It takes a lot for a football club to retire a shirt number.
Over the years, this has often been an honour reserved for a club’s very best talent. Someone who went above and beyond in their achievements within the game. For example, in Italy — where the practice is most common — AC Milan retired numbers three and six for iconic defenders Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, while Roma’s No.10 shirt was hung up following the retirement of one club man Francesco Totti.
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And in England, who can forget legendary West Ham and England captain Bobby Moore wearing No.6? And, of course, there are two of the greatest players of all time in Pele and Diego Maradona, who have had the No.10 shirt retired at the New York Cosmos, Napoli and the Argentine national team, respectively.
With that in mind, we can all remember the shock and downright confusion when Birmingham City decided to call time on their No.22 shirt in the summer of 2020 following Jude Bellingham’s big-money move to German giants Borussia Dortmund, despite the then-teenager playing just 44 times for the club.
Given the names listed above, it still feels at least a little bizarre that Birmingham made such a bold decision; one that earned them a decent amount of stick on social media at the time.
However, given Bellingham’s achievements in the game since leaving St. Andrew’s — for Borussia Dortmund, the England national team and, most impressively, Real Madrid — perhaps the Blues actually had some divine ability to see into the future, foretelling what an icon Bellingham would become and honouring him in advance?
That, at least, is one theory posted by former Birmingham and England striker Emile Heskey.
“I’ll probably be in the same boat as everyone else, apart from Birmingham fans who understood. I was probably thinking that was a bit premature, but they obviously had that glass ball and they knew exactly what they were doing,” Heskey told Squawka. “The lad’s gone from strength to strength and he’s done phenomenally. He’s playing more like a veteran of the game than a novice.”
As Heskey mentions, the time when Bellingham was viewed as an up-and-coming player has long since passed. Even at just 20 years old, he has developed into the elite goalscoring midfielder in football right now, bagging 11 times in 12 appearances for Los Blancos since joining in the summer. His eight La Liga goals make him the current top scorer in the Spanish top flight and have helped Real Madrid top La Liga’s table after 10 games.
And for England, his lung-busting forward runs and passing wizardry are a wonder to behold and a big reason why so many are tipping England for glory at next summer’s European Championships.
But Heskey — now working as a coach with England’s U18s — was also keen to pay tribute to Bellingham’s ability to process information, data and instruction, using them to work on his weaknesses and improve his already incredible game.
“He understands, he takes so much information and that’s one key thing as well, is taking information in,” Heskey continued.
“We can give all this information, and information is key right now because we’ve got so much of it as we all know. Prozone I think was the first one when I was playing. Now you’ve got so many different ones, with so many different stats, so many different tactical details in it, tactical information, there’s no excuse. So now, they have so much that it’s phenomenal.
“But knowing how to read it and knowing how to apply it are two different things. And he applies everything and he reads everything so well.”
Emile Heskey was speaking to Squawka on behalf of stocklytics.com
What other legends have retired shirt numbers?
- No.3: Paolo Maldini (AC Milan)
- No.4: Javier Zanetti (Inter)
- No.6: Bobby Moore (West Ham), Franco Baresi (AC Milan)
- No.7: Marco Rossi (Genoa)
- No.10: Diego Maradona (Napoli, Argentina), Pele (New York Cosmos), Ferenc Puskas (Kispest AC/Honvéd), Roberto Baggio (Brescia), Francesco Totti (Roma)
- No.14: George Weah (Liberia), Johan Cruyff (Ajax)
- No.17: Henrik Larsson (Helsingborgs)
- No.99: Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
The Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona don’t currently have any retired numbers. However, Bellingham already has one under his belt during his short career so far. Who would bet against him having the Los Blancos No.5 — once donned by the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Fernando Hierro — retired in his honour?
Bellingham could go a long way toward making that dream a reality if he scores the winner in Real Madrid’s El Clasico showdown with Barcelona on Saturday.