There is no doubt that football is in a constant state of evolution. Though the basic rules have changed little since the sport was first played, advances in physical fitness, training methods and a greater knowledge of the human body have all combined to change the pace of the beautiful game.
As such, it would be natural to expect top-level football to be dominated to an ever greater degree by factors such as stamina, strength and size. And while those first two qualities are undoubtedly vital at every level of the modern game, recent decades have thrown up countless examples of diminutive stars whose stature has not prevented them from reaching the very summit of the sport.
A glance at the three finalists in the latest edition of the FIFA Ballon d’Or award provides ample evidence of that fact, with none of the players considered the world’s best in 2010 measuring in at over 1.70m. The success of Barcelona trio Lionel Messi (1.69m), Andres Iniesta (1.70m) and Xavi Hernandez (1.70m), caught the eye of FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter, who gave his views on this interesting trend to FIFA.com earlier in the year: “This proves that football’s open to everyone.
“You don’t need to be really tall or really strong to be a good player. And this situation is nothing new. The likes of Gerd Muller, Uwe Seeler, Diego Maradona or Jean-Pierre Papin weren’t tall either,” said Blatter, citing just a few names from a vast list of superstar shorties.
In fact, it is not easy to find another contact sport which remains so open to smaller players. One of the main reasons comes down to the principles of biomechanics, which show that shorter individuals’ centre of gravity is closer to the ground – a factor which lends them greater balance.
All of which makes perfect sense when you see footage of Maradona (1.66m) or Messi flying across the pitch, the ball glued to their feet, changing direction seemingly at will and able to brush off contact from eager opponents without going to ground.
Such mazy dribbling ability is a common theme among the players on our list, with balance and swift changes of direction key to this evasive art form. Further luminaries in this area included the French duo of Alain Giresse (1.62m) and Jean Tigana (1.68m), German icons Thomas Hassler (1.66m) and Pierre Littbarski (1.68m), Scottish legends Jimmy Johnstone (1.57m) and Archie Gemmill (1.67m), and Brazilian wing wizard Garrincha (1.69m).
Despite this damning weight of evidence, many short-sighted football scouts continue to use height as a determining factor in their decisions, particularly when it comes to the positions of goalkeeper, centre-back and centre-forward.
“Nobody ever used to give me any stick about my height. I think they realised that it wouldn’t have stopped me scoring anyway!” says former A Seleção goal-getter Romario (1.69m).
Known as O Baixinho (shorty), Romario’s positioning, timing and penalty-area prowess made up for any lack of inches, exemplified by the decisive headed goals he scored to win Brazil the 1989 Copa America against Uruguay and clinch the semi-final against Sweden at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA.
Even so, there are countless examples of players who at some point in their career were dismissed or rejected due to their size. Making a mockery of that verdict are the likes of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Chelsea newboy David Luiz, currently among the hottest properties on Planet Football.
“I wasn’t always tall,” says the 1.85m Portuguese superstar. “When I left the island of Madeira at 13, I remember a lot of people telling me that I wouldn’t make it in the game because I was very small. Then, suddenly, between the ages of 15 and 18 I shot up and reached the height I am now.”
Versatile Brazil international defender David Luiz was another late developer, to the extent that he was offloaded by Sao Paulo as a youth for being too small. Now measuring in at an imposing 1.89m and starring for club and country, how O Tricolor Paulista must regret that particular decision.
It does remains difficult for smaller players to carve out a defensive niche, however, with those individuals who also bring notable attacking thrust to the table, such as Germany full-back Philipp Lahm (1.70m) or Brazilian veteran Roberto Carlos (1.68m), most likely to succeed.
This makes the feats of former Mexico keeper Jorge Campos (1.73m) and Italy’s 2006 FIFA World Cup-winning captain and that year’s FIFA World Player, Fabio Cannavaro (1.74m), both of whose roles revolved primarily around preventing goals, all the more noteworthy.
“When I was 15, the head of the youth system at (French lower-league club) Merignac told me I wasn’t good enough to turn pro,” says another world champion, France 1998 winner Bixente Lizarazu (1.69m), on his personal struggle to reach the top. “That was a really hard blow. When you’re a young lad and someone says that you’re too weak that makes you incredibly angry.
“But I’m no quitter. At the start of my career I weighed 69kg but at the end of every season I’d hit the gym, until I ended up weighing 75kg. I honed my physique to that of a little bison, ready for battle,” continues the man who represented Les Bleus for 12 glorious years, until his international retirement in 2004.
“Sometimes those who start with everything in their favour end up not working hard enough. For us short guys, when we decide to do something we give it 120 per cent. The mental side drives you on.”
Indeed, at a point in the game’s development where physical stature ought to be decisive, many of the world’s finest performers continue to prove otherwise. Working their magic alongside Messi, Xavi and Iniesta at Barça are the likes of David Villa (1.75m), Pedro (1.69m) and Daniel Alves (1.73m), while Serie A surprise packages Udinese boast one of Italian football’s finest forward pairings in Antonio Di Natale (1.70m) and Alexis Sanchez (1.72m).
Last but certainly not least, mention must be made of Inter Milan’s compact schemer Wesley Sneijder (1.70m), who in 2010 tasted title success in Serie A, the Italian Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup, as well as helping the Netherlands to second place at South Africa 2010. Definitive evidence, if any were needed, that in football as in life, size isn’t everything.