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Height in Football

“Basketball is a tall man’s game,” it used to be said, “while football is an all man’s game.” I daresay, however, that whatever truism there is to that cliché just cannot be universal.

Exhibit A, Your Honour. This anecdote is about something that happened way back in the early eighties when I was still playing competitive football.

One afternoon training session with my football club, this 6’ 2” expatriate Norwegian asked to join scrimmage. He was not only tall but also frightfully long-legged.

I do not recall that he was particularly good; otherwise, he would have made an impression. But there was this one incident that I remember him for even after all these years.

The way forward for the smaller teams is to play along the carpet. This was how Spain won the World Cup and two European championships. That said, Spain was not without its own big players in all the right places.
I had the ball at my feet, feinted to throw him off balance and was happily passing him on his left side and thinking boy, that was easy! But he quickly recovered, stuck out one daddy-long-leg, caught the ball as I tried to come away with it and sent me into a somersault.

Without, I hate to admit, the grace and dignity of a Nadia Comaneci landing.

Exhibit B. This second anecdotal incident happened at around the same time. My club had scheduled a friendly against a football team from the USS Tarawa.

The Americans, if I am being honest, did not really know what they were doing; and we won comfortably. However, there was this incident that I recall like it happened just yesterday.

I took off on a Messi-like run – and I will not apologise for the self-trumpeting because they were really not good at all – from near the halfway line, wove past five or six Americans and bore down on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat.

Such a glorious run should have been crowned with a goal. Regrettably, I enjoyed myself too much, took a fraction of a second to shoot and my final touch to set myself up for the shot was a tad on the heavy side.

That was all the invitation this 6’ 5” heavily muscled African-American goalkeeper – I was sure he was a Marine – needed to come rushing out of his line towards me to intercept.

What do you do when you see a troll coming at you in the middle of the forest? You get out of the way.

Which was exactly what I did; otherwise I would have ended up in the Emergency Room. The only option available was really to launch myself into yet another somersault above him as he dove to claim the ball; and I did no better in the grace department as my earlier encounter with Daddy-Long-Legs from the fjords of Norway.

To be perfectly honest, in neither encounter did I suffer anything graver than a bruised ego. In fact the two incidents taught me that, indeed, height is always relative.

There was also irony in both incidents because on a football field among Filipinos of my generation, I was the tall guy.

Getting back to the crux of the matter, there is this unwritten law in football that says you put one tall player in the traditional centerhalf-stopper position and one more if you are using two flat centerbacks. Then, you use at least one more tall guy upfront to play as the centerforward.

These positions spend a significant amount of time in and around the front of goal, defensively or offensively. Because the front of goal is where the ball is frequently in the air either launched from deep inside the opponents’ half or crossed from the wings, height in the area is a decided advantage.

Not to mention that, defensively, the additional lateral reach of the taller guy helps to plug more spaces. The not-so-tall, then, have better use elsewhere.

In this context, thus, football is indeed an all man’s game. There is room for the tall, the fairly tall and maybe even the not-so-tall. The key always is to have height in the right places.

Of course, the unwritten law is ultimately dependent on the players available; and the tallest players in one team may not even be considered tall when up against players of another team. This is the relativity of height coming into play.

One needs to look no farther than the UFL to see what I mean. On the one hand, the Army defender who allowed Joaco Cañas to score with a header could have played the Spaniard tighter.

On the other hand, I have yet to hear of a player allowed to bring along a stool to a game on which to stand when challenging for headers. Suffice it to say that beside the many Caucasians, half-Caucasians and African players who now grace the UFL, many of the homegrown players in the Armed Forces and other teams will find that stool handy when challenging for headers.

Without these players, height will not matter so much. And not just in the defensive end. I have lost count of the number of times I pounded the armrest of my sofa when crosses were delivered by the Armed Forces players and even Green Archers United – which also has a fairly diminutive forward line – in the air and these were routinely snuffed out by the taller defenders of the likes of Kaya, Loyola Meralco Sparks and Global FC.

Even on the ground, the taller players with their bigger physiques will also enjoy an advantage over the smaller ones; and football, after all, is a contact sport.

This is not to say that the smaller teams do not compete. They do, albeit sometimes compete is really just about all that is left for them to do.

The way forward for the smaller teams is to play along the carpet. This was how Spain won the World Cup and two European championships. That said, Spain was not without its own big players in all the right places.

Meanwhile at the UFL, how many teams can really pass like Spain?

Pundits say that the Emperador Stadium is smaller than the Rizal Memorial. The artificial grass has been a treat for all the teams and has been an encouragement for everyone to put the ball down on the floor and play proper football. The smaller dimensions, however, mean that it is less forgiving of passing errors than a larger field.

Because the pitch is smaller, it also favours the defending team, which has to work less to plug the passing lanes. The task becomes even easier if a team has bigger and taller players because then they will cover more spaces not only laterally but even vertically.

I will not go to the extent of saying that there is no room in the game for smaller people; but height does come in handy sometimes. Perhaps, even most of the time.

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