Off The Ball

Goalkeepers who belied their size

Jorge Campos goalkeeper of Mexico signals to his defenders during the 1994 World Cup match against Italy
© Getty Images

Many believe size matters when it comes to a goalkeeper, and it is hardly rare for an aspiring youngster to get overlooked because he doesn't tower over his opponents. However, history tells us that height isn’t everything, with FIFA World Cups™ being won by many a smaller No1. FIFA.comtakes a look back at some of the outstanding keepers who measured under 6ft.

Among them is Jorge Campos, who, with 130 caps to his name, sits fourth on Mexico's list of all-time appearances. He won back-to-back CONCACAF Gold Cups in 1993 and 1996, conceding just two goals in the former and zero in the latter, and also claimed the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1999.

Perhaps best remembered for his flamboyant shirts at USA 1994 and France 1998, the 5ft 8ins shot-stopper began his career up front, scoring 14 times in his first full season, before repositioning himself between the sticks to help Pumas to the 1990/91 Mexican title. Not that Campos's striking spirit ended, as he was thereafter sent outfield as part of substitutions or seen dashing forward while still the designated keeper, causing havoc for both defences.

Goalkeepers are often remembered for the goals that don’t go in, but none so in the way Ladislao Mazurkiewicz is, playing a role in the greatest goal that almost was. A Uruguayan of Polish decent, the moment came when the 5ft 10in keeper was playing in the Mexico 1970 semi-finals. As La Celeste faced Brazil in Mexico City, Pele ran to latch on to a Tostao pass, and as Mazurkiewicz advanced, O Rei let the ball run past them both before rounding the stranded Uruguayan to fire back across goal, narrowly missing.

However this single event unfairly defined a fantastic goalkeeper’s career. A superbly athletic shot-stopper with magnetic hands who wrote his name in Penarol’s history, winning five league titles during two spells at the side, including back-to-back national championships. The fact he sits 12th on the International Federation of Football History and Statistics’ (IFFHS) goalkeeper of the century standings says it all.

Italian world champion
Being regarded as Italy’s third-best goalkeeper, behind Dino Zoff and Walter Zenga, is a huge accolade for anyone, but with Giampiero Combi only measuring 5ft 8in he can take it with particular pride. He shone as the goalkeeper who took Italy to their maiden FIFA World Cup title in 1934.

In fine form throughout the tournament, Combi captained the side to glory and collected a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympics, but his records at club level are similarly notable. Not only does he hold the Serie A record for the longest run without conceding at 934 minutes, he also helped Juventus, his only club, win five Scudetti, including four successive ones between 1930 and '34.

The smallest member of this list is also arguably the best. Frantisek Planicka reached his pinnacle during numerous stirring performances at the 1934 FIFA World Cup with Czechoslovakia, where he faced off opposite Combi. Sitting at ninth in the IFFHS goalkeeper of the century poll, to be so well revered at just 5ft 7in is a wonderful achievement.

In only the second edition of the FIFA World Cup, Planicka was in sensational form throughout before ultimately losing 2-1 to Italy in the final. On that defeat he said: “Even though we lost, we returned home as heroes. We travelled back by train and there were thousands of fans applauding us at every station.”

He showed his commitment to his national side four years later as, during one of his 76 caps in the quarter-final against Brazil, then captain Planicka battled through to a 1-1 extra-time draw, known as ‘the Battle of Bordeaux’, despite spending much of the game with a broken arm. He had a reputation for this, having soldiered on through a semi-final of the Eastern European Mitropa Cup in 1932 with Slavia Prague having been hit in the head by rock thrown from the crowd.

As keeper for the great Mighty Magyars side of the 1950s, Gyula Grosics would have gone down in Hungarian football history just for being on the pitch with the likes of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and Jozsef Bozsik. However, the 5ft 10in stopper, nicknamed the Black Panther, was a talent in his own right. Not only did he help the side to four years and 33 games without defeat, he was also good with his feet, being credited with helping create the sweeper-keeper role, playing the ball out from the back.

However, he will always be part of footballing folklore thanks to his exploits in that team’s greatest achievements. First they defied the status quo by beating England 6-3 at Wembley, and then he helped take the Golden Team to the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final, missing out on the title courtesy of a 3-2 defeat by West Germany.

Argentine great
Arguably Argentina’s greatest-ever goalkeeper, Ubaldo Fillol played for over two decades between the sticks at club level and more than half of that period as part of the national team set-up. The tallest of this selection at 5ft 11in, but still dwarfed by many opponents, he played in three FIFA World Cups, getting his hands on the Trophy in 1978. Fillol was voted the goalkeeper of that tournament having kept clean sheets in all three of Argentina's second-round group matches and made a brilliant penalty save against Poland.

He began his career at 19 with Quilmes, but started to stand out during a two-year spell at Racing Club, where at the age of 21 he saved six spot-kicks in a season - a league record - and was snapped up by River Plate. He went on to play his way into the hearts of Los Millonarios’ fans during an 11-year spell, encompassing more than 350 games. Fillol won seven titles - including three national championships - with River and helped end an 18-year barren spell for the club in the process.

An eccentric in every sense of the word, Rene Higuita was able to command his area despite being just 5ft 9in. Known as 'El Loco' (The Crazy One), his most memorable moment will always be his scorpion kick against England, clearing the ball off the line with his heels while airborne. It was with Colombia where his legacy stands tallest, claiming 68 caps and eight goals, mostly from free-kicks. He was part of the side that reached the Round of 16 at Italy 1990, but was hugely at fault for their exit, losing the ball on the halfway line to Roger Milla of Cameroon, who subsequently scored. 

At club level his finest achievement was undoubtedly winning the Copa Libertadores in 1989 with Atletico National, triumphing on penalties over Olimpia of Paraguay.

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