Perhaps no other sport in the world is as frequently compared to poetry as is foot- ball. Perhaps a batsman’s flick of the wrist for a cover drive would compete, or a geometry-defying sliding backhand from a tennis player. But football and poetry have always been connected at the hip, probably because so many great writers have also been footballers, or have found something in the game that mirrored their own artistry. As the British novelist J. B. Priestley once wrote, “To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut. That Hamlet is so much paper and ink.”
If football is like poetry, the one player in a football team who is supposed to be the epitome of this is No.10. The No.10 is the artist of the team, the footballer who makes the attacking play, creating key passes out of thin air, or dribbles past bamboozled opponents to set up or score a goal. In football, No.10 isn’t merely a number on a shirt. It is the number. The player who wears that shirt is “O Rei”, the king. And last week, we lost the man who epitomised the romance, thrill and mystique of the No.10, who was the first O Rei—Pelé.
Football had artists before Pelé burst on to the international scene at the 1958 World Cup. In fact, two of his senior contemporaries in world football—the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás and the Spanish Alfredo Di Stéfano—were the international stars of the 1950s, redefining the art of attacking football while playing for Real Madrid. Di Stéfano was a No.9, as befitting his role on the pitch: the striker. Puskás was a No.10, his chief talent that of sniffing out positions to take in the attacking third where he could create the most havoc. Great as they both were, they were high- functioning cogs in an effectively devas- tating system of play, throughout their careers. But Pelé was something different altogether.
The Brazilian was a player who not only could do all the things that Puskás and Di Stéfano could, but with the added spice of balletic ease, of insouciance, a maverick touch, a...well, poetry. Here was a footballer who was modern—in terms of his pace, power and conditioning—but also ethereal and magical. You just have to watch black and white footage of a 17-year-old Pelé to see the birth of something new.
In the final against Sweden, he controls a pass into the penalty box on his chest, lets it bounce while he holds off one defender, then, with his next motion, audaciously flicks it over the head of a defender, ghosts past him while the ball is in the air, and, when it drops, volleys it into the goal. All this in four seconds. By the end of the World Cup, Pelé was a legend, as was the No.10 jersey.
Twelve years later, when a peerless Brazil, orchestrated by a mesmerising Pelé playing football seemingly from another planet, won the World Cup for the third time, No.10 became the most famous number of all. Sixteen years later, when Diego Maradona almost single-handedly won Argentina the World Cup, the fame of the No.10 jersey went through the roof.
Since Maradona’s death in 2020, there have been many attempts to rank the best No.10 in football history but most of these exercises, though fun, kind of miss the point. While we can safely say that the No.10 is supposed to be the most creative and devastating player in a football team, it is also a position in a system. And how that position is interpreted keeps changing.
Pelé was an attacking playmaker operating just behind one centre-forward, while assisted by two attacking wingers in a 4-2-4 system. He could become a second striker if necessary. In that sense, he was what the Italians call a trequartista (the Brazilians call the position the meia-armador). He fulfilled two roles: one as an attacking midfielder, the second as a with- drawn striker. Pelé exemplified this hybrid role by becoming what Italians call the fantasista, the attacker who was also a fount of craft and imagination.
Pelé didn’t have any defensive role to play, so he could afford to be the most expressive player on the pitch. Backed by his almost supernatural positional sense, speed and athleticism, his technical ability and imagination to improvise in the blink of an eye rendered him nearly unplayable in that role. Both his 1958 goal against Sweden and assist for Carlos Alberto in the 1970 final against Italy are brilliant examples of this.
By the 1980s—Maradona’s era—the trequartista role had changed somewhat in a 4-3-1-2 formation. Generally speaking, No.10s such as France’s Michel Platini played just behind two strikers in a loose creative role. But they had a bigger work- load, which included helping to defend and sometimes function as a playmaker from deeper midfield positions. They were also expected to be adept, as Platini was, in timing late runs from midfield to finish off a move.
Maradona’s position was similar to Platini’s, but also different. He did all the things Pelé did but he didn’t have team- mates as talented as Pelé had enjoyed. As a result, both for his club side, Napoli, and for the national side, Maradona became a hybrid enganche (“hook”, as the Argentines called the No.10 role). He was the fox in the hole, in a 3-5-2 system where he played just behind the main striker. But he had the licence to roam. He relished his defensive duties and often dropped very deep into midfield to begin attacks. His uncanny dribbling skills meant that even if he was at the halfway line with his back towards the opponent’s goal, he could be trouble. Prime example? His “goal of the century” against England in the 1986 quarter-final, where he dribbled past five players to score a goal that probably justifies all that talk of football being poetry.
In modern times, iconic No.10s remain—hello, Lionel Messi!—but the role of the No.10 has become even more nebulous. Modern coaches value team systems over all, where the point is to create numerical advantages in midfield, over- whelm the opponent with ferocious pressing, and win back the ball high up the pitch. Messi’s greatest performances have been while operating as a False No.9 for Barcelona, where he started at the nominal centre-forward slot (No.9) but would drop to midfield to create space, luring defenders out of position.
Linking with a host of technically-gifted attacking midfielders, Messi would orchestrate intricate, high-speed patterns of interplay that overwhelmed defences. But Messi is a preternaturally gifted foot- baller, probably even more so than Pelé and Maradona, so he can do all the things the other two could do, and more.
But enough about all these systems of play. Ultimately, the “beautiful game” is about narrative. While lighting up the 2022 World Cup à la Maradona in 1986 and Pelé in 1970, Messi, at 35, played much like Pelé had done. He would wan- der around at walking pace, sizing up the patterns of play, free from defensive duties. Then, suddenly, he would receive the ball, and while either dribbling at pace, or linking up with surging attackers out wide or through the middle, change the complexion of the game. Messi was unplayable, like Pelé and Maradona before him. That is the magic of the No.10 jersey.