Why you should care
Because the un-tall get the short shrift in every American sport.
In my teens, I thought I was too short to be a soccer star. Real Madrid, my favorite team, was brimming with 6-foot-tall Galácticos David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane. By 2011, however, I had shifted allegiance to their nemesis Barcelona — not because Madrid picked up cocky Cristiano Ronaldo, but because all five of Barça’s attackers — Lionel Messi, Alexis Sánchez and Spaniards Pedro Rodriguez, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta — were my height: a cool 5-foot-7. And it turns out that was part of a greater trend.
The average height among elite players fell by two inches from 2005 to 2015.
This is according to in-house OZY analysis that looked at the 11 players selected each year for FIFA FIFPro World XI for that decade. Every year since 2005, over 20,000 professional soccer players around the world elect crème-de-la-crème footballers to World XI. The weighted average height of these soccer maestros fell by about two inches, from 6′0″ in 2005 to 5′10″ in 2015. The most dramatic diminution has been among the midfielders, as the average height of the three playmakers plummeted from 6′1″ in 2007 to 5′7″ in 2010 and 2013.
Trophies reflect this downward spiral, as teams led or captained by 5′7″ players won the last two World Cups and the Euros, as well as the Champions League in four out of the last seven years. The driving force behind the rise of shorties was the emergence of tiki-taka, a playing style that relies on short, agile and technically gifted players such as the Catalan trinity of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. Pioneered and perfected at Barcelona and adopted by Spain, the tactic, equally admired and abhorred for its obsession with passing and possession, made these teams untouchable between 2008 and 2012.
After his formidable spell as the manager of Barcelona during its heyday, Pep Guardiola migrated to Bayern Munich in 2013 to evangelize tiki-taka. With Bayern players forming the backbone of its squad, Germany won the World Cup a year later thanks to 5′9″ midfielder Mario Götze’s extra-time goal. “Once Barcelona and Spain succeeded at the highest level, short players benefited as teams kept the ball on the ground more and used technical skills over physicality,” says 5′7″ San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Tommy Thompson. Lots of defenders say the smallest players give you the biggest problems, he adds, “because they go under you with faster pivot.”
More research is needed to definitively establish a trend — a sample size of 11 players over 11 years obviously has its limits. Plus, soccer geniuses have appeared in every size, as legendary Pele was 5′8″ and Diego Maradona 5′5″. “One thing about soccer that makes it a great sport is that there is no physical type required,” says Duke professor Laurent DuBois, author of Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France. According to DuBois, it’s the combination of physical and mental traits, “the strategic as well as technical sense,” that makes a great player. It may be that we just witnessed a phenomenally talented generation of dwarfs. A number of things could buck the trend: the rising crop of superstars, such as 6′3″ midfielder Paul Pogba, or Madrid, which cracked tiki-taka by defending like a limpet before unleashing blitz counterattacks.
With the last tiki-taka architect, 5′7″ Iniesta, nearing retirement, I may need a new way to kick my Napoleon complex.