Celebrating the career of Élton, the world’s shortest professional footballer

In Depth

Élton José Xavier Gomes has played professional football for 16 years, scoring bags of goals for clubs across three different continents. He’s as tall as Ariana Grande.

Everyone knows the anecdote about Lionel Messi’s childhood.

Aged eight, the Argentinian youngster demonstrated a prodigious level of talent, impressing scouts with his mesmeric dribbling skills.

But there was a big – or rather, small – stumbling block in the way of his development: doctors had told him that, due to complex hormonal problems, he would stop growing at the minuscule height of 4ft 7in.

Despite his immense level of skill, that diagnosis was a dealbreaker for clubs, including Buenos Aires giants River Plate, who, unable and unwilling to pay for the youngster’s hormone medication, ultimately pulled out of a deal for him.

Messi’s career was in jeopardy before it had even begun.

Fortunately, he would eventually be saved by Barcelona, who were happy to invest in his talent by paying for his medical treatment.

It worked, too: the youngster eventually grew to 5ft 7in, a whole foot taller than expected, and became one of the greatest footballers of all time.

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READ: 17 of the best quotes on Lionel Messi: ‘Life with Leo is prettier’

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To some extent, however, those unsupportive River Plate coaches have been vindicated.

Had Messi stopped growing at 4ft 7in, as was expected, he would surely not have become a professional footballer.

In Argentina, Messi’s country of birth, the average height for an adult male is 5ft 8.5in. Now, at just an inch and a half below that average, Messi can easily compensate for his size with ludicrous talent. But at more than a foot below average? No player is that skillful.

The numbers back up the hypothesis. According to Transfermarkt, there are currently no male professional footballers shorter than 5ft. Even Diego Maradona, widely cited as an example of how skill can trump height and physicality, stands at a relatively colossal 5ft 5in.

Tiny dancer

No current professional male footballer is less than 5ft tall, but one comes closer than all others.

That player is Élton, a Brazilian attacking midfielder born in the state of Alagoas on the Atlantic coast.

At 5ft 1in, Élton is a whole four inches shorter than Maradona and just a hair’s breadth taller than petite pop star Ariana Grande. His namesake, the notably squat singer and pianist Elton John, is five inches taller than him.

 

Élton isn’t a household name, but his achievements suggest he should be.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, Élton would be below the average height in an Under-14s match, putting him at a disadvantage even among children.

Yet the playmaker has carved out a long career in senior professional football that has taken him from Brazil to Romania, to various countries in the Middle East, back to Brazil and then back to the Middle East again.

It all started at Corinthians in 2004, with whom Élton stayed for three years, making a handful of appearances.

Raised a Palmeiras fan, Élton later admitted the amazing support at Corinthians made him change his allegiance.

But his career at home wouldn’t last long. In 2007, the midfielder made the long journey to Romania, where he made eight appearances for Steaua Bucharest.

After that brief spell, the midfielder’s travels became more exotic. His next destination was Dubai, before a short time back in Brazil with Sport Recife preceded the most successful period of his career: in Saudi Arabia with Al-Fateh.

Pocket man

In five seasons with Al-Fateh, Élton scored 48 goals in 121 games, helping the club to its first-ever league title and earning himself the nickname ‘Élton Arabia’. (In his formative years at Corinthians, he had gone by another self-explanatory moniker: ‘Élton Maradoninha’.)

Although the player’s command of the Arabic language was initially limited to greetings and the word ‘ball’, Élton quickly became one of the league’s finest players and has since spoken highly of life in the Middle East.

“I’ve been in Arabia for nine years and I only have good things to say,” he told UOL Sport last year. “Life is quiet here; I have nothing to complain about; the Arabs have a lot of affection for me.”

It certainly seems like Élton has a good setup. His former house, for example, had a racing car attached to the wall for decoration.

According to the diminutive midfielder, the building’s previous owner had affixed the unusual wall hanging; the footballer simply decided to keep it there.

Why wouldn’t you?

With goals flowing on the pitch and automobiles dangling in his house, Élton’s only difficult experiences in the Middle East occurred while he was acclimatising to the culture.

Early in his Al-Fateh spell, he was almost arrested for taking photos with female fans — only escaping trouble after a panicked phone call to the sheikh in charge of his club.

In recent years, he has posted videos of his children singing the national anthem of Saudi Arabia.

He’s still standing

While Élton’s career has never reached Messi-level heights, the player’s achievements certainly serve as encouragement for shorter players who, like Messi, may have been discouraged at a young age due to their height.

They also deserve the highest praise.

Pundits frequently give kudos to exceptionally tall players like Peter Crouch simply for being able to control their limbs.

In reality, however, being exceptionally tall is more of a help than it is a hindrance. (It’s safe to say that a five-foot version of Peter Crouch would not have made it as a professional.) On the other hand, shortness is a genuine disadvantage.

Yet disadvantages are there to be overcome. And as the world’s shortest footballer, Élton has made a mockery of his disadvantage, enjoying a highly successful career that would be the envy of many a six-foot athlete.

Now 33 and playing for  Al-Wehda, Élton may not have many years left in his legs, but given how he has defied the odds so far in his career, he might just play for another decade.

By Benedict O’Neill


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