By Rui Matos Pereira
It was a dream come true for Harry Kewell when he moved from Leeds United AFC to become Liverpool FC's new No7, but over at Sporting Clube de Portugal, No7 is more of a curse than an honour. Ever since Luis Figo left the Alvalade for FC Barcelona at the end of the 1994/95 season, misfortune has stalked every player that took on his old squad number.
The shirt's most recent owner, Romanian striker Marius Niculae, took the jinx very seriously indeed. "
I am going to change the number, from seven to nine," he said before the summer. "I hope that I have more luck with the new number." However, changing numbers did not help the 22-year-old as he suffered another injury to his right foot on the first day of pre-season training.
No7 has been far from lucky for Niculae. Since joining Sporting, he has been bedevilled by injuries. On 22 December 2001, he received a knock to his left knee which was only resolved after surgery and seven months on the sidelines. Then he began to pick up injuries in his right foot, missing several months of last season. He was sent back home to recuperate this summer, but the injuries persist.
Niculae's experience is far from unique. Figo's immediate successor as No7, Ricardo Sá Pinto, was popular with Sporting fans, but unpopular with referees and, in one famous case, national coaches. He gained notoriety for assaulting former Portugal coach Artur Jorge - an attack which earned him a one-year suspension from FIFA.
However, it was with the now familiar trail of injuries that the No7 shirt began to work its black magic. Following a spell with Real Sociedad in Spain, Sá Pinto's return to Sporting was marked by a serious knee injury which saw him miss the whole of the 2001/02 season. Newly installed at No10 at his own request last season, the curse seemingly still haunts Sá Pinto, who has never settled into the side.
When Sá Pinto joined Real in 1997, he passed on the No7 to Ivaylo Yordanov. It proved to be no less of a burden to the Bulgarian international. Injuries plagued him, and a major car accident during his summer holidays in 1998 persuaded him to switch from No7 to No9. However, changing squad number was no guarantee of improved fortune. Yordanov was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and though he managed two more seasons, he was never the same player.
Brazilian Leandro Machado was No7 for the 1998/99 season. Hampered by injury, he tried his luck at a number of clubs after his ill-fated spell at Sporting, but never settled. Most recently he returned to Portugal with CD Santa Clara. The team from the Azores was relegated from the Portuguese top flight at the end of last season.
The No7 shirt passed from Leandro Machado to midfield player Delfim who won the league title with Sporting in 1999/00. However, the curse had not lifted. A string of injuries was already tormenting the player, and a move to Olympique de Marseille did little to dispel the gloom - the French club placed him on the transfer list at the end of last season.
With Niculae having taken on the No9 shirt, Sporting players are not exactly racing to grab the No7 shirt. As the new season approaches, the strange legacy that comes with Figo's old squad number may yet claim more victims.
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