Height Does Matter: Why Some Countries Underperform in Football

Brazil's World Cup stadiums are buzzing with excitement and fans all over the globe are glued to the TV for heart-stopping matches to see who will take home the 2014 trophy. CEU Associate Professor of Public Policy Achim Kemmerling took a look at how player height affects a team's success. For his blog, he produced charts in which he linked average national body height with the performance of the respective national teams.

Football is a democratic sport. This is perhaps one of its secrets as a global success story. Nonetheless, size, or tallness, more precisely, does matter. Kristof Van Hout is reportedly the tallest professional football player in the world with a body height of 6’10” (208 cm). The goalkeeper currently plies his trade for K.V. Kortrijk in the Belgian Pro League after moving from better-known Standard Liege. Tallness is not always important, but in some positions it is crucial. Goalkeepers and central backs are perhaps those positions where it matters most (yes, I do know that Iker Casillas is “only” 185cm). Yet, the “arms race” in body height might also make it necessary for certain strikers to be tall, especially for those teams that like “hoofing” the ball.

Indeed, studies have found tallness to matter, even if not always in ways expected. Some studies have found that taller players are more likely to get booked. Yet, even if it is no general rule, very often, the physically stronger teams win (in the data I collected it seems to increase the odds of winning quite considerably). For example, the Brazilian male team who won the world cup in 1994 was incidentally also the tallest team. Brazil is also a good example to show why other countries persistently “underperform.” There are many reasons why certain nations are less successful in football. Soccernomics mentions factors such as size of the population or GDP per capita. Past successes might also play a role, although this just shifts the puzzle to the past. But for similar levels of GDP or population, these explanations don’t bite. In these cases, physique might make the difference.

Read the complete entry on Kemmerling's blog.