The National Basketball Association has had its trees -- Shaq, Wilt, Yao and others -- and the National Football League has its beefy linemen. Soccer, however, has room for shorter, smaller athletes to shine. At 5 feet, 7 inches, for example, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi became a scoring sensation. Pele, Maradona and others of modest stature readily attained legendary status prior to Messi. Certain aspects of soccer create advantages for players of below-average height.
Most of soccer is played on the ground, with the ball at the feet of the players. Short players can flourish if they excel at ball control, speed, agility and the ability to change direction quickly. They can contribute to passing attacks that can exhaust taller and at times, sluggish and less-skilled opponents. This possession-focused style of soccer, popular in Latin America and Spain, can be seen in the U.S. even in recreational teams who use skill and shrewd tactics to flummox larger opponents.
Inherently Greater Athleticism
In soccer, the short athlete’s gifts no longer get hidden behind those of taller guys and girls. Shorter athletes react more quickly, accelerate better, move with more agility and have a greater strength-to-weight ratio, writes multidisciplinary scholar Thomas T. Samaras in “Human Body Size and the Laws of Scaling.” Those not overly tall also have increased endurance and are less prone to heat stroke. All these assets fit perfectly with a sport that lasts 90 minutes or longer, lacks time outs, is played outdoors in hot weather and requires intermittent sprinting.
Lower Center of Gravity
The laws of physics allow a shorter person, with her lower center of gravity, to be better able to resist falling and to enjoy greater stability. She can produce a strong counter-torque to restore her balance even during a lunging, desperate attempt to maintain ball control or to shoot while falling over. Samaras notes that this stability gives shorter athletes an advantage in gymnastics, wrestling, sailing and surfing. It also allows soccer players trying to weave toward the goal in close quarters to maintain their footing despite the inevitable bumping.
While short players can star in soccer, its pros are still taller than the general population. Height remains important for goalkeepers who need to cover a wide and tall goalmouth. Central defenders, especially in leagues that need to defend against tall forwards, also tend to have some height. Soccer statistics analyst Chris Anderson finds a solid correlation between team height and international soccer success. He does note that outliers, such as Spain’s men’s team and America's women's team, at times achieve tremendous success despite a lack of height, presumably based on skill or tactical understanding.