What’s in a Number, or What do Pele, Mehdi Ballouchy, and Winston Churchill have in Common?
Posted on October 27, 2011 7:50 am
Mehdi Ballouchy has been wearing the number 10 on his back for quite some time. He wore it at Santa Clara in the little league that can produce great soccer in NCAA Division I. As a Gonzaga fan, I am painfully aware that it is limiting for aspirations in sports, like basketball, for example, where the mercenary nature of big-time collegiate sports mean the economics of fake amateurism precludes schools like Gonzaga or Santa Clara or Saint Mary’s or “directional shools” (Eastern Washington and Georgia Southern in football, Arkansas-Little Rock, IUAPIUIMOUSEHAWAIIFIVE0whatsit, etc. from really succeeding in the real sports. The point of my digression being that Ballouchy wore the ten shirt for a real soccer school, and has worn it as a professional since.
He has done so because he has mad skills. He has tremendous foot skill in those basic drill skills of trapping, dribbling, and passing.
Why does such skill associate with the number 10? The most immediate explanation is that that is number Pele wore, no matter how he was employed positionally.
But that usage of the 10 was a bit of an innovation. In early years of organized soccer, including international competition, the numbers 1-11 were assigned by where a player named to the first 11 played.
One was the goalkeeper, 11 was the center forward. How the numbers in between were assigned depended on a country’s (or club’s) preferred formation.
That all changed in 1954, when players in the World Cup wore the numbers they were assigned beforehand on the roster submission, regardless of what position they were assigned in a particular game.
This change led to numbers being associated with particular players, as has been the case in American sports for some time now. Babe Ruth is 3, Mantle is 7, Tarkenton is 10, Staubach is 12, Jordan is 23, etc.
In a blending of traditions, Pele wore the number 10 because such number was associated with, depending on the formation, being an attacking midfielder or second striker (er, uh, like, um, who is that guy Jurgen worries is not a “true number 10″?)
Because of the confluence of the “roster number” innovation and the Pele example, the number 10 became an honorific, being assigned to the best player, or, at least, the most offensively creative player on the field, regardless of how the manager deployed that particular player.
The Number 10 significance had made such a deep penetration into the soccer world that, by the turn of the millenium, during my brief career as a high school soccer coach, my fellow assistant persuaded the head coach that our best player (who was of Brazilian origin, as it happened) should not wear the number 10, so as to disguise where he is on the field. It didn’t really work, as 11 good players tend to beat one really good player and some hopeful pretenders and clueless recruits.
Tonight, Mehdi Ballouchy, an oft traded journeyman with thousands of detractors, including the coaches and technical directors that traded him, strode into the game still sporting the 10 he wore for Santa Clara.
He wore that number proudly as he sent a seeing-eye ball through numerous defenders for Joel Lindpere to run onto and finish.
The number tells us two things.
It tells us Ballouchy has good ball skills that he can, sometimes, put to effective use.
It tells us that none of the better players who have been with New Yorsey Product Placement during his tenure there have wanted to claim the number.
My own thesis is that it tells us a third and a fourth thing.
The third thing is that you do not impose some “party like its 1949″ regime on a team of professionals who have attachments to their numbers previously formed. And the fourth is like unto it – you do not prefer your numbers scheme to the actual talent available.
My American professional soccer heroes are Cobi Jones, who wore the number 13 proudly for both club and country, which would indicate he was a scrub by Klinsman number reckoning, and Ray Hudson, who wore number 4. One is in the Hall of Fame, and the other should be (my children, before he was a mildly amusing commentator given to drunken hyperbole, he scored 44 goals and 99 assists and was the engine room of the attack for a club that featured much more famous people, some of whom were more famous because they had the good fortune to be from small countries that did not mind if they played soccer in Fort Lauderdale, but I do digress). My point about Hudson is that he wore number 4. In a traditional English “1-ll,” that would make him a stopper back. He was no such a thing. He tended his defensive duties, then he created goals aplenty. He was the team leader and given the Captain’s arm band, before Cor van der Hart gave it to his fellow dutchman, the brilliant but temperamental goalkeeper Jan van Beveren (RIP).
In those days, the incomparable Nene Cubillas wore number 10, but only after it had been relinquished by the prolific goal scorer of the early years, David Irving. Until Irving yielded, Cubillas wore 20. Get it, multiple of 10?
Recently, MLS teams have taken to the U.S.A. sports habit of retiring numbers. This clashes with both the “1-11″ shirt assignment approach, strangely and foolishly followed by Klinsman, and attaching significance to number 10 as belonging to the best player, regardless of position. And it also clashes with the “10″ tradition, post Pele. It’s not so much a problem with Cobi, as ’13′ has no significance, other than being contrarian in association with success against Western folk numerology (my Korean friends inform me that ’4′ is equally inauspicious in their culture, but that is appropriate, as I was born on 7/7, the date of the London subway bombing, and my Korean best friend was born on 9/11, so I make my own associations when it comes to numbers).
But what about RSL retiring ’9′ because a great Dallas forward wore that number for five minutes in Utah before becoming the RSL coach? A brilliant prospect emotionally attached to that number does not come because he cannot wear it because it has been “retired.”
Should LA “retire” 10 when Landon retires? They retired 13, so the precedent is set. What if LA has the chance, down the road, to sign someone on a Pele/Cruyff/Messi/Maradona sort of level who wants to wear the number befitting that status?
And what about Mehdi freakin’ Ballouchy? Journeyman? Yes. Underachiever? Yes. Current playoff hero? Also, yes.
In a Jurgen scheme, he would probably have been 20 on the night. He was not a 1-11, since he did not start. But what would have been the point of taking his shirt away, since nobody else was claiming it?
If France “retired” number 10 in honor of Zidane, they would be dissing the great Michel Platini, who wore it before him and was pretty damn good. Likewise, Zizou played for some clubs that have and have had other 10-worthy players.
Klinsman, apparently, is setting up a situation where he might actually take Landon’s 10 away from him, because Landon has not fit his to-date-spectacularly-unsuccessful regime as Klinsman’s conception of a “true number 10.”
Hello? What else does Landon have to do? Until there is evidence his skills are diminishing, the best scheme to employ is the scheme that makes the best use of him. And he should wear the number he likes, and if that number is ’10′ that is doubly appropriate.
Magic Johnson fired Paul Westhead. Michael Jordan fired Doug Collins. Both worked out well. True Number Ten Schmue Number Ten.
Back to Ballouchy. Everywhere he has gone, he has been recognized as having silky skills, yet without result. This year, his manager traded away no less of a talent than Dewayne de Rosario without bringing in another second striker/attacking mid player of similar pedigree. And DeRo never claimed anything about the ten shirt.
So, there was Mehdi. Underachiever with really good ball skills. Number 10.
When his coach asked him to come in, did he say “I will deliberately suck in order to maintain the tradition of this number, since I am obviously no Pele or Zidane or, for that matter, Donovan”? Er, no.
Did he hold up a sign saying “fraud – I am wearing the number Pele wore for a New Yorsey team”? Er, no.
Did he have an earpiece feeding him Brian Dunseth’s negative assessments of his previous achievements as he played? Unlikely.
Did he take his previously-underachieving ass onto the field, with the back above it sporting the number 10 and his surname? Yes.
Did he provide that brilliant pass through the defense to the onrushing Lindpere to keep his more famous and expensive teammates alive in the race for the one honor still available to them? Yes.
So Backe should have demanded he chose another number or have assigned him “20″ or “30″ on his arrival, right? Since that would have been better than respecting his accomplishments, however limited. Arbitrary reimposition of ancient, irrelevant numerology is more important than, say, being able to beat weak South American countries or our closest CONCACAF rivals.
Either Backe failed tonight in allowing Ballouchy to play wearing the number 10 when better players were available, unless both the Red Bulls and Morocco really, really suck, or he failed because he has not been featuring Ballouchy in every game with the spectacular skills the 10 indicates.
He deserves no credit at all, of course, for not destroying a player’s confidence by taking his number away because of useless coach fetish. It was pure luck, of course, that he succeeded by putting a skilful player in when he needed a goal, when he hadn’t put that player in his place by gratuitously taking his number away. And it is all the players’ fault that the USA are not famously succeeding right now under the Klinsmann numerology-trumps-talent fetish.
That Backe managed to best no less a coach that Shellas Hyndman must be because that brilliantly successful coach failed to give Brek Shea the number 10 in the absence of David Ferreira, as Shea is probably the best player, or to assign that number to whomever plays A-Mid or second striker. It’s all about having a number system, and making the talent you have fit the preconceptions, right?