When Barcelona travelled to Osasuna on September 3 of this year, a surprising piece of squad-number history was created.
While Spain changed from 1-11 in 1995, the 2-1 win at El Sadar Stadium provided the first example of a recognised left-back – Alejandro Balde – having 3 as his squad number at Barça. Though he had donned 3 during pre-season, the Spain international started the campaign in the number 28 he had had during 2022-23 – Barcelona’s financial problems meant there was a delay signing him to a proper adult contract and so, like Gavi last season, he was not permitted to wear a 1-25 number until then.
Funnily enough, Osasuna also provided the opposition the last time a Barcelona number 3 featured in a competitive matchday squad – Gerard Piqué’s career came to an end in November of last year as he was red-carded at half-time in Barcelona’s game against Osasuna, in which he had been named as a substitute. Piqué was one of seven centre-backs to wear 3 for Barcelona since 1995, with two midfielders also having the number.
It’s likely that the preference for it to be worn by a centre-back dates back to the tenures of Rinus Michels and later Johan Cruyff – in the Netherlands, 3 is generally seen in the centre of defence. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, centre-half Migueli generally had possession of the shirt and later another stopper, club captain José Alexanko, tended to favour it.
Later in Cruyff’s reign, Barcelona’s numbering didn’t often make sense – Albert Ferrer, a right-sided defender, wore it as the club won the European Cup for the first time in 1992; two years later, when they lost to Milan in the final, Josep Guardiola had 3 on his back in midfield (he wore 10 in the 1992 decider) with first-choice left-back Sergi Barjuan wearing 7.
When Spain abandoned 1-11 for the 1995-96 season, Sergi opted for 12, which he had worn for Spain at the 1994 World Cup and centre-back Abelardo Fernández was handed 3.
Abelardo actually favoured 5 and wore that for Spain but captain Gheorghe Popescu had that shirt.
While Popescu left in 1997, Portuguese centre-back Fernando Couto was quick to claim 5 and it wasn’t until he departed a year later that Abelardo could switch – when he did, it was Argentinian centre-back (and future Southampton manager) Mauricio Pellegrino who donned 3 as he joined on loan from Vélez Sarsfield.
Despite playing his part as the league title was retained, Pellegrino’s time at the Camp Nou was brief.
He ended up moving to Valencia in the summer of 1999 – and the next player to wear 3 was another central defender, France’s Frédéric Déhu, who had arrived from Lens. He would go on to make just 11 league appearances in the blaugrana, however.
He returned to France, joining Paris Saint-Germain, after just a season, with Frank de Boer moving to 3. The Dutchman had worn 25 when he joined, along with twin brother Ronald, during 1999-2000 but – with Spanish league rules requiring that to be worn by a goalkeeper if there were three in a squad – he wore 22 in 1999-2000.
De Boer had sometimes played at left-back – wearing 5 – early in his Ajax career but became established in the centre, albeit wearing 4. He stayed with Barcelona until the end of 2002-03, moving to Galatasaray and then Rangers after half a season – for both of those clubs, he wore 5.
His replacement as Barcelona’s number 3 was Sweden international Patrik Andersson – he had had number 4 but favoured 3 (both are firmly seen as centre-backs’ numbers in Sweden), however his time at Barcelona was hampered by injuries and midway through 2003-04 he returned to Malmö.
That meant that when another Dutchman, midfielder Edgar Davids, was signed on loan in a bid to reinvigorate Barça’s ailing season, he took the lowest available number.
Unconventional though it may have looked, there was precedent from Cruyff’s days and Davids was a success, playing a key role as they finished second to Valencia, laying a foundation for success that was to come. Davids didn’t stick around for that, though.
Whether the next player to wear 3 was inspired by Davids, we can’t say, but it was another midfielder – the Brazilian Thiago Motta, who had had numbers 27, 28, 31 and 23 in the previous four seasons as he came up through the ranks (in domestic competitions in Spain, young players outside of the official 25-man squad are the only ones allowed to wear numbers higher than 25).
Barcelona regained the league in 2004-05 and retained in 2005-06 as they won the Champions League too, but their number 3 was used sparingly as Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta began to emerge as their midfield of the future.
Motta went on loan to Atlético Madrid for 2007-08 and the number 3 came into the possession of centre-back Gabriel Milito, newly signed from Real Zaragoza, where he had had number 6. The Argentinian played 27 league games that season but in May he suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage. He was ruled out of the entire 2008-09 campaign and wouldn’t re-appear in a competitive match until January 2010.
In the interim, Piqué returned home, taking the number 3 as Milito was re-assigned to 18. The Catalan native made 45 appearances as the club won the treble of domestic league and cup and Champions League.
Two more Champions League medals were to follow as well as seven more leagues and six more Copa del Rey victories. In addition, he was key to Spain winning the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and 2010 World Cup, wearing number 3 for his country, too.
Balde – who wore 14 for Spain at last year’s World Cup – has a tough act to follow but being given such a prestigious number is a sign of faith in him.