A selection of eight of the best short goalkeepers of all time
Jorge Campos – 1.68m
One of the most iconic goalkeepers ever, with his unique style and multi-coloured shirts influenced by the beaches of Acapulco, Campos had revolutionary influence on football. He proved that a lack of height can be overcome if you have great reflexes and read the game excellently.
His performances for Mexico at the World Cup tournaments in 1994 and 1998 were outstanding and his contribution to winning the Confederations Cup in 1999 was immense. He is the country's most capped keeper with 130 matches between 1991 and 2004. And yet ‘El Brody’, as Campos was affectionately known, only started his career at the age of 22 and had to overcome significant scepticism.
Growing up by the sea, Campos surfed a lot and rode horses, aspiring to become a vet. His father played amateur football and soon decided to take his son with him. Since the kid was the smallest in the team, they bizarrely decided to put him between the posts, believing that the ball wouldn't hit him there because they simply didn't let the opposition anywhere near the goal. That wasn’t always the case, though, and the youngster showed remarkable ability. He liked playing in attack as well and that versatility proved crucial in his professional career.
When Campos was 17, his talents were spotted by the former international midfielder Luis ‘El Chino’ Estrada, who told him that he had the ability to become a first-division footballer. Campos didn't really believe him, but went to trials with Pumas against the wishes of his father when invited by the youth coach Miguel Mejía Barón. Eventually, he returned home and a short spell at Cruz Azul a year later didn't work out either, because the club thought he was too short to succeed. A second attempt with Pumas went much better and Mejía Barón – by then the first team coach – gave Campos his debut in December 1988 when Adolfo Ríos was injured.
Ríos remained first choice, however, and Campos grew tired of waiting on the bench. He asked the coach to play as a striker. During the 1989-90 season, the speedy and tricky forward formed a phenomenal partnership with Luis García and was the team's top scorer with 24 goals in all competitions. Campos loved every minute of it and wanted to continue, but Mejía Barón still saw him as a keeper. Ríos was sold to Veracruz in 1990 and Campos agreed to return to his original position after receiving a promise that he would still be allowed to play up front every now and then.
That’s exactly what he did. Eccentric and easy-going, Campos loved to wear the number 9 when in goal and number 1 as an attacker. He understood strikers better than any other goalkeeper and that helped him outwit opponents. El Brody could predict how the forward would react to his actions – he would imitate diving to the left and then save the ball that was hit to his right. Naturally, he also participated in building the play from the back and Pumas effectively had 11 outfield players on the pitch.
His short frame initially led to doubts and the TV commentator Jorge Ventura once called him porterito (a diminutive of the Spanish word for goalkeeper). However, Campos himself never felt that his lack of height was a disadvantage: winning the championship in his first full season between the posts in 1990-91 proved a point to the doubters. Team photos taken ahead of games appeared a much more significant problem for him, because he didn't like to be the shortest guy in the picture. True to his humorous nature, El Brody decided to stand on the ball to be a few inches taller and that soon became a famous habit.
The ritual worked well at the 1994 World Cup when – led by Mejía Barón – Mexico finished top of their group and only lost to Bulgaria on penalties in the second round. Campos was sensational throughout and even saved Krasimir Balakov's effort in the shoot-out. Campos's Mexico were unlucky again in 1998 when Germany came back from behind to beat them in the second round, but his biggest regret was probably that he didn't get to play as a striker on the biggest stage.
Óscar Pérez – 1.72m
Campos was in the national team squad at the 2002 World Cup as well, but he had to sit on the bench during that tournament as another great short keeper took his place between the posts. Óscar Pérez has been hugely popular in Mexico for more than two decades, as he was still playing brilliantly in the 2016-17 season at the age of 44. He is the oldest goalkeeper to have won the championship title in Mexico, contributing massively to Pachuca’s triumph in 2016. And yet, he too had to overcome significant doubts at the beginning of his career due to lack of height.
Ironically, the man who didn't believe in him was a former short goalkeeper himself. Enrique Meza was an idol between the posts at Cruz Azul in the 70s, despite standing at just 1.78m. Upon becoming a coach, though, he tended to choose much taller keepers and nearly threw the youngster out of the team in 1993.
For Pérez, that could have been a disaster. Óscar had loved playing in goal since his childhood, because that was a different type of job – and he preferred to be different. His talent was evident when he represented the small Potros de Hierro outfit, but the major clubs were reluctant to gamble on him. Pérez was shown the door after trials at Necaxa and Toluca and it was extremely important for him to prove his point at Cruz Azul.
He was desperate when Meza discarded him because of his stature, but luck was on his side. The coach's son, who happened to be at the training session, persuaded his father to give Pérez a chance because of his agility and those proved inspirational words. Meza has acknowledged his mistake on numerous occasions in retrospect and stated how proud he is to have worked with one of Mexico's greatest keepers.
Pérez was almost immediately nicknamed ‘el Conejo’ (the Rabbit) thanks to his extraordinary jumping skills – he was able to leap and hit the crossbar with his foot in practice. Four months after joining the squad, he displaced the tall Uruguayan keeper Robert Siboldi and went on to represent Cruz Azul for 15 years, playing an important part in winning the club's last championship title in 1997. After falling out with the Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarián in 2008, he chose to leave and starred for Tigres, Chiapas, Necaxa, San Luis and Pachuca.
"My career has never been easy, and everything I had achieved is down to hard work, but I never thought that lack of height was a problem," Pérez said. In fact, he even scored a famous goal with his head, netting the winner for Cruz Azul against Atlante from a corner kick in 2006. He scored with a great curling shot for the national Under-23 team against South Korea in 1996 as well. Pérez might not have been as prolific as Campos, but he will be remembered as a legend in his own right.
František Plánička – 1.72m
Plánička is the greatest legend in the history of Slavia Prague. He took part in 969 matches for the club, winning 742 of them. It is impossible to overestimate his contribution to eight league titles and nobody could even come close to his status for decades. It is ironic, therefore, that he might have represented bitter city rivals Sparta. That was his aspiration as he grew up, but Sparta simply refused to give him a chance because he was too short.
Height was not as important for goalkeepers almost a century ago as it is now, but that still was a significant aspect to consider. In 1922, the 18-year-old goalkeeper was about to make the big move from Bubeneč, but the tiny club delayed his transfer for several months and Plánička could only train with Sparta during that period. Eventually, he was discarded.
"Some officials didn't like my short figure,” he explained. “Those experts thought that it was simply unthinkable for a famous team like Sparta to gamble on an unknown youngster whose failure was certain because he was not tall enough. They didn't keep their views secret and openly told that my training sessions with them were a waste of time.” He was forced to return to Bubeneč, but left for Slavia a year later.
Not everything was straightforward in the beginning and the veteran keeper Josef Štaplík was mostly preferred to Plánička who was sent to the reserves. "I decided to improve my diving as fast as I could,” he explained in Karel Štorkán’s biography of him. “I tried to jump as high as possible, extending my short figure. That's how I gained confidence. I soon discovered that not only strong legs are needed, but also spontaneous reaction of the body as a whole. It is important to control your muscles."
While in the youth team, František was advised to have still rings installed in the door frames at home and practise stretching frequently during the day. Plánička worked on his agility, believing that he would be able to prove himself one day. He was right. By 1926, he was a stalwart at Slavia and the national team came calling. That was the start of a magnificent career that took him to two World Cups.
Plánička was especially impressive in 1934, making world class saves in the semi-finals against Germany as Czechoslovakia won 3-1. He was in inspired form in the final as well, getting close to lifting the trophy as captain. The hosts took a late lead against Italy and the magnificent keeper prevented Italy from scoring until nine minutes from time. Sadly for the Czechoslovaks, Raimundo Orsi equalised and Angelo Schiavio netted the winner in extra-time.
Plánička considered retiring in 1937, but was persuaded to stay on for one more year and thus captained the national team in the 1938 World Cup in France, adding another chapter to the legendary story. Fearless as always, Plánička dived to block José Perácio's shot in the quarter-final against Brazil and suffered a broken arm. Despite the pain, the keeper stayed on the pitch and carried on even in extra-time without conceding a goal. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, and that was Plánička's final appearance. Naturally, he didn't feature in the replay as Brazil won 2-1.
Plánička was nicknamed the ‘Cat of Prague’ in the foreign press for his amazing reflexes, but never in his homeland. He represented Czechoslovakia 73 times, making him the fourth most-capped player in the united country's history. Taking the Czech Republic national team into account, among goalkeepers, only Petr Čech has surpassed him, with 124 caps. Čech stands at 1.96m.
Gianpiero Combi – 1.74m
The most famous photo from the 1934 World Cup final is that of the two goalkeepers shaking hands before the kick-off. This still remains the only final in which both captains were keepers and their height was remarkably similar. Combi was just 2cm taller than Plánička and eventually he was the man who lifted the trophy after a great display between the posts.
Their story is quite similar as well. Combi initially dreamed of playing for Torino, but was discarded by the club because he was considered too short and fragile. He thus joined the city rivals Juventus and went on to become their greatest keeper before Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon overtook him. Thanks to Combi, who formed a very successful partnership with his defenders Umberto Caligaris and Virginio Rosetta, Juve won five championship titles and became a major force in Italian football.
Like Plánička, Combi had to work hard on his reflexes and agility to compensate for lack of height. He trained for hours every day, alone in his backyard, kicking the ball against the wall and then jumping to catch it. Eventually, that paid off. He was by far the best shot stopper in Italy in his era, nicknamed both ‘Uomo di Gomma’, the Rubber Man, and ‘Fusetta’, the Fireball.
Like Plánička, he knew all about playing injured. There were games when he stayed on the pitch with a broken nose, fingers, wrists, ribs and even tailbone. His willpower was incredible and the desire to play too strong even for his family to overcome. The Combis ran a successful liquor business and at one point wanted Giampiero to move to the United States but football always came first for him.
Combi was known for his intelligence too. He was always trying to outwit attackers, the best example of which came when he produced a brilliant double save from Bologna’s superstar Angelo Schiavio – a gentleman who immediately congratulated him. It was somewhat symbolic that Schiavio was the man who scored the historic winner in the World Cup final and even more symbolic that Vittorio Pozzo, who had rejected him at Torino, was the coach.
Oddly, Combi hadn’t even intended to take part in the tournament. He considered retiring at the beginning of the year, with the Ambrosiana-Inter star Carlo Ceresoli taking his place in the national team. But when Ceresoli broke his arm just twelve days before the start, Pozzo recalled the veteran and Combi worked tirelessly to be in top shape. He was especially important when keeping a clean sheet in the semi-final against the outstanding Austria team led by the majestic Matthias Sindelar.
Combi stopped playing that year at the age of just 31, far younger than Zoff and Buffon, but – unlike his great successors – he was a one-club man. It could have been different if Torino hadn't been scared off by his frame.
René Higuita – 1.76m
Mention the name of Higuita, and two images immediately come to mind. The first is him trying to dribble past Roger Milla near the halfway line at the 1990 World Cup. The Cameroonian veteran robbed the keeper of the ball, scored into the empty net and knocked Colombia out of the tournament. The second is the legendary scorpion kick at Wembley in a friendly against England in 1995. Both cases sealed René's image as the ultimate showman, but that is not necessarily the whole story.
“People often didn't understand René,” Francisco Maturana told Carl Worswick in the interview published in Issue Twenty Two of The Blizzard: "They thought he was a show-off or somebody who acted irresponsibly, but they forget how great a goalkeeper he was. He was a beast, his reflexes were extraordinary, and for me he is the best Colombian keeper of all time alongside Óscar Córdoba… With Higuita, we had 11 outfield players against teams than only had 10.”
Deep inside, Higuita was indeed both an outfield player and a goalkeeper at the same time. Tricky with the ball, bold and imaginative, he naturally started as a striker in his childhood and it was difficult to think of someone so short standing between the posts. And yet, when their keeper didn't appear for a youth tournament in Medellín, the school coach decided to try out René because there were no better options. The result was outstanding and Millonarios scouts didn't hesitate to offer the kid a trial.
Higuita had a decent start at the Bogota club, but his heart had always belonged to Atlético Nacional and he returned to his home town in 1986. A year later, Maturana was named coach, taking over at the national team too, and the great partnership had started. The mentor encouraged Higuita's eccentric style and the keeper regularly practised goalscoring in training, especially taking penalties and free-kicks.
As for his main duties, René actually considered his height an advantage. "I met many tall goalkeepers whose reactions were rather slow,” he said. “My height allowed me to be agile and save the low shots better than others. Those low balls are always the most dangerous and I was closer to them compared to my rivals.”
Stunning instincts made Higuita a superb penalty-saver and those skills proved crucial as Atlético Nacional won the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 1989. They lost 2-0 to Olimpia in Asunción, but won by the same score at home in the return leg. The penalty shoot-out was outrageously dramatic. Higuita scored himself and produced no fewer than four saves – all of them crucial, because the Colombians missed four attempts themselves.
Overall, Higuita scored 51 goals in his career, but the stats at the other end were equally impressive and he conceded just 54 goals in 68 games for Colombia. Height was never a problem for him and that is the right way to see his legacy. The scorpion kick was just a joke.
Gyula Grosics – 1.78m
Grosics's career began in extraordinary – almost surreal – circumstances when he was just 14. Gyula, who grew up in a very religious Catholic family, wanted to become a priest and on a certain Sunday in 1940 was supposed to go to church and join the school. On the way there, he decided to watch a football game between Dorog, his hometown club, and Komárom.
It turned out that the visitors had no goalkeepers left – neither had been released by the army. The coach spotted Grosics and told him, "You are going to play for us." And so the kid stood in goal and performed brilliantly in a 2-1 win. "I didn't know what to do and just jumped instinctively at the ball," he later recalled. His father slapped him for missing church and didn't believe that his son had actually played as a goalkeeper in a real game between adults, but the news soon spread and the legend was born.
After such a bizarre debut, it is hardly surprising that Grosics wasn't too concerned by his lack of height. If he could excel as a teenager, he was most certainly capable of doing a good job as a grown man, even though he was shorter than other keepers. In the beginning, Gyula wasn't particularly excited about his role. "I thought that the strikers receive all the plaudits for scoring goals and keepers are only blamed for conceding them," he said. However, he changed his mind when he fully understood his talent and gradually rose to fame after the war ended.
The Hungarians claim that Grosics was the first goalkeeper to play in a black shirt, because he wanted to look like a priest. He was a pioneer on another – much more important – front as well, arguably becoming the world's first "sweeper keeper". Grosics liked to play far from goal and pundits even stated that he acted as a fourth defender, especially for the national team that is remembered as one of the greatest in history.
The visionary coach Gusztáv Sebes built the squad around a core from the all-conquering Honvéd. Grosics himself joined the club in 1950, despite being captured on his attempt to flee the country a year previously and put under house arrest. Even the government knew that his skills were simply too good to be ignored and it can be said that Grosics changed the way the goalkeeping job was perceived.
England witnessed his unusual style in November 1953, when Hungary thrashed them 6-3 at Wembley. Grosics might have conceded three goals and even asked to be substituted with nine minutes remaining because of an injury some suggest wasn’t particularly serious, but he is mostly remembered for rushing out of his box and reaching the ball ahead of his opponents.
His reflexes were good on the line as well, and along with his preferred colour of jersey, that earned him the nickname of ‘Fekete Párduc’, the Black Panther. His height was seemingly not a problem as he dived to save shots and commanded the penalty area. However, he committed at least one serious mistake in his career, being guilty of mishandling a corner 18 minutes into the 1954 World Cup final.
Hungary led 2-1 at the time and were expected to win easily, but things were never the same after Helmut Rahn equalised – and the same player scored the late winner to deny the Mighty Magyars the title and produce what is remembered as the Miracle of Bern. Could history have been different if Grosics were a little taller? Perhaps.
Ladislao Mazurkiewicz – 1.79m
Mazurkiewicz, arguably the greatest South American goalkeeper of all time, dreamed when he was a child of playing in midfield. That was his aim when he had trials with the tiny Racing Club de Montevideo at the age of 15, but fate decided differently. The team’s goalkeeper had to rush to the dentist with acute toothache and Mazurkiewicz was tried out between the posts in training. He stopped six penalties out of ten.
The following day, Racing sent an agent to the shop where Mazurkiewicz worked to offer him a contract. The youngster initially refused, claiming he was an outfield player, but those close to him – especially his elder brothers – persuaded him to change his mind.
As the youngest boy in the family, he was already known as ‘El Chiquito’, the Little One, and the nickname stuck to him as a goalkeeper because of his small frame. It soon became evident that it didn't affect his performances. Mazurkiewicz loved playing basketball as a kid and the hobby helped him to develop agility and jumping abilities. He made such a remarkable impression in his first games for Racing that Peñarol, Uruguay's biggest club, immediately wanted to sign him.
The compliment was especially remarkable because the man who singled out El Chiquito as the future of Peñarol was none other than Roque Máspoli, the goalkeeper who won the World Cup in 1950. Initially, Mazurkiewicz was supposed to be the third choice, but his progress under Máspoli's guidance was rapid and within months the coach decided to gamble on the 20-year-old and give him the toughest debut imaginable.
It happened in the Copa Libertadores semi-final against the heavy favourites Santos in March 1965. The Brazilians won 5-4 at home, the Uruguayans came back with a 3-2 win in Montevideo and a play-off was needed on neutral ground in Buenos Aires. Máspoli was unsatisfied with Luis Maidana's form in the first two matches, and Mazurkiewicz came in for the third. "Imagine that you are still playing for Racing and stay calm," his manager told him. The result was sensational. Pelé scored the first goal El Chiquito conceded in his new career, but the keeper managed to stop everything else Santos threw at him and Peñarol won 2-1 in extra time.
He became irreplaceable, made his debut for the national team a few months later, helped Peñarol to win Copa Libertadores in 1966 and starred at the World Cup in England immediately afterwards, joking with the Queen before the goalless draw against the hosts in the opening fixture. "You're like something out of a painting, ma'am,” he told her in Spanish. “But we are going to win today!"
Boundless self-confidence was crucial for Mazurkiewicz. When asked about his lack of height, he always claimed, "With the right positioning, a goalkeeper can make himself look bigger for the striker." When facing an attacker, he always tried to push him to the worst possible angle. He knew what was needed and followed his instincts. Such a gamble famously backfired when Pelé dummied his way past him in the 1970 World Cup semi-finals before missing an open goal, but more often than not Mazurkiewicz's style simply frightened his opponents.
In October 1966, he kept a clean sheet twice in the Intercontinental Cup against Real Madrid, as Peñarol won both legs 2-0. In 1967, he didn't concede a goal for 987 minutes in the Uruguayan league, but didn't like to take the plaudits for the remarkable achievement, saying, "Football is a team game, and all the players deserve credit." Mazurkiewicz might not have been the tallest of keepers, but he stood way above the rest as a person.
Jan Jongbloed – 1.79m
"I had never doubted myself because of my height,” Jan Jongbloed told The Blizzard. “If you do, you should quit football." One thing is certain – the last thing the Dutch keeper thought about was hanging up his boots. Jongbloed played until he was 45 and only retired after suffering a heart attack on the pitch. He still holds a record of 717 Eredivisie matches which is unlikely to be broken and that is just one aspect of a highly unusual career.
Jongbloed never played for Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven, but the list of his remarkable achievements includes winning the championship title with newly promoted DWS Amsterdam in 1964. It is even stranger that he made his national team debut in September 1962 when DWS were in the second division, but was subsequently absent from the squad for almost 12 years, before getting a sensational recall just before the 1974 World Cup.
The national coach Rinus Michels turned to the 34-year-old who played for unfashionable FC Amsterdam because the PSV keeper Jan van Beveren was injured – although the full story is more complicated. Van Beveren didn't get along with Johan Cruyff, while Jongbloed was the captain's friend. In addition, his style suited the Total Football philosophy, because Jongbloed was very good with his feet, liked to act as a sweeper and mostly stood outside of his box when his team was in possession.
"I played as a left winger at the beginning,” he said, “and only became a keeper at the age of 16. That is why my technical skills were pretty good and that was of huge importance for our team. Michels had full confidence in me. Van Beveren was much taller and naturally I would have liked to be as tall as him – but I wasn't. Therefore, I tried to compensate for it with other qualities. If you have long arms, handle the ball well and have jumping abilities, you can be a good goalkeeper. You should time your jump correctly, stretch your arms and then you have an advantage over any striker. Height doesn't really matter in my opinion."
Michels's choice in 1974 proved to be inspired, as Jongbloed only conceded once in six matches on the way to the final and even that was an own goal by Ruud Krol. Against West Germany, he was beaten by a Paul Breitner penalty and a trademark Gerd Müller effort, but couldn't be blamed.
So impressive was the keeper's contribution to the possession play that Ajax wanted to sign him after the tournament despite his age. However, Jongbloed refused because moving to a top club meant that he would have to sacrifice his weekly fishing day and that was out of question. Ajax acquired Twente's Piet Schrijvers instead, while Jongbloed remained at FC Amsterdam until 1977 and went to the 1978 World Cup a Roda player.
Ernst Happel, the wily Austrian who coached the Dutch at the tournament, had less faith in Jongbloed than Michels had and chose to replace him with Schrijvers after the 3-2 defeat at the hands of Scotland. And yet, luck was on Jongbloed's side once again as the Ajax star was injured against Italy and the veteran got to play in his second final. The 3-1 extra-time defeat by Argentina was his last international appearance: half of his 24 caps were earned at World Cups.
He continued to live in Amsterdam while playing for Roda in Kerkrade, 140 miles to the south, and spent the last four years of his career with Go Ahead Eagles from Deventer. Those were modest clubs as well and while height was never a problem Jongbloed believes he was – and still is – underrated by pundits in his country.