Short footballers are theoretically at a disadvantage, but when they succeed it allows us to remember that that football holds magic beyond logic…
Way back in November, I sat in a pub and watched N’Golo Kante hold Benjamin Mendy off the ball to score. It now seems hard to tell which event was more unlikely: getting to be in a pub, or Kante coming out victorious in the matchup between the 5’6” midfielder and the 6’1” defender. There was something incredibly joyful about watching the slight Kante excel in the footballing equivalent of David vs Goliath.
Although Kante is actually not as short as I always imagine him to be, he epitomises why smaller players are so much fun to watch. Whilst football is not the most physical sport in the world, the average height of Premier League footballers is still 5’11, two inches taller than the average British man. Shorter players stand out in line ups, piquing the interest as evidence of having something extra to make up. These aren’t target men or players expected to rough up the opposition – these players must be something special.
No player demonstrates this more than Lionel Messi. Famously diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at the age of ten, his move to Barcelona came about in part because River Plate were unable to pay for the treatment required for him to continue growing. At 5’7”, he is by no means exceptionally small but when you compare him to Cristiano Ronaldo, their height makes them feel like chalk and cheese. Some of Ronaldo’s greatest moments have come from his ability to jump exceptionally high in the air and next to him, Messi always ends up looking unassuming. But with the ball at his feet, there is arguably no one ever in world football to have been as good.
Messi’s compatriot Diego Maradona is shorter still at 5’6” but had the same irresistible talent, lauded the world over for the way he was able to skip through crunching tackles. His height is part of what makes the ‘Hand of God’ against England look so ridiculous. Even the idea that a short footballer would be able to head the ball beyond Peter Shilton, eight inches taller than him, in hindsight seems unlikely.
The tradition of short players seems firmly ingrained in South America. There is Daniel Villava who at 5’3” was the youngest player ever to start for River Plate in the league before his career was derailed by a series of injuries, whilst 5’2” Madson Caridade has spent a number of years playing for clubs across Brazil.
Most exceptionally of all is Elton, who at 5’1”is the same height as diminutive pop star Ariana Grande. With a wide ranging career, he once made a Steaua Bucharest ‘Best of the Decade’ XI despite only playing eight times for them, and now spends his time shuttling between different clubs in the Middle East and scoring outrageous free kicks.
These shorter players offer us a fundamental contradiction in what we understand a sports star as being. Across sports, size tends to be equated with talent. No narrative of an overlooked prodigy is complete without the cliché of being let go by a club due to their size or height. Of course, a lot of their redemption arc might then come with an unexpected growth spurt which allowed them to later justify their ability. For clubs, taller players offer a kind of certainty as they grow up. You can take a risk on their talent because you can always guarantee that they will provide you something physically.
To become a professional, to have made it into a starting XI, to play at the very top of football, short players prove everything we assume about sport to be wrong. They demonstrate the essence of two beliefs that every football fan holds dear to their heart: that football holds magic beyond logic, and that anyone can make it.
In comparison to other sports where you have to be the fastest or the strongest to triumph, the existence of players who are not stereotypically athletic shows that football offers something beyond other sports. It contains opportunities that allow players to do things on the pitch that don’t make sense. In those opportunities exists the seed of thought that anyone might be able to do those things, which enables football fans to believe that it could have been them.
There is a small bit of every fan who thinks they could have made it if something had just been a little bit different. We all experience the slow disappointment as players seem to get younger and younger but in reality you are just getting older, the irrationality of still thinking maybe you might discover a hidden talent within yourself. Short players are part of what allows this collective fever dream to remain in place, because they show that you don’t have to be 6ft to be a footballer. You just have to be really really good. It is the belief that some kind of biological equality exists on the pitch which makes smaller players exciting.
Of course, for many that belief that football offers an equality of opportunity, that talent is all that matters, does not in reality extend very far. It does not extend across genders, and it is often tainted by racist stereotypes. Ability is all that matters in football until actually a demographic difference is deemed more relevant than that. Perhaps though, the existence of short players shows that someday demography might be overcome in football, in the same way as biology.
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