Philip Zimbardo once conducted a fascinating psychological experiment at Stanford University using 24 undergraduate students, grouped into prison guard and prisoner factions. The experiment was scheduled to last 14 days but after just six days, it was stopped due to the rapidly-escalating abusive interactions between the guards and the prisoners.
The students who became the guards had been friendly before the experiment, but turned cruel and vindictive after being given their role. Anxiousness and stress plagued those who became prisoners. Given a uniform, "guards" abused their power and given a number, the "prisoners" started to behave as prisoners. Dr. Zimbardo's experiment is an appalling insight into the power of symbols and roles in human behaviour.
Those roles don't have to be negative, of course. In the prisoner/guard experiment, it was easy for those placed as guards to slip into brutality. But, conversely, it's entirely possible for a role to confer greatness, to act as a mantle around someone's shoulders that helps propel them to the stars -- if they have the strength to bear it.
In football, greatness is associated with the number 7. It is usually given to a winger, less commonly a forward and sometimes a beastly combination of both. But it's never given to an ordinary player. The number becomes like the oracle of Delphi, a prophetic voice warning the world of the impeding greatness of said athlete.
It's no surprise that the undeniably-great James Bond, a role once played by Rangers supporter Sean Connery, goes by 007. Could Ian Fleming have known about the coming of Eric Cantona? When John Dee would sign his for-your-eyes-only letters to Elizabeth I with the 00 and an elongated 7, did he realize that someday a new batch of 7s would steal our hearts?
They say 'play for the name in the front and people will remember the name on the back'. No one mentions the burden that the number can impart. Alexander Pato, who only tortured with frustration and false promise, was the recipient of AC Milan's number 7 after Shevchenko. Sheva was the Champions League's top scorer multiple times, Ukraine's all-time scorer, the Derby della Madonnina's all-time top scorer, and the winner of the Ballon d'Or in 2004.
Sheva didn't inherit his number from any slouch either; it had been previously blessed by such legends as Pippo Inzaghi and Marco van Basten. With such a heavy burden on his back, it's no wonder Pato had muscular issues. If Inzaghi had vacated Pato's desired number 9 when he first arrived, would his story have been different?
Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses that "What we describe as birth is no more than incipient change from a prior state, while dying is merely to quit it". Manchester United can testify to this. The seven shirt, popularized by rock star/footballer George Best, a handsome, technical, quick, flashy player both on and off the field. Alcoholic and genius in his own right, a ballerina with two feet seemingly from another planet with a knack for Miss Universes.
When he left the club at the young (old for a rockstar) age of 27, the number was not inherited by a mere mortal, given to the greatest Manchester United player ever -- Bryan Robson -- the legend of the shirt would continue. Robson was machine of 461 games and 99 goals, a complete player who played excellent on all thirds of the pitch who made his debut on the seventh of October and scored his first goal in the seventh day of the next month. There's no word if it was in the 7th minute though, since winners write the history, so we have the license to assume so.
The seagulls of United's seven would follow the trawler to the philosopher/footballer/movie star Eric Cantona. A man as audacious and brash on the field as he was off it (there's a pattern here). Stolen from Leeds United like fire from Olympus, he would inherit the torch from Robson and burn defenses for five years before he bored himself silly. Winning four league titles, two FA Cups and some Charity Shield triumphs, only the exclamation point of a kung-fu kick to a belligerent fan could satisfy such a wildfire personality.
While the camera followed Cantona for his brashness, it fell in love with Beckham completely. A man: myth, global underwear pusher and Spice Girl wooer. He was also the one stupid boy in the midst of ten lions after a red card against Argentina; a man bearing any other number would have shunned the light due to the mauling he was receiving at the hands of the press. But the seven shirt isn't reserved for cowards, only for men who put their head down, work hard and score critical free-kicks against Greece in 2001 to regain the love they sorely deserved.
When massive stars collapse and/or get shipped to Real Madrid, the blown off outer layers are known to be recycled in new star formations, but Cristiano Ronaldo, a man of man talents is no man's recycled star. Long range goals, lung-bursting runs, powerful free kicks, headers, left foot? Right foot. A complete player: winner of the Ballon D'or before he was overtaken by an alien-engineered mutant. Ronaldo would also inherit the 7 shirt in Real Madrid, worn by the one and only St. Raul, a man who, as history shows, has never done any wrong in his entire life.
The 7 of Liverpool, perched and all, would not be outdone by Manchester United. Liverpool boast list of names that read more like gods rather than athletes: Keegan, King Kenny, John Aldridge, Beardsley, McManaman, Smicer (who couldn't bear the burden and later switched to 11, freeing his spirit for 2005) and Suarez (Eros? He can be Eros).
For each team, there were unfortunate souls littered in between who could not bear the responsibility of a seven, the weight ravaging them with injuries, high expectations and some, unfortunately alcoholism. Would Michael Owen's career have lasted longer if he didn't inherit the 7 shirt? Perhaps his brittle bones at that age did not deserve the weight of Cantona and Robson. Antonio Valencia was always far too quiet for the number, for a seven must be audacious rather than exhibiting solid-but-uninspiring competence.
Maybe David Speedie saw the pictures of King Kenny and realized there was no way to live up to his legacy. Maybe Clough, plagued by the legacy of his father, needed a different number. Maybe a 10 or a 17, but the 7 was too much.
As mentioned before, St. Raul, scientifically proved to have descended from heaven, held the 7 shirt at Real Madrid for an incredible 14 years. 14 is a peculiar number, as though he was twice the 7 as everyone else, and he only gave way for footballing titan Ronaldo, who would score such an insane amount of goals that the next 7 would have to be the greatest player of all time to overcome him. Figo wanted it from Raul, but the St. Raul would force the pig head recipient to wear a ten. And even for Ronaldo's first year, the saint could not part with such a dear shirt and forced a man of Ronaldo's caliber, hair-gel and Aegean Sea-skin, to don the 9 of the former Brazilian magician of the same name.
Figo wore the number for Real's eternal rivals Barcelona, left it for Alfonso, who vacated it for the golden Saviola, then Larsson and Gudjohnsen. Now it is worn by David Villa, a man so full of skill and technique that his body breaks down every few months in order to spare goalkeepers their blushes.
While there are too many great sevens to name all of them (believe me, I would if they would allow me), there is one seven that wasn't a seven that deserved to be a seven. A bald, mad scientist who decided to partake in football, Zinedine Zidane, who wore the seven at Bordeaux, wanted it at Juventus but it was being occupied by Di Livio and the subsequent ten, by Del Piero.
I assume this drove Zidane to the edge of madness and in his rage; he took up the 21, a number worn by the likes of Pirlo and David Silva. When he moved to Real Madrid, in his eternal sadness (never mind what the mouth tells you, look at his eyes when he glances at a 7), he wore and made famous the 5, always secretly cursing the heavens for his bad luck. It's no wonder he head-butted Marco; forbidden fruit had launched epic wars before, driving a scientist mad is a small feat.
In the end, the seven, like the Argentina ten after Diego, is a huge responsibility, a pedestal where the stars are given the chance to shine brightest. These are just a handful of the legends who have blessed the shirt, there are infinitely more players and I can safely assume that your favorite player once wore a seven. If not officially then in his dreams, these are facts. Some can handle the burden, others are too unfortunate and either their bodies collapse or their mind turns to alcohol to alleviate the weight.
Nonetheless, the seven history is as rich of a history as any great empire of the world and as one Ben Parker once said to his nephew Peter (probably a seven in his youth soccer side) as he died: "With great sevens comes great responsibility....seagulls, trawler, miss Universes and saints." Probably, but hey, sevens write history and as a seven myself, I just did.