The Sport of Short Kings

Soccer is where mini monarchs reign supreme.

Diego Maradona celebrates UEFA Cup victory with teammates on May 17, 1989
Diego Maradona celebrating the UEFA Cup victory with his teammates on May 17, 1989. (Alessandro Sabattini / Getty)

Updated at 7:38 p.m. ET on November 16, 2022

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In August, the Argentine footballer Lionel Messi scored the first bicycle-kick goal of his long, decorated career, and the internet thought it was hilarious.

Coming in Paris Saint-Germain’s 5–0 demolition of Clermont in the latter’s first Ligue 1 match, the strike was perhaps not as acrobatic as people think of bicycle kicks being. Messi, like me, is of Bloombergian stature—only 5-foot-7—and the ball needed to be struck low, so we are not talking Michael Jordan ups. Meme accounts cracked jokes about the height of the kick, some Photoshopping tiny bicycles underneath press photos of an inverted Messi as he struck the ball.

Here’s the thing, though: Messi remains one of the best players in the world. Of international football’s greatest prizes, only the World Cup still eludes him. And Messi is not the only Hobbit among Ents.

There are many sports where athletes can succeed despite being short, and there are a handful of sports where it is preferable to be short, such as horse racing. In the NBA, where the six-foot Allen Iverson is considered a little guy, you get men like the 5’3” Muggsy Bogues maybe a few times a century. You can pick out some exceptional short fellas in the NFL. But there are few sports where short kings—let’s just say anyone under 5’9”—reign alongside guys who clear six feet.

There are few sports where, whether you’re making a generational list of its greatest athletes or a contemporary one, there will be a bunch of guys in the top 10 who need a step ladder to get something off the top of the fridge, and none are as popular as football. An all-timer list is going to have players like the diminutive Argentine trequartista Diego Maradona (5-foot-5) and the Spanish midfielder Andrés Iniesta (5-foot-7); if you’re talking about guys still playing, then Messi and Croatia’s Luka Modrić (5-foot-8) will make the cut.

Sure, it’s great to have a big, tall defender who can dominate in the air and intimidate attackers, or a massive striker who can hold up play and shrug off attempts to throw him off balance. There are certainly physical advantages to being tall in football; just ask Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimović. But being short offers its own set of advantages—a low center of gravity, a smaller target, and increased mobility in tight spaces. Having a great football team tends to be like putting together a squad to kill a dragon and get your mountain of gold back: You need a tricksy Hobbit to get the job done.

You don’t need to take my word for it. On Messi’s historic 2010–11 Barcelona squad that won the Champions League and La Liga, only a handful of guys cleared six feet, and two of them were goalies. Past World Cup winners have had at least one Frodo Baggins, and many have had several. Where would Argentina have been in 1986 without Maradona? France in 2018 without the indefatigable midfielder N’Golo Kanté? Spain in 2010 without the playmaker Xavi Hernández? Germany in 2014 without captain Philipp Lahm? Among recent winners, perhaps only Italy’s 2006 squad was without guys who needed to prove they were eligible to ride the roller coaster, but even so, the Azzurri still owe two of their victories in that tournament to the petite mezzala Giuseppe Meazza.

As a wee athletic guy, this is one of the things I always loved about the sport, where a spritely halfling can stand toe-to-toe with Elves and Orcs. Being short didn’t have anything to do with how good you were on the pitch, and being tall didn’t mean you would dominate. Once, playing a pickup game as a teenager in Italy, a guy on my team mentioned that one of the opposing players was a youth prospect for Inter Milan. The kid must have been something like 4-foot-10 and barely 10 years old. We were all older and bigger. I shrugged. What was he going to do? Then the match started, and this tiny kid shattered all of our ankles on the way to goal, like one of those scenes in a kung-fu movie where the protagonist clears a room of bad guys and is left standing by himself while the baddies are on the ground moaning in pain.

I learned to love football watching the World Cup as a kid, and I loved playing, but I was never very good. By the time I got to college, I wasn’t talented enough or fast enough to play. I ended up playing rugby instead, a sport that similarly complemented my physical and mental characteristics—a low center of gravity and a taste for vengeance. But it was never the same as my first love, football: the sport of kings. Short Kings.

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This article originally misstated the year Maradona helped Argentina win the World Cup.