Everyone knows who the great No.1s in football history are, but what about the No. 2s?
We’re not talking about managers and their assistants (although let’s take a moment to doff our collective caps to Bob Paisley, Jose Mourinho and Tito Vilanova, who went from world-class No.2s to world-class No.1s in the dugout).
This article is dedicated to those who wore — and currently wear — the No.2 shirt, which tends to belong to right-backs (but not always).
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It’s worth noting that for many years shirt numbers didn’t formally belong to individual squad members, but were strictly associated with positions. Players tended to wear 1-11 depending on where they started on the pitch — and different numbers when on the bench (e.g. George Best, so universally associated with Manchester United’s No.7 shirt, wore No. 11 just as often, as he could play on either wing). In 1993, the English FA made the switch to permanent squad numbers; the Italians followed suit in 1995.
Our list is all about iconic No.2s since that switch was made in the 90s, but of course there are some exceptions to that rule — a couple who were just too good to leave out. We’ve ordered our favourite No.2s by date, so you can follow the path of iconic players to wear the shirt from 1977 all the way up to the current day.
Phil Neal (1974-1985)
- Clubs: Liverpool
- Country: England
One of the original iconic No.2s, Phil Neal was a rock at the back for Liverpool all through their dominant era, winning a massive eight league titles and four European Cups (making him the most decorated player in the Reds’ history). A superb full-back, Neal set the blueprint for so many to follow.
Giuseppe Bergomi (1979-1999)
- Clubs: Inter Milan
- Country: Italy
The country that practically invented the modern concept of full-backs was Italy, and Bergomi was one of the finest exponents of the position (although he barely got to wear it for his country as it was held by Franco Baresi). A monster who played over 750 games for Inter, Bergomi is actually the reason the other iconic right-back from Inter’s past, Javier Zanetti, isn’t on this list, as the Argentine emerged at Inter while Bergomi had a stranglehold over the No.2 (and, indeed, the right-back slot).
Ciro Ferrara (1984-2005)
- Clubs: Napoli, Juventus
- Country: Italy
Oh hey, look: we’re back in Italy. Ciro Ferrara came a little bit after Bergomi but was a similarly brilliant right-back. Initially he came through with Diego Maradona’s title-winning Napoli before a big-money move to Juventus saw him become a recognisable rock at the back for club and country — and a staple of Football Italia and ITV’s Champions League coverage.
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Years wearing the shirt: 1992-2008
Clubs: Sao Paulo, Roma, AC Milan
Perhaps the most famous wearer of the No. 2 ever, Cafu has won the Copa Libertadores, Champions League and World Cup all in that iconic No. 2 shirt, although his first World Cup triumph came in no. 14 as he was originally Jorginho’s (no not that one) back-up. A freight train running up and down the right-flank, Cafu is the iconic No. 2.
Years wearing the shirt: 1994-1996 + 1998-2006
Clubs: Ajax, Barcelona, Middlesbrough
Of course, before Cafu had even shown up in Serie A, Michael Reiziger was dethroning Milan in the European Cup with Ajax. The young Dutch full-back was part of Louis van Gaal’s young side that made back-to-back finals, losing the second to a juicy Juventus. Reiziger took his talents to Catalunya (via Milan) and became a huge part of the Dutch revolution at Barcelona as well.
Years wearing the shirt: 1995-2010
Clubs: Manchester United
Gary Neville was England’s next iconic No. 2, inheriting the shirt to begin the 1995/96 season. The young man with the questionable facial hair became a mainstay for club and country faster than any of his more talented team-mates from the Class of ’92. Neville was a pillar of consistency across Trebles and league titles until injuries really took their toll on his body, and he became more known as a provider of memes than anything else.
Years wearing the shirt: 1997-2009 + 2011-2012
Clubs: Celta Vigo, Real Madrid
While Gary Neville was busy being a stalwart and a professional right-back in England, Spain’s own version emerged in Michel Salgado. A constant figure in the original Galacticos team, Salgado was the unheralded and un-messy one that just got it done defensively and allowed his talented, temperamental and titanic team-mates to take the glory.
Years wearing the shirt: 2003-2006 + 2012-2018
Clubs: New England Revolution, Spurs, Seattle Sounders
Clint Dempsey is nowhere near as iconic as the others on this list for his on-pitch exploits but nevertheless must be included both because he’s a forward who wore No. 2, and also as his nickname is literally “Deuce.” Ironically, Dempsey never wore his beloved No. 2 for Fulham, the club he is most associated with, nor for the USMNT, but still… he had to be in.
Years wearing the shirt: 2007-2017
Jose Mourinho never gave too much concern to squad numbers (i.e. when he let Khalid Boulharouz wear the No. 9) but when he gave Branislav Ivanovic the No. 2, he marked the beginning of a quietly iconic career for the Serbian.
Ivanovic was a defensive monster whether at right-back or centre-back and has won everything but the Club World Cup in Chelsea blue, with a last second Europa League final winning goal to his name as well! Why does Cesar Azpilicueta, the greatest right-back in Chelsea history, wear No. 28? Because Ivanovic held the No. 2 when he showed up!
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Years wearing the shirt: 2009-2013
The greatest right-back in the history of the game (sorry Cafu) and the godfather of modern football’s newest trend (you’re welcome, Trent, Reece, Joao, etc.) wore many numbers for Barcelona.
In fact each of his three Champions League wins came wearing a different shirt number, and he’s onto his fifth different number now he’s back in Catalunya in 2022. And even his Europa League wins with Sevilla came wearing No. 4. But in his best period as a player, when he was a key component in the greatest club side ever assembled, he rocked that No. 2 like few did before — and even fewer have since.
Years wearing the shirt: 2011-2021
Clubs: Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan, Cagliari
At the same time as Alves was rocking the 2 in Catalunya as an attacking genius, Diego Godin reversed it and brought defensive glory to the shirt. The massive Uruguayan, who amusingly wears No. 3 for his country, was a key player for Diego Simeone as he turned Atletico Madrid from also-rans to champions of Spain and very nearly champions of Europe. Godin was a cornerstone of consistency, even when he was past his best in Serie A with Inter. And he really did the No. 2 proud.
Years wearing the shirt: 2013-present
Clubs: Spurs, Manchester City
Kyle Walker is a classic English right-back in that he’s really flipping good but almost never gets the credit for it. Originally a flying wing-back under Mauricio Pochettino for Spurs, he then moved to Manchester City where Pep Guardiola has turned him into the anti-Dani Alves. Instead of liberating Walker into an attacking wizard, he’s turned him into one of the greatest safety valves in the modern game. A phenomenal defensive presence who helps City on the cover so often, Pep has had to move Joao Cancelo to left-back just to get the phenomenal Portuguese player into the team. Walker is immovable!
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Years wearing the shirt: 2015-present
Clubs: Roma, Chelsea
Antonio Rudiger is the perfect heir to both Branislav Ivanovic and Diego Godin, and the German is on his way to matching (or even surpassing?) the legacies of both men with his terrifying play in the Chelsea defence in that No. 2 shirt. Rudiger is a sensational tone-setter and does the same for Germany as well, albeit not quite as successfully, yet. Word of his contract expiry is baffling because he is so good that Chelsea need to just pay this man what he is owed because hot damn, he’s amazing.
Years wearing the shirt: 2016-present
Clubs: Real Madrid
A true heir to Michel Salgado in terms of quality and style of play, Dani Carvajal is the rugged and hard-nosed right-back who kept Zinedine Zidane’s Galacticos in check. And although he won his first two Champions Leagues rocking the No. 15, once he could switch to the No. 2, he helped deliver Real Madrid’s greatest season since 1958 as Los Blancos romped away with a European Double.
Carvajal completed his three-peat of Champions Leagues the next year, and even though injury has decimated him lately, a player of his dogged determination is not likely to give up easily. If one trait is common among all of these great No. 2’s, it is the will and desire to fight and fight for every inch out on the pitch. To that end, Dani Carvajal is a perfect way to end this timeline of iconic No. 2’s.
The question now becomes: who next? Two of the three best young right-backs in the world don’t wear No. 2 and although one can’t take No. 2, the other doesn’t seem fussed. That leaves Achraf Hakimi looking likely to be football’s next, with Dayot Upamecano not far behind him. Can anyone else join that list? Sergino Dest? Perhaps Tariq Lamptey if he gets a big move? We’ll have to wait and see.