SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Think of Brazil’s famous No. 10 shirt and the mind conjures images of Pele, Zico or Rivaldo swaggering past transfixed defenders with a nonchalant dip of the shoulder before belting the ball past a helpless goalkeeper.
If any football jersey could attain almost mythical status it was that one, symbolising the flair and artistry that the Samba nation gave to the Beautiful Game.
With a World Cup in Brazil just around the corner, however, the pulling power of the yellow No. 10 shirt is fading, according to Rivelino, another of the greats to pull it on.
“The importance of the No. 10 shirt has unfortunately ended,” said Rivelino. “Today the holding midfielders open the game up more than the No. 10. What used to be the function of the No. 10 doesn’t exist in Brazilian football anymore.”
Pele, the man who graced the shirt more than any other having first worn it at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, once said his role was to “score goals and make them.”
He went on to almost trademark the No. 10 shirt which until then had just been worn by any of the forwards, although he said the circumstances involved in him donning it were pure chance.
“It was luck,” he said. “I was just 17 in 1958 and the numbers were drawn. I got No. 10 and that’s how it all started.”
These days, in many nations and particularly in south America the No. 10 is still regarded as the best player in the team, “the brains,” according to Rivaldo, who won FIFA’s Player of the Year while wearing it for Barcelona in 1999.
However, with football changing and more stress being put on marking and mobility - not to mention the scarcity of out and out strikers - fewer teams have a role for the often cerebral, always cultured, link man between midfield and attack.
Barcelona’s Neymar fits the bill of the No. 10 - a player who has fans on the edge of their seats - and he wore the shirt to good effect at last year’s Confederations Cup won by the hosts.
All eyes will be on him in this week’s friendly against South Africa in Johannesburg, Brazil’s last match before coach Luiz Felipe Scolari announces his World Cup squad in May.
Yet Neymar’s role in team is not one that would have been recognised by the likes of Pele and Zico, with defensive duties just as much part of his remit as creating and scoring.
It is a change that disappoints greats like Rivelino who was part of the 1970 Brazil side which is regarded as the greatest team to take to the field.
“The priority today isn’t creating but marking,” the former Corinthians and Fluminense No. 10 said.
“Creativity isn’t as important. Today you have at most three good players in any team. Today you don’t call up the best players in each position but the tactical options for each position.”
Changing coaching methods and tactics are not the only reason the No. 10 shirt has lost some of its sheen.
Whereas teams used to line up numbered from one to 11, in the modern day of large squads players wear a whole range of numbers and some even have three digits on their back.
Real Madrid and Portugal goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo would have fitted the bill as a No. 10 but actually wears seven on his jersey. Argentina’s Lionel Messi, however, still wears the number for club and country.
According to Rivaldo, it still carries some significance.
“The No. 10 shirt weighs on you because you know who’s worn that same shirt before you,” he said.
“Pele, Zico, Rivelino. That’s a lot of pressure.”
Editing by Martyn Herman