With 265 million participants worldwide, soccer attracts players of almost any size and shape. It’s no coincidence that the sport has such high participation rates given that it requires neither height like basketball nor brawn like American football. Barcelona star Lionel Messi, officially listed at 5 feet 7, but likely an inch shorter, demonstrates that diminutive stature is no hindrance to stellar play in the game and actually can aid in quickness and swift changes of direction. Messi also demonstrates traits crucial to soccer success.
Field players in the top soccer leagues of Europe tend to be around 5 feet, 11 inches, with goalkeepers around 6 feet, 2 inches. They display lean, defined physiques, reflecting the fact that 200 lbs. may be the realistic upper limit of a soccer player given the demands of running six miles or more in a typical game. Messi is significantly smaller than a defender such as Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, who stands 6 feet, 3 inches, but has a compensating weapon to use against taller players: his agility.
While body type may not matter so much in soccer, agility is paramount. In a sport that relies heavily on agility and its allied trait, speed, players make nearly a thousand changes of direction per game. Agility depends on three factors, says athletic performance specialist Craig Friedman. He cites explosiveness and power, stability from the ankles through the torso and the technique to deliver power to the ground while taking a quick stride. Though small, Messi’s strength-to-weight ratio “is just ridiculous,” Friedman told ESPN’s John Dorsey.
Soccer players work hard to stay in shape. Kristine Lilly, who has participated in more international matches than any other player, calls fitness the “backbone” of her game and key to her confidence on the field. Her focus on fitness, typical of soccer players at all levels, allowed her to compete in 352 international games, to play every minute of the 2009 Women’s Professional Soccer season and to appear in five Women’s World Cups.
Players need talent and a good attitude, but the real factor in advancement is not physical ability but rather mental toughness, writes sports psychologist Bill Beswick in “Focused for Soccer.” Many players at the top level would not score an “A” on talent, “but their A attitude drives them to success,” he writes. Mental toughness includes having a competitive and optimistic attitude, bouncing back with resiliency from setbacks, taking risks and being single-minded. Messi brings tremendous confidence, an allied trait, to the game, which is on display when he steals balls from opponents and weaves through them “like traffic cones on a DMV road course,” writes Erik Malinowski for the online site, Wired.