Standing tall: What Spain's win means for the little guy
Sport has assumed taller and bigger to mean faster and better, but Iniesta, Silva and Jordi Alba have shown you can be just as successful if you’re short. That suggests coaches should rethink their strategies, writes RONAN McGREEVY(5ft 6in)
WE SHORT GUYS get a bad rap. If we assert ourselves we’re described as having a Napoleon complex – which is ironic, given Napoleon was of average height for a Frenchman of his time, the legend of his shortness having been a tall tale that Britain used to denigrate his achievements.
But it has not helped our cause that the long roll-call of short leaders includes a rogue’s gallery of tyrants and buffoons, ranging from Joseph Stalin (5ft 6in), Kim Jong-Il (5ft 3in) and Silvio Berlusconi (5ft 5in) to our own Charles Haughey (5ft 5in). Any exhibition of belligerence is likely to be met with the sobriquet “bitter little man”, as Jack Charlton famously called Eamon Dunphy. Bitter big man doesn’t have the same resonance.
It seems small men can’t win – or at least it seemed so until the Spanish soccer team came along. Spain’s unprecedented hat-trick of major championship triumphs is a victory for skill and ability and for the little man.
The ringmaster of Spain’s Euro 2012 triumph was the incomparable Andrés Iniesta (5ft 7in), the player of the tournament. The first goal in the final was scored by David Silva (5ft 7in), the second by Jordi Alba (5ft 5in) from a pass by Xavi Hernandez (5ft 7in).
Spain were the shortest team at Euro 2012. A recent survey by the Professional Football Players Observatory of 500 clubs in 33 leagues throughout Europe found that the mighty Barcelona also had the shortest squad in Europe. (Shamrock Rovers had the second shortest.) The best footballer in the world, Lionel Messi (5ft 6in), of Barcelona and Argentina, was so small as a child that the Spanish club prescribed growth hormones.
The triumphs of Spain and Barcelona have turned on its head the modern-day preoccupation with height and athleticism that seems to be the trend across team sports.
As Wigan’s Spanish manager, Roberto Martínez, said this week, “Iniesta and Xavi would never have made it six years ago in a British team. The first selection is ‘not tall enough, not strong enough’.”
The television pundit John Giles (5ft 5in) says Spain’s triumph is a return to the natural order of things. “The little guys always did well at soccer . . . Soccer is a game of wit, imagination and creativity, particularly for players in the middle of the field. That’s why I was delighted to see Spain win it, because there’s always a copycat effect. If they are going to copy any team, let it be Spain.”
Giles says a myth has grown up over the years that the late manager Matt Busby rejected him because he was too small when he started out at Manchester United. “I never saw myself as small. I would have been short, but if you are strong enough it is an advantage being short, because you have a lower centre of gravity.”
A similar triumph of skill over size was perfected 20 years ago when Donegal won the All-Ireland football final against a bigger and more powerful Dublin team that resorted to the long ball. The pivotal players in that triumph were the McHugh brothers, Martin and James, all of 5ft 7in in their stockinged feet. “The one thing that we had going for us is that we grew up on a farm, so we did manual work,” says Martin McHugh. He laments the emphasis on strength at the expense of skill that is filleting out smaller players nowadays. “The best player of the last 20 years has been Peter Canavan” – 5ft 9in – “who was small,” he says. “That day is over. They used to say that it was not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog, but Gaelic football is not going down that road any more.”
The differences are even more pronounced in rugby since the era of professionalism. Rugby used to be a game where your body size determined your position, and all shapes and sizes were accommodated. The short, squat types found themselves in the frontrow, the tall immobile ones at the back. Wingers and scrumhalves tended to be small and nippy, centres and outhalves were average to tall and fast. Nowadays rugby players are not just significantly bigger and broader but also taller.
The tendency towards bulk makes the story of former Irish scrumhalf Peter Stringer (5ft 7in) more remarkable. When he was a teenager his parents were so worried he wouldn’t grow that they considered whether he should have growth-hormone injections, in order to add up to three inches to his height. He didn’t – and won 98 caps for his country.
His would appear to be the exception to the rule as rugby moves seemingly inexorably towards bigger and more powerful players. The Irish Sports Council and the Irish Rugby Football Union have become so concerned about schoolboy players taking supplements to bulk up that they announced last year they would be testing for illegal substances and warned of the dangers of protein supplements such as creatine. This increases muscle mass but can be detrimental to development, as the muscles develop faster than the bones supporting them.
One coach quoted anonymously in The Irish Times earlier this year spoke of players with hair-trigger tempers and pimples as tell-tale signs of the supplement.
The former Dublin player and manager Dr Pat O’Neill, who specialises in sports medicine, says that the problems of young players bulking up are not confined to rugby and that he is seeing more and more stress injuries in teenagers. “Their muscle strength is far stronger than their bone strength,” he says. “A male is not skeletally mature until he is 19. We’re seeing these stress injuries on the bone-tendon interface because the muscles are far too strong and in some cases are pulling the growth plates off the bone.”
All the more reason not to fixate on size.