Acrophobia: Does football discriminate against tall players?

Lionel Messi. Diego Maradona. Pelé. Andres Iniesta. Xavi. Luka Modric. Franck Ribery. Wesley Snejder. Phillip Lahm. Pedro. Eden Hazard. Andrea Pirlo. Alexis Sanchez. Santiago Cazorla. What do these popular players all have in common?

They’re all under the height of 5’9”.

Also, all of the names in the list are midfielders or forwards (except Phillip Lahm). Midfielders, including wingers, are the shortest of the lot, with most of them under 6 feet tall. Forwards, or strikers, are of various heights. They can be as tall as Peter Crouch (6’7”) or as petit as Sebastian Giovinco (5’4”). But the best are around 6 feet. Examples are Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba, Thierry Henry, Diego Costa and Robert Lewandowski.

When we talk about players operating behind midfield, you imagine over-6-foot men ruling the backline and between the posts. The tallest footballer ever is a goalkeeper called Kristof van Hout. Great goalkeepers are generally over 6’4”. Enter Petr Cech, Edwin van der Sar, Thibaut Courtois and Diego Lopez. Centre backs are giants, too. Vincent Kompany, Per Mertesacker, Marco Materrazzi, Nemanja Vidic and Sami Hyppia are all over 6’2”. But there have been super successful centre backs under 6’0”, Franco Baresi, Carles Puyol and Fabio Cannavaro, for example.

 

A study was made by the Professional Football Players’ Observatory regarding the height of football players. They observed that the 11 most picked players’ average height in a club’s squad was shorter than the average height of the entire squad. This was over a long course of time.

I tried to find out if the average height of the most picked players in a squad is shorter than that of the entire squad even in a small sample size. So I looked at the astounding Premier League season of 2015-16 which Leicester City won. I also took in domestic competitions for the Premier League teams. By most picked players I was lenient by choosing players with over 20 appearances, as some teams tend to rotate their squad.

What I found was that it did exist. Teams preferred playing their dwarves over their giants. Since teams almost never change their backline and goalkeeper many times a season, this figure would be even more telling. A big example is AFC Bournemouth. The average height of their squad was 6’0”, but they played a team that had an average height of 5’9”. Physique is not an advantage anymore in football.

The tallest player ever currently plays for a modest Belgian side called  KV Westerlo in front of 8,000 fans every week. And his height? 6 feet 10 inches. That’s it. In basketball, the tallest is 7’7”. In rugby, the tallest player is 7’0”. American football, 7’0”. Cricket, 7’1”. Tennis 6’11”.  Football right now is ruled by midgets.

The reason for this bias is that short midfielders benefit from being short. Their reactions will be faster. They will also have better control over their feet. And of course, they will be faster than the big guys. The low centre of gravity helps the players be well-balanced. This is what helps Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Eden Hazard dribble effortlessly through a massed defence. Davids have become Goliaths in football.

There are a few brilliant tall players as well. Someone regarded the best in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, is 6’1”. And the brilliant Swede, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 6’5”.

Tall players possess greater stamina. They will also have a lower heart rate and a bigger reach. One drawback, though, are red cards. Tall players are more aggressive (Cristiano Ronaldo springs to my mind). And some referees associate height with aggression.  That’s another bias as well.

But eventually it looks like Messis will be replaced by Zlatans. The current dominance of short players is subject to change. Each generation is a little taller than the earlier one, so the same should happen to football players too. Take Manchester United starlets Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford – they’re both 5’11”. Or Chelsea youngster Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who’s 6’3”. Even Manchester City sensation Kelechi Iheanacho is 6’2”. The Xavi of the 22nd Century will likely be over 6 feet tall.

But short players won’t lose their place, either. Instead, the game will pose equal opportunities to players of all heights. Only one thing will matter:

You just have to be really, really good.

Image Attribution:

Messi vs Hummels : By Danilo Borges/copa2014.gov.br Licença Creative Commons Atribuição 3.0 Brasil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33997538

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3 comments

  1. Awesome blog on an awesome sport! Keep scoring (pun intended!).

    As for this post, must say it is a refreshing take on the physical side of the game. I personally haven’t found the shorter players to be at a disadvantage at all. On the contrary, the legendary names from the Latin American teams seem to have benefited from the lack of an extra few (or many) inches.

    But, like you have observed here, with a change in generations, it is likely that there will be taller players in the times to come. Either way, we just need great footballers who can delight us…with or without the extra inches!

    Like

    • Haha! You’re right, 5’9″ is just a tad less than the average height of European males, but it is pretty short compared to the average height of footballers, which is around 5’11”. And Messi, Maradona, Iniesta and co. are around 5’7″ (Messi is 5’6″). I did conduct my own analysis – I found out who played the most via the stats page in the official sites of football clubs. Even the PFPO paper is available online, if you want to take a look. And can you name a famous footballer taller than 6’2″ other than Ibrahamovic? 🙂

      Like

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