabio Cannavaro, Italian professional football player who led his country to a 2006 World Cup victory.

At age 11 Cannavaro began playing on the junior team for the SSC Napoli soccer club.

Fabio Cannavaro

In 1993 he was asked to play with Napoli’s first team—at the highest level of Italian professional soccer.

He performed solidly for them for two years before moving to Parma AC, where he helped his new team win two Italian cups, the Union of European Football Associations Cup, and the Italian Super Cup.

He joined Inter Milan in 2002 where he spent two seasons, and he then played for Juventus in Turin for two seasons.

After a match-rigging scandal, he announced that he was leaving Italian football to play with Real Madrid in Spain, but in 2009 he returned to Juventus on a one-year contract.

He was named European Footballer of the Year in 2006—the first Italian so honoured since 1993 and the third defender ever to claim that distinction.

Cannavaro went on to become the first defender in the 16-year history of the award to be named World Player of the Year by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

In 2010 he joined Al-Ahli in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, but his play was limited because of injuries.

Cannavaro retired from professional play in 2011. He served as an assistant coach for Al-Ahli in 2013–14 and subsequently coached several other clubs, including China’s Guangzhou Evergrande.

6. Xavi

Xavi, byname of Xavier Hernández Creus, Spanish football player who was widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world in the early 21st century.

He advanced through the club’s various junior ranks before making his first-team debut in 1998.

Xavi

In his first season with the team, Barcelona won the 1998–99 La Liga—Spain’s top football league—championship.

Xavi’s playing time steadily increased over the following seasons, and he was a key member of the club when it won the 2004–05 La Liga title.

Xavi and Barcelona successfully defended the La Liga championship in 2005–06 and captured the Champions League title that season as well.

The team bested this accomplishment in 2008–09 as it won the first “treble” (winning three major European club titles in one season) in Barcelona history.

He won the La Liga title, the Copa del Rey (Spain’s major domestic cup), and the Champions League title.

Xavi helped Barcelona to additional La Liga titles in 2010–11 and 2012–13 as well as a Copa del Rey victory in 2011–12.

In March 2015, he announced that he was leaving Barcelona for Qatar’s Al-Sadd at the end of the 2014–15 season.

He retired from club play in May 2019 and was named the manager of Al-Sadd soon thereafter.

In international play, Xavi was the captain of the Spanish under-20 team that won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999.

Shortly, after helping Spain to a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, he was promoted to the Spanish senior team.

He led Spain to its first major international title in 44 years and was named Player of the Tournament after skillfully orchestrating the Spanish offense throughout the event.

The team’s success continued at the 2010 World Cup, where Xavi helped Spain win the first World Cup championship in the country’s history.

In 2012, Spain captured another Euro title, which made the team the first national squad to win three consecutive major world championships and led many observers to argue that Xavi’s club was the greatest national team in football history.

7. Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo exhausted all superlatives during his six years with United, while he matured from an inexperienced, young winger in 2003 into officially the best footballer on the planet in 2009 (winning the Ballon D’or).

Ronaldo nicknamed “CR7” is a part of Real Madrid’s legacy and will forever be remember as one of the great icons throughout the club’s history.

Cristiano Ronaldo

CR7 was unveiled at the Santiago Bernabéu on 6 July 2009, where he was joined by Eusebio and Alfredo Di Stéfano, and since that day, the goals just kept coming.

Ronaldo netted 451 times in 438 competitive appearances with Real Madrid (averaging over a goal a game).

Registered in all of the competitions he featured in: 312 in LaLiga, 105 in the Champions League, 22 in the Copa del Rey, six in the Club World Cup, four in the Spanish Super Cup and two in the UEFA Super Cup.

Nobody throughout the club’s history has scored as many goals as the Portuguese attacker, who boasts an impressive trophy haul as a Real Madrid player: four Champions League crowns, three Club World Cups and UEFA Super Cups apiece, two LaLiga titles, a pair of Copas del Rey and two Spanish Super Cups.

This list of honours is completed with four Ballons d’Or, three Golden Shoe awards, two The Best awards, whilst he was named UEFA Best Player in Europe three times and landed the Pichichi crown on three occasions.

A spell full of records during the course of his nine seasons as a Real Madrid player, Ronaldo secured a number of impressive records: the club’s all-time leading goalscorer.

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The leading marksmen in European Cup history (he scored 105 goals for Real Madrid in the Champions League); the all-time leading madridista goalscorer in LaLiga (312); highest number of games in which a player has scored three or more times in LaLiga history (34); and the most goals to have been scored by a Real Madrid player in a single season (61).

During his time at the club, he also clinched the record for the most goals scored in a Champions League campaign (17) and ended the competition as the leading goalscorer on six occasions.

Club president Florentino Pérez labelled him as “the heir to Alfredo Di Stéfano”, and just like Don Alfredo, he has left an indelible mark on the history of the best club in the world.

8. Andrés Iniesta

Andrés Iniesta Luján, Spanish football player who helped his country win the Euro title in 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup.

It was the first time a national squad had captured three consecutive major world championships.

Andrés Iniesta

Iniesta’s family had links with Fútbol Club Barcelona, and he enrolled at La Masia, the club’s youth academy.

He was groomed through Barcelona’s various levels, and his ability to control and accurately distribute the ball fitted him ideally for a midfield role, either defending or attacking.

He had had his first taste of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League play on October 29, 2002, against Belgium’s FC Bruges.

It was not until the 2004–05 season, however, that he became a regular player.

He subsequently helped Barcelona win nine La Liga championships, six Copas del Rey (2009, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018), seven Spanish Super Cups (2005–06, 2009–11, 2013, 2016), four Champions League titles (2006, 2009, 2011, 2015), and three each of the UEFA Super Cup (2009, 2011, 2015) and FIFA Club World Cup (2009, 2011, 2015) trophies.

Iniesta ended his spectacular Barcelona career in 2018 when he joined Japan’s Vissel Kobe.

In international competition, Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final against the Netherlands, earning him the Man of the Match title.

Iniesta was subsequently voted Man of the Match and Best Player of the Tournament at the 2012 European Championships; Spain became the first country to win two consecutive Euro titles.

Spain’s Andrés Iniesta (navy blue uniform) kicking the winning goal past Netherlands’ Rafael van der Vaart during the final match of the 2010 World Cup, Johannesburg.

The accolades continued when Iniesta was named UEFA’s Best Player in Europe for 2011–2012.

9. Ronaldo

Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima, Brazilian football player who led Brazil to a World Cup title in 2002.

He received three Player of the Year awards (1996–97 and 2002) from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

De Lima Ronaldo

Ronaldo was a member of Brazil’s under-17 South American championship team in 1991 before joining the national side in 1994.

Ronaldo was transferred in 1994 from Cruzeiro to PSV Eindhoven of the Netherlands, where he scored 55 goals in 56 games and won the 1995 league championship and the 1996 Dutch Cup.

After switching to FC Barcelona of Spain for the 1996–97 season, he scored 34 goals in 37 appearances and helped his team capture the Spanish Super Cup.

Due to his success, Ronaldo was paid $27 million by Inter Milan to play for the Italian club in 1997, a record at the time.

At Inter his excellent dribbling skills and knack for scoring goals earned him the nickname “Il Fenomeno.”

In 1997 Ronaldo became the first player to win FIFA’s Player of the Year award two years in a row.

In 1999, however, he suffered a serious knee injury that left him unable to play for almost two years.

Dismissing concerns that his career was over, Ronaldo returned to competitive play in 2001.

At the 2002 World Cup he scored eight goals to earn the Golden Shoe award as the tournament’s top scorer and helped Brazil win its fifth World Cup championship.

He then announced that he was leaving Inter for Real Madrid of Spain. After much wrangling, Real agreed to pay a transfer fee of about $46.3 million.

In 2002 Ronaldo was named both FIFA Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year (an award he also had received in 1997).

At the 2006 World Cup he scored three goals to bring his career total at the tournament to a record-setting 15 (a mark that was broken in 2014 by Germany’s Miroslav Klose).

While playing for the Italian powerhouse AC Milan in 2008, Ronaldo ruptured a tendon in his left knee—the same type of injury that had occurred in his right knee in 1999—which some thought would put his career in jeopardy.

In December 2008 a fully recovered Ronaldo signed with the Corinthians in São Paulo.

In 2018 Ronaldo became the majority owner of the Spanish club Real Valladolid. 

10. Lionel Messi

Lionel Andrés Messi, Argentine-born football player who was named Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) world player of the year six times.

In the 2004–05 season Messi, then 17, became the youngest official player and goal scorer in the Spanish La Liga (the country’s highest division of football).

Lionel Messi

Naturally left-footed, quick, and precise in control of the ball, Messi was a keen pass distributor and could readily thread his way through packed defenses.

In early 2009 Messi capped off a spectacular 2008–09 season by helping FC Barcelona capture the club’s first “treble” (winning three major European club titles in one season).

The team won the La Liga championship, the Copa del Rey (Spain’s major domestic cup), and the Champions League title.

He scored 38 goals in 51 matches during that season, and he bested Ronaldo in the balloting for FIFA World Player of the Year honours by a record margin.

During the 2009–10 season Messi scored 34 goals in domestic games as Barcelona repeated as La Liga champions.

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He earned the Golden Shoe award as Europe’s leading scorer, and he was named the 2010 world player of the year.

Messi led Barcelona to La Liga and Champions League titles the following season, which helped him capture an unprecedented third consecutive world player of the year award.

In March 2012 he netted his 233rd goal for Barcelona, becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer in La Liga play when only 24 years old.

His landmark season led to his being named the 2012 world player of the year, which made Messi the first player to win the honour four times.

His 46 La Liga goals in 2012–13 led the league, and Barcelona captured another domestic top-division championship that season.

In 2014 he set the overall Barcelona goal record when he scored his 370th goal as a member of the team.

That same year he also broke the career scoring records for play in both the Champions League (with 72 goals) and La Liga (with 253 goals).

He scored 41 goals across all competitions for Barcelona in 2015–16, and the club won the La Liga title and the Copa del Rey during that season. Messi topped that with 53 goals for Barcelona in 2016–17, leading the team to another Copa del Rey title.

In 2017–18 he scored 45 goals, and Barcelona won the La Liga–Copa del Rey double once again.

Messi scored 51 goals across all domestic competitions in 2018–19 as Barcelona won another La Liga championship. In December 2019 he won his sixth career Ballon d’Or.

Despite his dual citizenship and professional success in Spain, Messi’s ties with his homeland remained strong, and he was a key member of various Argentine national teams from 2005.

He played on Argentina’s victorious 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship squad, represented the country in the 2006 World Cup, and scored two goals in five matches as Argentina swept to the gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Messi helped Argentina reach the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals, where the team was eliminated by Germany for the second consecutive time in World Cup play.

At the 2014 World Cup, Messi put on a dazzling display, scoring four goals and almost single-handedly propelling an offense-deficient Argentina team through the group stage and into the knockout rounds, where Argentina then advanced to the World Cup final for the first time in 24 years.

Argentina lost that contest 1–0 to Germany, but Messi nevertheless won the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player.

During the 2016 Copa América Centenario tournament, he netted his 55th international goal to break Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record.

After Argentina was defeated in the Copa final—the team’s third consecutive finals loss in a major tournament—Messi said that he was quitting the national team, but his short-lived “retirement” lasted less than two months before he announced his return to the Argentine team.

At the 2018 World Cup, he helped an overmatched Argentine side reach the knockout stage, where they were eliminated by eventual champion France in their first match.

In 2019 he was a member of Argentina’s third-place team at the Copa América.

11. Ryan Giggs

Ryan Joseph Giggs is a Welsh football coach and former player. He is the manager of the Wales national team and a co-owner of Salford City.

Giggs played his entire professional career for Manchester United and briefly served as the club’s interim manager after the sacking of David Moyes in April 2014.

Predominantly a left winger, he began his career with Manchester City, but joined Manchester United on his 14th birthday in 1987.

He made his professional debut for the club in 1991 and spent the next 23 years in the Manchester United first team.

Ryan Giggs

Also, he was named as assistant manager under Moyes’ permanent replacement, Louis van Gaal, on 19 May 2014; he retired from playing the same day holding the club record for competitive appearances – 963.

Giggs played for the Wales national team 64 times between 1991 and 2007 and was named as the captain of the Great Britain team that competed at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

He is one of only 28 players to have made over 1,000 career appearances.

Giggs is one of the most decorated footballers of all time.

During his time at United, he won 13 Premier League winner’s medals, four FA Cup winner’s medals, and  three League Cup winner’s medals.

He also surged on to win two UEFA Champions League winner’s medals, a FIFA Club World Cup winners medal, an Intercontinental Cup winner’s medal, a UEFA Super Cup winner’s medal and nine FA Community Shield winner’s medals.

Manchester United and Liverpool are the only clubs in English football history to have won more league championships than Giggs.

Giggs captained United on numerous occasions, particularly in the 2007–08 season when regular captain Gary Neville was ruled out with various injuries.

The first player in history to win two consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year awards (1992 and 1993), though he did not win the PFA Player of the Year award until 2009.

Giggs was the only player to play in each of the first 22 seasons of the Premier League, as well as the only player to score in each of the first 21 seasons.

Elected into the PFA Team of the Century in 2007, the Premier League Team of the Decade in 2003, as well as the FA Cup Team of the Century.

Giggs holds the record for the most assists in Premier League history, with 162.

In addition to the many honours Giggs has received within football, he was appointed an OBE in the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours List for his services to football.

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