Imagine the game deprived of Lionel Messi. Such a thought would frighten most football fans, but had Barcelona not, as has been well-documented, used growth hormones, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner may not have ever graced the world stage.
And he’s not the only one.
Sometimes a player is deemed simply not good enough to make the step up from promising young player to first-team regular, but there are occasions when other factors hold a player back.
‘Too small to make it’ is a phrase that has no doubt been uttered by football coaches and managers plenty down the years, particularly in England where the game – more than most other leagues – relies on players possessing strong physical attributes.
A lot of players, despite possessing exceptional technique, have been cast aside on account of their diminutive size, simply being written off even before their fledgling careers have got going.
To some, being told they are too small to play football is a big enough deterrent to turn them away from the game entirely, but there are others who use those words as extra motivation in their quest to become elite players.
Here are eight stars who reached the top of the game after being told they were too small to cut it.
English clubs aren’t the only ones guilty of turning down talent prematurely. Just across the channel, French clubs have done likewise, including a certain Atletico Madrid forward.
After impressing as a youngster for his local club UF Mâcon, Antoine Griezmann was invited to numerous trials with professional French clubs – including Montpellier – but despite his obvious talent, he was always deemed too small and too slight to make the grade.
Eventually, aged 13, Griezmann got his big break when he was invited to train with Spanish top-flight side Real Sociedad for a fortnight and he signed a youth contract soon after.
The scout who took a punt on Griezmann, Eric Olhatz, said: “The first time I saw him my attention was drawn to the technique he had, the fluidity of his technique. He was very short but his technique was marvellous.”
Riyad Mahrez’s route to the top was far from straightforward. After being shunned by some of French football’s leading clubs for his slight frame, the 2015/16 Premier League Player of the Year was forced to start out his career in the French lower leagues.
Mohamed Coulibaly, the sporting director of AAS Sarcelles where Mahrez made his name, said (via the Daily Mail): “He was very small, very frail. And he wasn’t quick, he was slow, so it was hard for him.”
Despite his shortcomings physically, Mahrez blossomed into an extremely effective attacking midfielder due to his immense technical skills leading to moves up the footballing pyramid to Quimper and then Le Havre, prior to his move to Leicester in January 2014.
It seems crazy to think that Roy Keane – a player noted for his physicality and aggressiveness on the pitch – was deemed ‘too small’ by Brighton & Hove Albion while he was trying to secure a move to an English club.
Keane, who started his career with Cobh Ramblers in County Cork, wrote to every single English football league club asking for a trial and was eventually snapped up by Nottingham Forest’s manager Brian Clough in 1990.
Following three productive seasons in the Midlands, Keane was transferred to Manchester United for a then record British fee of £3.75m. It would be fair to say he repaid that sum as he enjoyed 12 golden years with the club before his acrimonious departure in 2005.
During Manchester United’s period of sustained dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson’s management, Keane was regularly partnered in central midfield by Paul Scholes, another player for whom there were doubts about his size.
Ferguson admitted as much after he had retired, saying (via ESPN): “I was very aware that the first time I clapped eyes on Paul Scholes, I thought: ‘too small’.”
Thankfully for Scholes (and English football as a whole) though, Ferguson was sufficiently impressed by his technique to take a punt on the youngster, integrating him into the first-team in 1992 where he remained for 21 years.
These days Luke Shaw stands at 6’1 and is built like a Rugby Union back, but that hasn’t always been the case.
When Shaw was just eight years old he was turned down by his boyhood club Chelsea, after excelling at a development centre in Guildford, and Southampton quickly offered him a place instead.
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“Yeah, I was let go because of my height. I think it was only when I was about 14 or 15 I got taller and bigger,” Shaw commented in 2014 (via BBC Sport). “I can’t remember much of being released. But I remember the first day of my trial at Southampton – I got a phone call straight away to say they wanted to take me on.”
When Shaw later established himself as a regular for the Saints as a 17-year-old, the Blues were linked with a multi-million-pound move for the left-back only to miss out on his signature to Manchester United.
Jamie Vardy’s roundabout route to Premier League champion and England international has been well-documented but less so is that his departure from Sheffield Wednesday aged 16 was due to him being too small.
Speaking during his remarkable 2015-16 season, Vardy said (via the Daily Mirror): “Too small. That was the reason I was told, yeah. Too small, not ready for the physicality of scholarship football.”
Like so many players released at the age of 16, Vardy plummeted down the leagues, turning out for Stocksbridge Park Steels for seven years before gradually clawing his way up the football pyramid at Halifax Town, Fleetwood Town and Leicester.
How the Owls could do with a player of Vardy’s ilk now.
Avert your eyes Manchester City fans, Manchester United’s latest golden boy Marcus Rashford could have been donning sky blue instead of red had he not been dismissed due to his size.
The Citizens club secretary Ron Jamieson said: “He [Rashford’s brother Dwayne] was touting him to Manchester City at the time but the recruitment officer there did not fancy him because he was a bit on the small side and didn’t pick him up.”
That decision certainly came back to haunt City in the 2015/16 season when Rashford curled home the winning goal for the Red Devils in a 1-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium.
We need to talk about Marcus Rashford's technique…
Anyone else in love with the way he strikes the ball? 😍🤤 pic.twitter.com/lp7GJ1p6m6
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 7, 2019
For a player being dubbed ‘the next Cristiano Ronaldo’ to be considered too small for football seems absurd but that was certainly the case for Benfica star Joao Felix.
He started his career playing youth football with Porto but was released in 2015 after being told he was ‘too skinny’ (via Ojogo).
He was snapped up by their rivals and has not looked back since. The 19-year-old is now being mentioned alongside some of the most sought after names in the game and could be the next Portuguese prodigy to make a big money move to a European giant.
Jose Delgado, a journalist at Portuguese newspaper A Bola, is hoping he will stay on their shores for one more season but, given his talent, thinks it might be too much to ask.
“Since Ronaldo we have not had a player so exciting and young like him until now,” he told BBC Sport.