Why you should care
The country’s soccer stars are taller than their compatriots — but will it bring success in the World Cup?
When the 32 qualifying teams competing in the 2018 FIFA World Cup take to the pitch in Russia on June 14, they will showcase the best of the world’s soccer talent — highlighted by the diversity of the players that compose those teams.
More than ever, athletes are quantified by metrics — height, weight, 40-yard-dash speed. But one of the elements of the World Cup that makes the event so compelling to watch is the surprisingly varied team demographics. Take the 2018 South Korean national team, for instance:
South Korea’s soccer squad is taller than its counterparts from England, France, Spain and Portugal. The players are also a full 4 centimeters taller than those of neighboring Japan’s team.
“Within the context of globalization that is often seen as having a homogenizing effect, the FIFA World Cup refreshes our thirst for the specificities of nations on different levels,” write Drs. Raffaele Poli, Loïc Ravenel and Roger Besson in their FIFA pre–World Cup profile on the qualifying teams.
The profile includes the average height of each team — and the surprising fact that the South Korean team, at 182.2 centimeters (71.7 inches, or just shy of 6 feet), is taller than the average height of players on qualified squads (181.7 cm), even though the height of the average South Korean male is 170.7 cm.
Not only is the South Korea team taller than the national average by 11.5 cm, but the disparity is much greater than that between European squads and their national averages. Germany, for instance, has an average squad height of 183.8 cm compared with a national average of 178.9 cm.
Does this mean that South Korean men who are above average in height more often become soccer players? Does height correlate with success in soccer? Not so fast, says Poli. “There is no correlation between height and success in football,” notes the head of the CIES Football Observatory, a Swiss-based sports research group. “This is more an interesting anecdote.”
“The fact that football players are taller than the population is a general trend worldwide, not specific to South Korea,” Poli’s colleague, Besson, adds. He notes that this is related partly to “selective mechanisms during childhood and adolescence also measurable by the ‘relative age effect.’”
What exactly is the relative age effect? “In football, players with the disadvantages of being born in the last months of the year and of later physical development currently have little chance of pursuing a career at a high level,” note Poli, Besson and Ravenel. This has negative consequences for the players and for football as a whole, because it “leads to considerable bias in selections.”
Ravenel shed more light on the composition of the South Korean national team, listing three factors that matter more than height: training, integration in the world market and selection based on playing style. The first, rather obviously, is about finding the best possible athletes and guiding them to success. Integration, meanwhile, is about addressing any problems in players feeling at home when they work outside their country. And selection focuses on playing style. Are the players technical, physical? “If you want to play like the Icelandics, you need to have tall footballers,” he adds.
All of this is to say that the population of athletes that earns a spot on the South Korea national team in the World Cup is, to a large degree, self-selecting.
It’s not necessarily to say that an athlete closer to the national average male height couldn’t make it onto the team — indeed, the average height of 182.2 cm includes such outliers as midfielder Lee Seung-woo (170 cm) and defender Go Yo-han (170 cm).
But, as with any sport, a lot depends on the role of each position. It’s no surprise, for instance, that the team’s goalkeepers easily and significantly eclipse the team average height by as much as 11 cm.
In their profile of this year’s teams, Poli, Besson and Ravenel acknowledge that the biggest determining factor for the composition of the 32 national teams is whether those athletes are already playing for clubs in the world’s most competitive leagues.
They write, however, that “the history of the FIFA World Cup teaches us that other factors come into play, and that surprises are often the order of the day.”
And that’s exactly why we tune in every four years.