When pint-size players tower above their taller counterparts

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am

The last three men standing in the race for the 2010 Fifa Ballon d'Or form a shortlist in more ways than one. The vertically challenged Barcelona trio of Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta is proof that big isn't always better.

Like the 2009 Fifa Player of the Year Messi, the official height of both Xavi and Iniesta is listed at 1.70m Another seven members of the current Barcelona squad, who are playing an unrivalled passing game, are 1.75m or below.

And six of the victorious Spain team who appeared in July's Fifa World Cup final, including Xavi and Iniesta, were also 1.75m or less. The star of the losing Dutch side, Wesley Sneijder, the Inter Milan midfielder considered unlucky not to make the last cut for the 2010 Ballon d'Or, is also just 1.70m.

So is there a growing trend for pint-sized players? Or is it just coincidental that so many of the current crop of superstars is below average in height?

According to leading Asian coaches, the success of Barcelona and Spain's 'short stuffs' may be helping to change long-held views within soccer. In previous eras, these kinds of players may have been overlooked for fear of them being physically intimidated.

'When you are recruiting players, you just look for quality, then attitude, then desire,' said Peter Butler, head coach of Thai Premier League club BEC Tero Sasano. 'Size does not have a bearing for me unless you want a central defender or goalkeeper.'

Butler, who's coached in six AFC nations including Malaysia and Singapore, is a former midfielder who had a long career in England, including two seasons in the early days of the Premier League with West Ham United. At 1.70m, he was told repeatedly as a youngster that he was too small yet played professional football for more than 15 years.

'I was written off as too small many, many times but proved my doubters terribly wrong,' the former midfielder said. 'At times I would look around the pitch and feel rather small but I think many small players are tenacious and have a great will to win and a real passion for the game.'

Even shorter at 1.68m is Gary Phillips, head coach of Malaysian Super League side Sabah, who won Australia's National Soccer League with two different clubs in the 1990s.

'Having a lower centre of gravity gives you the ability to change direction quickly,' Phillips, a former Australian youth international, said. 'It is sometimes awkward for big defenders to mark sharp, smaller men.

'But what we've seen in the game recently is players' ability to run with the ball at pace and how they're able to change the angle very quickly to lose a defender, which smaller men like Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Rooney all do so well.'

But Phillips added that footballers of lesser stature did have to work extra hard on developing their core strength and maintaining a high level of fitness.

'While technically gifted players will always excel, they took Messi 'away' early in his career and he came back with an extra 7 or 8 kilogrammes which made a huge difference. There are ways to make you stronger.'

As the emphasis in the English Premier League moves away from sheer power and size to technical prowess, Manchester United are among the top clubs actively looking for gifted, smaller recruits.

'They've seen the success and longevity of Paul Scholes [1.71m] and they're on the lookout for youngsters with some of the same attributes,' said a Manchester United insider, familiar with Old Trafford's scouting network.

In the old days, players would be like Hollywood actors as they exaggerated their vital statistics to open up opportunities. For example, Michael Owen's height on the number-crunching Soccerbase website is listed at just 1.65m yet the Manchester United striker is 10 centimetres taller at 1.75m on his personal Wikipedia page. Liverpool winger Joe Cole is anywhere between 1.70m and 1.80m, depending on which source you check.

But unlike Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone who have to be mindful of not being dwarfed by their leading ladies, professional footballers simply need to perform to avoid being thrown off the set. When someone like Messi is working his magic, the last thing you notice is that the opposition's central defenders are much bigger than him. Even so, Butler added that owners of some Asian clubs still lean towards larger players when it comes to bringing in foreigners.

'I laughed at my last club in Myanmar when the president of Yangon FC told me we needed a big strong striker who can score goals,' he said. 'I want footballers in my team who can pass and control the ball and use their brains: not just big beach bodies who look great on the club yearly calendar.'

Some of the most famous players in history were all pocket rockets: from George Best (1.73m) to Pele (1.72m) to Diego Maradona (1.65m), who all excelled alongside teammates who usually towered above them.

But what Barcelona and Spain may have proven is that it doesn't matter if more than half the team look like they'd fit in better in a schoolboy tournament. In short, these midget gems have opened up possibilities for others of limited size.

The chorus of Randy Newman's 1977 hit song, Short People, no longer has any relevance for leading clubs: 'Don't want no short people ... don't want no short people ...'round here.'