Wednesday 28 January 2015

Chris O's Favourite 5... World Cup Shirt Number Fonts

Let's just put to one side the slight awkwardness of the title and instead spend a moment or two considering shirt numbers. First seen in 1924 and not used on a regular basis until around a decade later, these humble little digits have helped us to identify the players on the pitch with considerable ease. Without them, it would have been near impossible to distinguish one player from another unless, of course, they happened to be the proud owner of a regrettable Robbie Savage-style haircut.

Yet it's one thing to wear a number on the back of a shirt; doing so with boldness, flair and panache is another thing entirely. A distinctive typeface can make all the difference when setting your team apart from the rabble that it plays against week in, week out, and the best place to do so is on the global stage.

Where the World Cup is concerned, fixed squad numbering (where a player where's the same number throughout the tournament) didn't begin until 1954. The number styles seen on the backs of players' shirts was fairly rudimentary back then as you'd expect, and the emphasis was on clarity and readability rather than ostentatiousness. To that end, one or two countries were already cottoning on to the fact that the wearing of ridiculously large numbers made for sharpness and originality.

But which of the world's great football-playing nations have really nailed the art of wearing shirt numbers that are bold, distinctive and a little bit different from anything else? Here are my favourite 5, thanks for enquiring...

1. Argentina, 1978

In 1974, we all got our first sight of two classic shirt number fonts that were to dominate football for years. One of them we'll be coming to shortly; the other was a beautiful depiction of the numerical form using lines rather than solid shapes.

Shown here on the right, the 'lines' motif was seen predominantly on Adidas kits right through until Italia '90, and a few slight variations on the theme came about as a result.

One such tweaking of the original design is my first choice. Worn just once for Argentina's opening match of the 1978 World Cup against Hungary, these numbers were squarer than the arche-type (sorry), and you'll note the lines are both thicker and more spaced out too.

The result is a number font that ranks as the best that Argentina have ever worn, in my view. It's bold enough to be seen clearly on those classic sky blue and white stripes, it was modern enough to look contemporary 37 years ago and no-one else dared summon up the courage to wear them either.

In short, those numbers looked fantastic. Such a shame, then, that it was only the Argentinian goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol that continued to wear his number 5 in that style through to the end of the 1978 World Cup. His team-mates, sadly, preferred the solid 'gridiron-style' font after the first match. Fools.

2. Various, 1974-1998

The other legendary shirt number font that made its debut in the 1974 World Cup was worn by the hosts and eventual champions West Germany, although it was seen on the shirts of many more teams for a further 24 years.

The '3D block' was a game-changer in the world of shirt number fonts. It became the most widely recognised of all number styles, and though it no longer graces the World Cup, you can still find it being worn somewhere on the planet today, such is its enduring appeal.

In the picture above, I've shown West Germany wearing their three-dimensional numbers during the 1978 World Cup, but frankly I could have chosen any number of other countries all doing the same. Whatever the colour combination and whatever the year, it always looked brilliantly current without quickly becoming outdated. A great example of when design takes a great leap forward.

3. Italy, 1978

Staying with 1978, how about this for a gorgeous twist on the common 'gridiron' font I mentioned earlier?

To this very day, teams still wear numbers that are familiar for having their corners cut off at 45 degree angles, but not many have their middles hollowed out. (That's the numbers, not the teams.) This font used exactly that approach to create another type of shirt number that no-one else wore during Argentina '78 and no-one's worn since in this exact form.

Heaven knows why not. It's crystal clear, beautifully proportioned and would work well in any era. Another overlooked classic.

4. South Korea, 1986

These days it's not uncommon to see any team in the World Cup wearing a shirt number font that you probably saw only yesterday while using Microsoft Word. And yes, it's all very nice that modern manufacturing techniques allow you to make use of that same font list when physically creating your shirt numbers, but they still require some effort if they're to look anything but 'off the shelf'.

South Korea's numbers from the 1986 World Cup prove a point. The typeface itself probably isn't a million miles away from a bold version of Times New Roman, but someone somewhere had the idea of cutting out the middle, much like Italy's numbers in 1978.

The effect is magnificent. The numbers are strong enough to be seen from far away, but the serifs and the cut-outs both give the numbers a unique look of their own.

Creativity and imagination: two words sadly lacking from many of today's football shirt numbers, but those canny South Koreans certainly knew how to craft a decent font with this lovely piece of digit-based delightfulness.

5. Netherlands, 2006

And so to my final choice which probably hasn't even remotely reached the furthest corners of your consciousness, so recently was it worn. That's probably because this 'digital' font was used by the Dutch national team not only in the 2006 World Cup but also four years later in South Africa.

Like the '3D blocks' mentioned earlier, this typeface straight out of Pong probably shouldn't work very well due to its futuristic appearance. It might look fine on a TV screen, but on the back of a shirt? Surely not...

Well actually, yes, it does - and how. Proving yet again that numbers don't have to have curves to be readable, this computer-style font never looked better than it did when in black on the back of those iconic orange shirts. There's nothing overly engineered about this font; only the merest hint of a 45-degree angle draws the eye away from the distinct verticals and horizontals. Simplicity is the key, much like the free-flowing football played by Cruyff and Co.

Having been discarded from a third consecutive World Cup last year, any hopes of seeing the Netherlands make this font a national footballing brand were dashed, and that's a shame. Those squared-off numbers could've become a legend for the future were it not for the marketing strategists at Nike who clearly felt they knew better.

Still, there we are. We live in a world where FIFA's four-yearly global championship is without fail a shop window for the kit designs of Adidas, Puma and Nike, and they tend to have one set font for all their teams, most of the time. Has the age of the creative opt-out passed us by? Let's hope not. Shirt numbers can be a work of art in their own right, if designed correctly, and no worse off for having a great deal of care and attention lavished over them.

-- Chris Oakley


  1. Uh oh, you've touched on one of my favourite subjects...

    I personally prefer the chunky Argentina numbers worn in the latter stages of the '78 tournament and for much of the next two decades. Oddly, Argentina reverted to 3D numbers at the '98 World Cup.

    Those 3D numbers are most closely associated with adidas, but I believe they were originally deisgned for Erima shirts. West Germany wore Erima (with 3D numbers) in '74 and '78, but had converted to adidas by '82, which is why their numbers were of the "three stripes" variety. By '84 adidas and Erima had merged and by '86 all the adidas kits (except Canada's) had 3D numbers. I think the last World Cup team to wear the "three stripes" style was Ireland in 1990.

    Lotto and Diadora shirts also used their own brand of 3D numbers throughout the '80s and '90s. A variation on the 3D numbers were used by Napoli a couple of seasons ago. As of this month Lazio are wearing 3D numbers on the backs of their new 80s throwback shirts.

    I once attempted to resurrect the "three-stripes" font. Sadly the folks at adidas didn't go for it:

    1. Top knowledge on all fronts, James! And I have to say, your font design for the three stripes is utterly delicious! That's EXACTLY the kind of ingenuity that would have made it into my Favourite 5! :)

  2. Love the article Chris, I'm sure you guys already know all about this but I picked up a fantastic book by Rick Banks and Sheridan Bird, called "Football type", it has amazing photos of shirt numbers and names and their fonts throughout the years.
    On another note, I've been catching up on your previous podcasts and loving them; I've always worried that I'm too much of a football nerd, now I know I'm not alone.

    1. Thanks for the info about the book, Rob. Yes, we were tipped off about that only yesterday!

      And thanks also for listening to our podcasts... There's no point in suffering in silence if you're a football nerd, and that's why we're here to help... :)

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  4. do you know where can I get a font like the 3D block? I couldn't find anything close to it.

    1. Hi Matias, if it's just the numbers you need, you could download this font: