The sport of short kings

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In August, Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi scored the first overhead kick goal of his long, decorated career, and the internet found it hilarious.

In Paris Saint-Germain’s 5-0 win over Clermont in Paris Saint-Germain’s first Ligue 1 game, the shot might not have been as acrobatic as people think overhead kicks are. Like me, Messi is of Bloomberg stature – just 5ft 7 – and the ball had to be hit deep, so we’re not talking Michael Jordan. Meme accounts joked about the height of the kick, some Photoshopped mini-wheels under press photos of an inverted Messi as he hit the ball.

But here’s the thing: Messi remains one of the best players in the world. Of the greatest prizes in international football, the only thing missing is the World Cup. And Messi isn’t the only hobbit among the Ents.

There are many sports in which athletes can be successful despite being short, and there are a handful of sports in which it is preferable to be short, such as horse racing. In the NBA, where six-foot-tall Allen Iverson is considered a little guy, you might come across men like the five-foot-tall Muggsy Bogues a few times a century. You can pick some exceptional little guys in the NFL. But there are few sports where little kings – let’s just say someone under 5ft 9″ – rule alongside guys who are six feet tall.

There are few sports where, whether you’re doing a generational list of greatest athletes or a contemporary list, there’s a bunch of guys in the top 10 who need a stepladder to get something from the fridge, and none is like that popular as football. An all-timer list will have players like the little Argentine Trequartista Diego Maradona (5-foot-5) and 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 forward who can stop play and ward off attempts to throw him off balance. There are certainly physical benefits of being great at football; Just ask Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimović. But being short comes with its own advantages – a low center of gravity, smaller target and more mobility in tight spaces. Typically, having a great soccer team is like putting together a squad to slay a dragon and get your berg of gold back: you need a tricky hobbit to get the job done.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In Messi’s historic 2010/11 Barcelona squad, which won the Champions League and La Liga, only a handful of guys went over six feet and two of them were goalkeepers. Past world champions have had at least one Frodo Baggins, and many have had several. Where would Argentina have been in 1984 without Maradona? France 2018 without tireless midfielder N’Golo Kanté? Spain 2010 without playmaker Xavi Hernández? Germany 2014 without captain Philipp Lahm? Only Italy’s 2006 squad may have been among the most recent winners, with no boys to prove they’re fit to ride rollercoasters, but the Azzurri still owe two of their victories at the tournament to the little one mezzala Giuseppe Meazza.

As a small athletic dude, this is one of the things I’ve always loved about the sport, where a feisty halfling can kick toe-to-toe with elves and orcs. Being small had nothing to do with how good you were on the pitch, and being big didn’t mean you were going to dominate. Once when I was playing a pickup game in Italy as a teenager, a guy from my team mentioned that one of the opposing players was a youngster for Inter Milan. The child must have been about 4ft 10 and barely 10 years old. We were all older and taller. I shrugged my shoulders. what would he do Then the game started, and this little kid smashed all of our ankles on the way to the gate, like in one of those scenes in a kung fu movie where the protagonist clears a room of baddies and stands alone while the baddies are on the floor moaning in pain.

I learned to love football as a kid watching the World Cup and I loved playing it, but I was never very good. When I got into college, I wasn’t talented enough or fast enough to play. I ended up playing rugby instead, a sport that complemented my physical and mental traits in similar ways – a low center of gravity and a penchant for revenge. But it was never the same as my first love, football: the sport of kings. Short kings.

In two special episodes of Radio Atlantic, Franklin Foer and Clint Smith examine the unexpected ways in which “The Beautiful Game” has impacted both fans and nations – whether through inspiration, corruption or challenge. Subscribe to hear before the first game.


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