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A Brief History of the Number 13 in Sport

A fear of the number 13 is not uncommon in sport, yet there are some bold individuals who have actively embraced the number, carrying it into battle like a badge of honour. Here, we meet the brave souls who have stuck two fingers up at fate.
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Today is Friday the 13th. You probably don't need to be told that, because if you possess a single shred of sense you'll be reading this from a small but secure bed-based fort. And you'll be doing so tomorrow, on Saturday the 14th, because powering up your laptop on such a fundamentally unlucky day could well result in a fiery explosion, disastrous given your apparently secure but actually highly flammable citadel of pillows.


In reality, of course, Friday the 13th is simply a day like any other – but why is the number 13 considered to be so unlucky? There are various reasons, none of them especially convincing. It's often explained by the idea that there were 13 people at the Last Supper; legend has it that Judas Iscariot was the 13th man to take his seat that night, though there's no mention of this in the Bible and it's likely to be a modern invention. In Norse mythology, meanwhile, it is said that Loki was the 13th god; he was believed to have engineered the murder of fellow god Balder, and was the 13th guest to arrive at the ensuing funeral. More logically, there were 13 steps leading up to the gallows – not a lucky place to be – though finding yourself there was generally the result of severe misdeeds, not ill fortune.

Baseless as it may be, a fear of the number 13 is not uncommon. It has a catchy name – "triskaidekaphobia" – and plenty of adherents, many of them in the world of sport. Competitors, teams and even leagues have shied away from the number, fearing it to be a harbinger of bad luck and, potentially, harmful to revenue. On the other hand, there are some brave individuals who have actively embraced the number 13, carrying it into battle like a badge of honour, waving a red rag at the raging bull that is fate, and emerging victorious.

Let us begin with a personal recollection. The first time I became aware of the negative connotations linked to the number 13 was during my primary school football days. One of the players on our team – the best player, in fact – actively chose to wear the number, prompting our PE teacher to explain that doing so was unlucky. The boy elected to stick with it, however, resolutely going against our teacher's advice, which I thought a bold statement from a 10-year-old whose grasp of Key Stage 2 was iffy at best. He was proven right: no-one scored more goals for us that year.


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My young teammate was by no means unique: there have been many other wearers of the number 13 on the football pitch, including Alessandro Nesta, Thibaut Courtois, and a few very famous German internationals.

While some competitions allow the number to go unused, the World Cup is not among them. Since squad numbers were introduced to the tournament in 1954, the 13 shirt has been present in every single team. So if your nation is deeply superstitious about the number, tough shit, just get on with it.

In the 16 World Cup finals played since squad numbers were introduced, the number has been worn nine times. On five occasions it's been on the winning side and four times it's had a runners-up medal slung around its collar.

Germany are the kings of World Cup-winning 13s. Max Morlock lifted the trophy in 1954, Gerd Muller did so in 1974, and most recently Thomas Muller became a world champion in 2014, all wearing the terrible mark of destiny.

Part of this is down to sheer persistence: Germany have played in eight finals, more than any other nation, and won four of them, second only to Brazil. That said, only one Brazilian has ever appeared in the World Cup final with 13 on his back – Aldair, a winner in 1994 – despite their seven appearances in the deciding game. The other man to successfully play as 13 in the final was Italian Gabriele Oriali, who lifted the trophy in 1982.


The three losing 13s are Angelo Domenghini (for Italy in 1970), Néstor Lorenzo (Argentina, 1990) and Dutch legend Johan Neeskens, who played in the 1974 and '78 finals but lost both. 1974 thus represents the only occasion on which both sides fielded a number 13, a move that left fate with nowhere to go.

A tale of two 13s – Germany's Muller battles for the ball while Neeskens watches on // PA Images

But it does seem to have decreased in popularity. Between 1970 and '94, the number 13 appeared in all but one final (1986, which appropriately enough happened to be the 13th World Cup). But, following the 1994 tournament in the U.S., it did not appear in the deciding match again until Muller wore it to glory in Brazil, an absence of four successive finals.

Muller has no qualms about playing with what some consider to be a bad-luck omen on his back: "I don't really mind, the number you wear doesn't make a difference to how you play – I'm not superstitious," the shaggy goalscorer has been quoted as saying.

Of course, given the number's success in German international football, one could make a case for it being a good-luck charm. Three German players have won the World Cup with 13 on their back, while former captain Michael Ballack also wore the number. To a young German footballer, 13 surely has more positive connotations than negative. German pragmatism has turned a bad-luck omen into a symbol of success – which is typical, really.

As well as being reigning football world champions, Germany are also dominant in Formula 1, with Mercedes the reigning constructors' champions and recently-retired Nico Rosberg holding the drivers' title. But, in stark contrast to football, F1 has very little time for the number 13.


Superstition is rife at all levels of racing. It is perhaps understandable, given that this is a sport where competitors face the very real prospect of serious injury, or even death. Little surprise, then, that tales of lucky underwear, drivers always stepping into the car from the same side, and repeating the same preparatory rituals race after race, are common. It should also be little surprise to learn that the number 13 has never been all that popular in F1.

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In fact, in the 67 years since the F1 World Championship began, only three drivers have raced with the number. That is three from a total of more than 700 entrants.

The first was Mexico's Moises Solana, who ran number 13 at his home grand prix in 1963. There clearly wasn't much attachment, however, with Solana using a different number for his later F1 outings. The next driver didn't even make the grid: Divina Galica tried and failed to qualify for the 1976 British Grand Prix with 13 on her Surtees-Ford. In her subsequent attempts to race in F1, Galica changed to 24, though it brought no better luck as she endured two more failures to qualify.

The number then lay dormant for almost 40 years. Without going into the minutiae of the F1 number system, it is simplest to explain that the sport effectively removed 13 from proceedings, first by not assigning it when teams were given permanent numbers. From 1996 onwards, F1 teams were assigned numbers annually in order of their constructors' championship placing – 1 and 2 for the champions, 3 and 4 for the runners-up, and so on. However, the seventh-placed team, who should have run 13 and 14, were instead assigned 14 and 15. Unlike football, F1 was willing to spare competitors the curse of 13 by legislating against it. That's not entirely unusual: some hotels pull a similar trick, with the 12th floor followed by the '14th' to avoid the unlucky number.


Permanent driver numbers were introduced in 2014, with each competitor choosing a number that would remain with them throughout their career, regardless of which team they drove for. It was at this stage that 13 made a comeback, with Pastor Maldonado picking the number. It caused a minor sensation: Maldonado held a largely deserved reputation for frequently becoming involved with (and indeed causing) accidents. As such, his decision to run as number 13 seemed like a self-deprecating joke. It should be noted, however, that 13 is considered lucky in his native Venezuela – though it couldn't prevent Maldonado from dropping out of F1 when his sponsorship money dried up in early 2016.

Maldonado became the first driver in almost four decades to race as number 13 // PA Images

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Recent evidence suggests that a majority of Americans will actively vote for bad luck, and they are equally unafraid of courting it in their sporting arenas by wearing number 13. Witness, as a prime example, NFL Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino. The Pittsburgh native spent his entire career with the Miami Dolphins and set numerous quarterback records, many of which stand to this day. His success was such that the number 13 shirt has been retired by the team, meaning no other Dolphin can tackle fate head on. Elsewhere, Wilt Chamberlain wore 13 with pride and considerable success in basketball, while Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez did so on the baseball field.

As we have already learned, the 13th World Cup was held in 1986. The history books record no great disaster at the event, despite this being the tournament at which the Mexican wave came to prominence. Still, at least the World Cup's 13th edition took place, which is more than can be said of the Olympic Games.


The first modern Olympics – officially known as the Games of the I Olympiad – were held in 1896. The 13th should have been held in London in 1944, but a rudimentary knowledge of world history will tell you that this would have been impossible due to the on-going global conflict that the city found itself caught up in. Thus, there was no 13th Olympic Games – the first to be held after the war, in London, are considered to be the 14th, despite the 13th (and indeed the 12th, scheduled for Tokyo in 1940) never taking place. In reality, the 13th modern Olympics took place in Helsinki during the summer of 1952.

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It seems inevitable that sport, perhaps more than any other area of life, would be susceptible to notions of luck, good or bad. Much of what happens can seem random, so we look for meaning – whether it's rational or not. Man has always sought to explain the seemingly inexplicable, and thus control it. In this sense, the idea that a number could be the cause of poor form or an unfortunate injury is, in a way, comforting. Baseless and ultimately detrimental to progress, but comforting nonetheless.

Of course, 13 will only appear to have any significance when things go wrong. If you're a Brighton & Hove Albion fan, going down to a 2-0 defeat against Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off semi finals on Friday 13 May 2016, you may well consider the number and the day to be unlucky. That would be particularly true if you reflected that, had your side won or even drawn the game, they could be playing Premier League football this term. Then again, if you're a Wednesday fan, you'll probably think nothing of it. Such is our egocentric view of the world – not until something bad happens on the 13th do we consider it a cursed day.


The same goes for players who wear the shirt number. You could argue that it has become a lucky charm for Germany, with Gerd Muller and his namesake Thomas scoring 24 World Cup goals between them, and both lifting the sport's most coveted trophy. Yet for Johan Neeskens, you could suggest that it was profoundly unlucky, in that he played two finals with 13 on his shirt and lost both.

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The truth is that the number 13 means nothing. In theory, a footballer is no more affected by wearing it on his shirt than a smiley face – though what FIFA would make of that is another matter entirely.

The only instance in which it can have a negative impact on performance is when the player wearing the number believes in its power to do so. And, if you're the sort of person who happily wears the number 13, you probably don't put much stock in its reputation for bad luck. Like Thomas Muller, you probably see it as just another number, and an complete non-factor in your failure or success.

Accordingly, do not hide away this Friday the 13th. Venture outside, live your life, enjoy the world. After all, if Gerd Muller can bang in a World Cup-winning goal with 13 on his back, you can at least pull on some trousers and nip to the shops, for God's sake. Still, maybe shut down your laptop, just in case.