Backlit and shrouded in dry-ice, the number 10 is football’s star turn.

Well, in certain parts of the world anyway. There are footballing cultures in which the number 10 represents ideals, myths and shared history, and it has the unique language to match. Then there are those who place their affections elsewhere, and describe the role in altogether more terrestrial terms.

In either case, there’s really only one place to start the journey through the language of the number 10.

O camisa 10

The Brazilians reserve (or maybe reserved) a particular tone of reverence for the verve and dash of o camisa 10 (‘the number 10 shirt’). What’s less documented is that, instead of 10, it could just as easily have been any other number from across the front line.

At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, Brazil had neglected to allot their players numbers, so Fifa did it instead. Pelé, being a forward, was randomly allotted the number 10 and went on to star as Brazil won the World Cup – their first – besting their opponents with unprecedented speed and creativity. The legend of o camisa 10 was born.

The 1960s was marked by political turmoil for Brazil, but throughout the decade the Seleção asserted an identity which refused to be defined by instability and unrest. Football, and the spirit of the number 10 shirt, gave an outlet to the country’s yearning for celebration amid the repression imposed by successive military governments. Nowhere was this more evident than at the 1970 World Cup, when Brazil elected to play – and win – the tournament with five players who wore the number 10 for their clubs: Rivelino, Gérson, Tostão, Pelé and Jairzinho.

Just to confuse things, the position is also known in Brazil as o um (‘the one’), after its position in the 4-3-1-2 formation devised by legendary coach Mário Zagallo.

The enganche and the pibe

If there’s one team willing to duke it out with Brazil for all things number 10 (and much more besides), it’s Argentina. And the Albiceleste‘s ace in the hole is their unique take on the role: el enganche (‘the ‘hook’).

The enganche is the creative fulcrum of la nuestra (‘our way’), a historically non-European style of possession and passing, relying on the guile of short, skilful attacking players.  In an unswervingly Argentian approach to the game, the use of the word enganche paints the number 10 as the essential link between midfield and attack, the hook that joins everything together and imposes a style on proceedings. Juan Roman Riquelme is the archetype here, and is still lauded as el ultimo diez.

The 10 is often also worn by the pibe – the impish, impudent child who never grew up, playing football as he learned on the potreros (strips of ground between tower blocks), blazingly unencumbered by rules. The pibe has quite the lineage, being embodied by Héctor Rial, Ricardo Bochini, and the pibe de oro (‘golden boy’) himself  – Diego Maradona. While the enganche is the figurehead for a belief in how the game should be played,  the pibe encapsulates a state of innocence, joy and potential. Both find a home in the Argentinian number 10 shirt.

The proliferation of Argentine coaches means the word enganche is now widely used in Latin America, with the more prosaic mediapunta (lit. half point) also used both in South America and across Spain. It’s been debated whether Spain has a real affinity with the number 10, but it’s telling that when the Real Madrid players wanted to highlight that Rafael Benitez was not fit to coach them as he’d never played at the highest level, they sarcastically named him after the home of the most talented position on the pitch – el diez (‘the ten’).

The stuff of fantasy

So in Brazil and Argentina the unique terminology around the number 10 captures a spirit of independence and cultural pride. In Italy, the 10 is quite literally the stuff of fantasy.

The fantasista is granted free reign to crop up wherever the mood takes them, and the word itself speaks to a Romanticism that demands football be more than an everyday pursuit. Their job is to bring invention and inspiration, and they are supposedly capable of elevating the game into the realms of imagination. The holy touch to Roberto Baggio’s nickname Il Divin Codino (‘The Divine Ponytail’), says everything about how Italians view their fantasisti.

Like a more disciplined fantasista, the trequartista plays three-quarters of the way up the pitch, drifting between the lines, probing, assisting and providing a goal threat. It’s a celebrated position that children in Italy are groomed for and aspire to, and another reason why the number 10 is held in such high esteem.

Earthly arts

As we skittle from South America, Spain and Italy towards northern Europe, football moves to being a more earthly art (but an art nonetheless) over which the number 10 is manipulator-in-chief. Germany, for example, has the flamboyant Regisseure, meaning ‘director’ (in the sense of film or theatre), while the French describe a game’s playmaker as being à la baguette (‘holding the conductor’s baton’).

Although not strictly a number 10, a noteworthy addition to the AM canon has come with Germany’s Thomas Müller and the Raumdeuter, or ‘space investigator/interpreter’. The Raumdeuter is charged with seeking out and exploiting space in opposition defences. Depending on whether this is translated as ‘interpreter’ or ‘investigator’, the role is artistic and erudite (floating through the game and interpreting events in one’s own unique manner) or it carries just a whiff of the sinister in its non-specific, authoritarian undertones.

Uniformity in northern Europe

In the UK, as well as in Scandinavia and Holland, the language becomes more uniform, reflecting the comparative lack of emphasis on the role. It’s notable that one of the most iconic and innovative players of northern Europe, Johan Cruyff, wore the number 9 before returning from injury to find his favoured shirt taken and switching to 14. Similarly, in the UK the number 9 has often been the more iconic position, while describing a player as ‘in the hole’ between midfield and attack reflects our now waning obsession with the rigid lines of 4-4-2. The negative connotations of the word ‘hole’ perhaps even represent a certain mistrust of all that falls in between those lines.

Meanwhile, back in Communist Russia…

We finish our journey in Soviet Russia, and there are similarities with South America and the number 10 reflecting values beyond the game, albeit manifested very differently.

In an interesting echo of the collectivist ideals of Russia behind the iron curtain, the playmaker in the Soviet east was known by the rather proletariat nickname  Диспетчер – ‘the dispatcher’. While this term has now fallen out of use, one notable dispatcher was Anatoli Zinchenko, the first Soviet player to play for a Western football team. As Soviet players then were amateurs, when he signed for SK Rapid Wien Zinchenko had to register himself as being a technician at the Soviet embassy in Vienna.

All of which completes the number 10’s linguistic path from representing the beautiful and defiant, to the artistic, to the collectivist. More than anywhere else on the pitch, though, the number 10 – and the language behind it – shows football’s power to excite, empower and transcend its own boundaries.

And finally…

In Romanian the role is called a decar (a ‘tenner’ – like the banknote), which is a good excuse to reminsice about one of TLOF‘s favourite number 10s…