Does size count in football?

The great debate on whether size counts in football escalated greatly during the recent Africa Cup of Nations after giants (no pun intended) Nigeria regained the title they last won in 1994.

Having visited several team camps while covering the tournament, including spending lots of time with Bafana Bafana, I was struck by one monumental element - our players do not measure up to their African counterparts (physically speaking).

Ahead of any matches that Bafana would play it would dawn on the coach of the day that their opponents are "physically superior". Pitso Mosimane and his successor Gordon Igesund would emphasise this point so much you'd swear Bafana was a featherweight boxer going into the ring with Nikolai "the Russian Giant" Valuev who has a height of 2.11 metres and weighs a staggering 150kg.

Former Bafana team doctor Ephraim Nematswerani says it's not just the senior men's national team that has this tangible problem.

"Our players are smaller built compared to their counterparts on the rest of the African continent and in Europe. When I went to the 2007 All Africa Games in Algeria our SA U-23 team played a match against Cameroon and really struggled because the Cameroonians were way bigger. So size does play a role in one way or another."

The average Bafana player is about 1.7 metres tall and weighs just over 70kgs. Midfielder Oupa Manyisa stands 1.63 metres tall in his socks. One of the tallest Bafana players is defender Morgan Gould at 1.86 metres. He tips the scales at 82 kilograms.

When turning an eye to Afcon's top three finishers the contrast is steep and clear. In the Nigerian squad Efe Ambrose is 1.90 metres tall, while Mikel John Obi is 1.88m. You have to pull out 1.92 metres length of tape to measure Aristide Bancé of Burkina Faso.

Who can forget how the 1.83 metre tall Malian captain Seydou Keita literally had Bafana's Reneilwe Lestolonyane by the waistband of his shorts with his legs almost dangling in the air when their midfield battle turned ugly in the Durban quarterfinal?

Yeye is not a dwarf compared to Keita, however the contrast in physical conditioning between the two players was glaring in that match.

Dr Nematswerani says: "Sometimes the problem with players in South Africa is that they are generally small and not packing big muscle size. Carlos Tavez and Sergio Aguero are small in height but they pack quite massive muscles. You can be small but it's important to have above-average muscle size. The problem is when players are small-built and have smaller muscle bulks." He adds, "Messi is small but packs big muscles in his thighs. You need that in a sport such as soccer."

One would ask the question: Are taller and bulkier players like those found in the Super Eagles squad better than their smaller and shorter counterparts, seeing that a physical side such as Nigeria managed to achieve success in 2013?

The good doctor's answer is YES and NO. "There are certain advantages that you will forsake if you're bigger - things like mobility because the centre of gravity will be much higher. [Carlos] Tevez, [Sergio] Arguero and Messi have a lower centre of gravity which gives them certain advantages. So it's not cast in stone that when you are smaller you would be disadvantaged compared to bigger players. However, there are certain positions where you need bigger players and maybe that is where we, South Africa, is lacking. The problem could be we have smaller players in all departments."

Football is a contact sport. Physical superiority and athleticism are the fundamental elements which are often ignored by South African football custodians, the South African Football Association. The non-existence of grassroots development is doing more damage to SA football than anticipated.

"The reasons our players are smaller could be due to various factors such as nutrition, not only now when they are professionals but from childhood. Another reason could be training from a young age. Both nutrition and training from when a player is about 12-years-old are of high importance for a footballer's development." says Dr Nematswerani.

The South African Football Association has been preaching "grassroots development" for years on end without practice. It's pointless to change coaches frequently when the national team underperforms at major tournaments.

Without the necessary development programmes in place, large strides in world football for South Africa can only remain what they have been all along - a pipe dream.

Lelo Mzaca is an Eyewitness News Sport journalist.