Napoli have done it, Milan have done it, Brescia have done it – retired a shirt to honor a great player of the past. On the surface it seems like an easy and beautiful way to show respect to a player, who one way or another has been important to the club and who still serves as a corner stone in the club’s history. Good examples are Maradona in Napoli, Baggio in Brescia, and Baresi in Milan. There is however another side to the story.
Whenever a shirt number is retired it signals a loss of faith in the future. Sure Francesco Totti has been wonderful at Roma, but the story doesn’t end here. The same goes for Alessandro Del Piero in Juventus. If the Juventus leaders are to retire Del Piero’s number 10 shirt after this season, they also retire any possibility that any young boy would have to ever get to play in that jersey. The magical number 10 in Italian football is the stuff dreams are made of, and by retiring them one by one, we take away the chance for that magic to be recreated generation after generation.
What do the people retiring the numbers think? That new good, and even absolutely wonderful, players will never come? To me retiring numbers, apart from in very special situations, reflects a profound lack of trust in the future. How long will football last? We don’t know the answer, but the popularity of the game considered it seems likely that our great, great, great etc. grand children will also love the same clubs as we do, or at least follow the same game as us. We should not deny our great grand children, should they be spectators or players, the joy to experience a new number 10, or number 7, 11 or 99, set the pitch on fire – or to be the new number 10 lightening up the days of the future.
There is no doubt that Maradona, Del Piero, Baresi, etc. were and are important to their clubs. But their importance far outsizes a number. If we think that we need to retire a number to remember a great player of the past, we underestimate the power of the legends. They will be remembered anyway. And who are we to decide for the future who is to be remembered or not? In a 100 years when player after player has come and gone, will they still agree on our choice to retire a shirt carried by one legend out of many? If they do, good – then we have just stripped some kids of their dreams, but if they don’t – then we force our descendants either to soil a legend’s legacy by putting his shirt into action once again, or we force them to grumble forever over the fact that some stupid people in 2012 thought Alessandro Del Piero to be more important than Alediego Marapiero or whatever the legend of the future is called.
It is time to respect both the past and the future and most of all the continuity – the tenacity that brings people to the stadium year in and year out. We are important for sure, and so are the players of our time, but we are also just small pieces of a far greater story, one of the greatest in the world.
It is no coincidence that Totti has spoken against retiring numbers for good, and that Maradona has suggested that Ezequiel Lavezzi is worthy of Napoli’s number 10. They know the importance of the shirt and they know the dreams tied to it. So should we.
Photo by dullhunk