The winter break. So long, so cruel, so relentless. But the worst had passed and I was finally back at the Marakana, ready to watch Red Star once more. With Zvezda leading the Serbian Premier League by something like 257 points, there was little tension inside the stadium, yet over me hovered a dark cloud. My favorite player, Luka Jović, had just been sold to Benfica. Who would I cheer on now?
Marko Grujić, now owned by Liverpool, wasn’t an option. Hugo Vieira, currently on 19 goals this season, seemed too obvious. I’d barely pondered the question when I spotted him, moving quickly up the right. He then popped up on the left in the next attack. My eye kept being drawn to him as he picked out a pass. He seemed to shine against the languid Mladost defenders.
That, or it was simply easy to spot the midfielder. Primarily because Srđan Plavšić stands a head shorter than almost everyone on the pitch.
Hello. My name is Kirsten, and I have a thing for tiny men.
More specifically, I love small soccer players, preferably attackers. Midfielders are best, but I’ll accept a striker in a pinch. The speedier, the better, and if they’re able to make defenders look foolish I just might swoon.
Some might think it was that incredible Barcelona side that nudged me in this direction – after all, Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández were all at the height of their powers when I fell hard for football. But the truth is, it was a few over-performing Italian teams that brought me to where I am today.
With the 2010 World Cup over, I decided to double up on my love for Napoli and get serious about Serie A. Little did I know what a strange season I was walking into. It’d be the last time a team other than Juventus won the title, the last time Inter were more than a passing fancy, and the last time Italy would send four teams to the Champions League. The fourth team to qualify for the tournament? Udinese.
Just as in the previous year, Antonio Di Natale was crowned capocannoniere, with 28 league goals. Tiny Toto had the third best strike rate in Europe, but if it weren’t for another diminutive attacker, Udinese would likely have been struggling against relegation once more.
Alexis Sánchez joined Udinese in 2008, but wisely waited until the 2010-11 season to flaunt his talents. While Arsenal supporters may think they saw the best of him in 2014-15, it was calcio fans who truly got to enjoy the wonder that is Alexis. The 5’6” Chilean played behind Di Natale, in a free role that allowed him to utterly befuddle defenses. His pace and footwork drew in the opposition, distracting them from Di Natale up top, leaving the forward free to score – although Sánchez’s 12 goals certainly didn’t hurt Udinese that season.
I may have had a crush on Udinese, but my loyalty still lay further south. Although it was Edinson Cavani and his 26 league goals that lifted Napoli to third place and a spot in the Champions League, I bestowed favor not on the lanky Uruguayan but his stocky Argentine teammate (patience, please: we’ll get to the third of the Three Tenors later). At 5’8”, Ezequiel Lavezzi certainly didn’t look very imposing…but then again, the opposition rarely had a chance to look closely, seeing as he often blazed by them so quickly that his pass was placed in front of Cavani before the defenders lifted so much as a toe.
Perhaps my Napoli roots were showing. After all, Maradona was all of 5’5”, and all of Naples still worships at the feet of Diego. Small surprise, then, that after Sánchez left for Barcelona, I freely transferred my affections to Italy’s “Little Argentina.”
Little, indeed. The 2011-2012 Catania side had 14 Argentines, many of whom might be considered knee-high to a grasshopper. But under the wise wisdom of Vincenzo Montella — himself only 5’8”! — these elefanti were pure joy to watch. Pablo “Pitu” Barrientos and Alejandro “Papu” Gómez brought an agility and grace to the side, helped along by Montella’s love a midfield-driven, almost relentless attack.
The emphasis on getting forward was renewed the next season under Rolando Maran and the partnership between Barrientos and Gómez strengthened. The two seemed able to predict the spaces into which one another could slip, and their ability to find the correct pass allowed compatriot Gonzalo Bergessio to profit. These little players led little Catania into a race for the European places, and although they ultimately finished 8th, they did so with a record number of points.
The 2012-13 Serie A season also demonstrated the trouble that befalls those who forget that the best things in life are small. Most have heard the names Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Verratti, even if they know little about the Pescara side that won the Serie B championship the season before. Under the guidance of Zdeněk Zeman, that team scored an incredible 90 goals, 28 notched by Immobile. Ciro then went off to Genoa, where he managed just five in 33 appearances. Turns out he needed the help of his pocket-sized midfielders, the 5’5” Verratti and the 5’4” Insigne. Pescara and Zeman also fell without them – Zeman’s flat-out attacking approach had relied upon their speed and movement. Zeman, off at Roma, floundered by February, while Pescara sank quickly back into Serie B.
2013 marked a turning point in my own obsession with tiny men. Over in the Premier League – never a place where men of this stature were praised – Aston Villa let Barry Bannan go to Crystal Palace, clearly furthering their downward slide. In Spain, the big bad Diego Costa and the athletic Atlético Madrid beat the small men of Barcelona to the title. And at Napoli, the squad was being torn down and rebuilt, practically from scratch. Rafa Benítez was forcing the little Dries Mertens to battle it out with the even smaller Lorenzo Insigne for a spot in the starting XI, and it hurt me to take sides.
But it was then that I realized: I wanted to take sides. I didn’t want both Insigne and Mertens in the starting XI, as adorable and loveable, as tricky and as pacy, as they both are. I wanted José Callejón. And I needed Marek Hamšík.
Yes, I’ll admit it. My very favorite player? Not particularly fast. Not particularly fancy with the footwork. And not tiny in any way.
I’ve adored Marek for years and years, but as my eyes started to move over those of shorter stature, my commitment to him only grew. A full article could be written (and let’s face it, one likely will be) on his many traits and talents, but for now let’s keep it to this: he has a sexy mind. He’s constantly thinking, his brain a few plays in front of his feet, and it’s his smarts that help him orchestrate the Napoli attack.
But, just as it is with most people, the mind isn’t often what we notice most about footballers. The flashy catches the eye. The pace attracts attention. Screamers from distance certainly don’t hurt, either.
Oftentimes these tiny men do have big qualities, though. Perhaps not Barry Bannan, but others. There’s a reason that clubs are giving more chances to players without the typical athlete’s physique, and no, it’s not because they’ve read Moneyball. Smaller players tend to have more control over their bodies, so while it may look as though they’ll be trampled on by enormous centerbacks, it’s also likely they’ll manage to change direction and dart out of the way. From there they can slip into a pocket of space, getting in a shot or the perfect pass. And if they commit a foul along the way, they’re much less likely to hear the whistle, because their tininess makes them look harmless!
They say we spend a lifetime looking to replicate our first love. I thought I’d proved them wrong, what with my love for the lazy (Adem Ljajić), the lanky (Patrick Herrmann) and the letdowns (Stevan Jovetić). Then came the Red Star match and the discovery of Plavšić, and I realized I’d never truly let go. No matter what league pops up on my TV, I’ll find a small reason to stay tuned, like the time Aldo Kalulu came on for a Lyon match I’d randomly tuned into. They don’t even need to be ridiculously small: I’m utterly overjoyed by Thorgan Hazard’s recent run of form at Borussia Mönchengladbach. Loving Neymar is my dirty little not-so-secret. I’ll even sometimes watch Toronto FC highlights, just to get a glimpse of Sebastian Giovinco – though I much prefered him in that glorious 2011-12 Parma season, before the club completely overstretched itself and had to sell not just its players but the seats in its stadium.
And, of course, Alexis Sánchez, who’s still making me turn on the TV, despite feeling utterly unmoved by Arsenal. He may not be having the best of seasons, but the man still knows how to move, and my eye is constantly drawn to his small shape.
In short: size really does matter.