At the age of 10, Lionel Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. He would grow up to be perhaps the greatest footballer of all time – and yet he only stands at 5'7 tall. It's testament to his genius that he became the best despite his physical stature. How many kids are kicked out of academies for being too small, after all?
Still, Messi has never had the task of tussling with Ivan Toney to win a second ball. While forwards can be as little as you like, Lisandro Martinez's 5'9 frame has caused conversation in his early Manchester United career, with the Argentinian keen to prove that dinkier defenders can still compete in such a physical league and his manager pointing to stats in his defence, like a latter-day Louis van Gaal.
Does height matter in defence? Should Lisandro wish he was a taller baller? Martinez may be the shortest centre-back in the Premier League at the moment – but it's not impossible for the vertically-challenged to rise high…
The greatest centre-backs 5'9 or under: the defenders just missing out…
The average male height in Spain is 5'10. That means that Carles Puyol – a right-back in his early career and originally doubted as tall it enough to cut it in the middle – was only average height in his home nation, despite his unbelievable career leading from the back.
Jules Kounde and Cesar Azpilicueta, likewise, is 5'10, though plays in a back three. Azpi's club-mate Thiago Silva is 5'11, as are Nathan Aké, Marc Guehi and David Alaba. Legendary defenders Ronald Koeman and Franz Beckenbauer were both 5'11, too.
The shortest player in the Premier League in any position is Newcastle winger Ryan Fraser at 5'3.
5. Gary Medel (5'7)
Most warmly remembered by English fans for a season-long stint at Cardiff City, Gary Medel was Roberto Mancini's warrior at Inter Milan and the Pitbull of Chile's greatest-ever team.
Over the course of his career, Medel has been deployed as a defensive midfielder, using his aggression and reading of the game to break up play but has featured in a backline often, however, including Chile's back-to-back Copa America wins. Incredibly, he wasn't even the shortest defender in that triumphant defence. Marcelo Diaz was just 5'5, with third centre-back Francisco Silva the towering prescence of the three at just 5'10 himself.
In 2019, Medel famously squared up to Messi at the Copa (opens in new tab), with the Flea looking down on the Pitbull. Messi's not had the pleasure of doing that to many defenders in his time.
4. Ivan Cordoba (5'8)
Ivan Cordoba used both the inside of his head and out to devastating effect. A fiercely intelligent defender, almost impossible to better one against one, the Colombian scored plenty of headers in his time.
Cordoba typified the South American No.5: a short, tenacious and athletic player in defensive areas who could cover plenty of ground. He was often deployed as a centre-back but filled in both as a right- and left-back – and his jumping reach was impressive, too.
Alongside Marco Materazzi, the pair were imperious in Serie A, the Italian measuring 6'4. Now that's a player you'd expect to be tall… perhaps because when Zinedine Zidane attacked him, he only managed to do so at chest height.
3. Javier Mascherano (5'8)
Pep Guardiola has a habit of converting players from across the pitch into centre-backs. First he played Yaya Toure there in a Champions League final. At Bayern Munich, it was Xabi Alonso, while Fernandinho stepped into the breach on occasion at Manchester City. They're getting shorter each time, at 6'2, 6'0 and 5'10 respectively. Guardiola's already thrown a 5'8 midfielder into his back four, though.
Javier Mascherano was the screener at Liverpool behind Alonso and Steven Gerrard but in his Barcelona career, he took the grit of his game and used it to crunch into attackers. Admittedly, Barça were rarely ever troubled physically or penned back when the Argentine played for them, allowing him to step forward and build play from the back.
Like other short defenders before him, Mascherano offered the kind of leadership that made him feel like a bigger bloke than he was physically. A natural successor to Carles Puyol, in many ways.
2. Fabio Cannavaro (5'9)
The last defender to win a Ballon d'Or was not the imposing Virgil van Dijk – it was a man seven inches shorter than him.
Fabio Cannavaro was everything but tall. Strong, clever and fast, he led Italy to their last World Cup win – well, their last World Cup knockout win, even – straining his neck to look up at most attackers he faced. He looked up his defensive partner of that 2006 final, too: Marco Materazzi – him again. He knew a thing or two about partnering smaller centre-backs.
"He is dwarfed by just about every other centre-half in Germany," journalist Amy Lawrence noted at the time, "Yet he has risen serenely above them all, seemingly without a bead of sweat."
1. Franco Baresi (5'9)
"When I have to make a tackle, I've made a mistake," is a quote (in)famously credited to Paolo Maldini about defending and its expectations. It relates to the idea that reading play is more important than reacting to it.
In that sense, Maldini's partner, Franco Baresi, typified the cliche. Piscinin was the archetypal offside trap defender, anticipating when to step forward in Arrigo Sacchi's high-hanging defence and barely needing to use his strength to beat an opponent. He was dominant – but barely needed to be.
And the best thing about only being 5'9 was that Baresi was deft and elegant in possession. He could pass with the delicacy of a playmaker at a time where bigger, more brutish centre-backs were walloping leather balls with their size 10s – and Baresi's slight frame and turning radius meant he could always shimmy into position to find the perfect through ball. His height was barely noticeable most of the time. His genius stood particular tall.
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