Gordon Strachan, genetics of height and fitba

The Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan has made headlines this week, after his team narrowly failed to reach the World Cup Qualification Play-offs. In the crucial game against Slovenia, Scotland drew 2-2 when they needed to win. Afterwards Strachan lamented that Scotland’s opponents were bigger and stronger, and that Scotland were ‘Genetically behind’ their opponents (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/41546717), even going as far as saying “Maybe we get big women and men together and see what we can do”. Presumably the latter comment was said tongue in cheek.

Strachan has been much derided for his comments, not least because so many of Scotland’s greatest players have been short of stature e.g. Jimmy Johnstone, Kenny Dalglish, Archie Gemmill (scorer of the wonder goal responsible for the misplaced sex tape in Trainspotting) and of course ….. Gordon Strachan. Others have pointed out that Spain have a lot of short players and are an outstanding football team. Does he have a point though about nations differing in height for genetic reasons, rather than say, due to nutrition?

Human height is almost certainly the best understood quantitative genetic trait. It is highly heritable and highly polygenic (many genes of small effect). We know the identity of many of the genes that cause this heritable variation, but it is also the case that there are likely to be many thousands of unidentified additional genes with effects so tiny we may never detect them. I won’t provide a full bibliography here, although interested readers should check out the publications by Peter Visscher, Naomi Wray and Jian Yang on the subject – http://cnsgenomics.com/publications.html. In recent years, researchers have begun to look at how height varies between countries. Do populations from different countries differ in height, are  those differences genetic, and is natural selection the cause of those differences?  Matt Robinson and colleagues have shown that the answer to all three questions is ‘Yes’. In fact, quite a lot some* of the inter-population differences are due to genetics rather than, say, differences in nutrition or diet. Details are in Robinson et al (2015).

Ok, so nations vary in height, but does that affect their football prowess? In the Robinson paper, the genetic heights of 14 different European countries was estimated using the genes known to affect height. Unfortunately, the UK data was not broken down into the different nations, so we cannot answer the question whether Scottish people are genetically small. However, the UK was genetically the 5th tallest of the 14 countries and in general Northern European populations have ‘taller genes’ than more Southern nations. For a bit of fun, I’ve looked at the relationship between a nation’s genetic height and it’s current FIFA football ranking (disclaimer: I don’t believe for one second that any relationship is causal). I’ve used England’s ranking here for the UK, simply because I think most of the genetic data on UK cohort studies of height has used data from England rather than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.


Amusingly, there is a marginally significant negative relationship (r = -0.53, P = 0.048) between genetic height and football ranking – genetically smaller countries are better at football. Therefore,  whatever the reason for Scotland’s agonising miss, it wasn’t because they were too small. Alternative explanations, like having a really weak domestic league seem better explanations (but of course we knew that already!).

Finally, it’s often commented that the Dutch are the tallest nation (with honourable mentions to Lithuania and Montenegro), and in this dataset they were the tallest. Perhaps that explains the surprising failure of the Netherlands to qualify for the world cup. They need to ignore Gordon Strachan’s advice and breed their footballers smaller!


Robinson et al (2015). Population genetic differentiation of height and body mass index across Europe Nature Genetics 47:1357-1362 (behind a paywall, unfortunately

*I’ve edited this because Graham Coop (@Graham_Coop) has pointed out to me that actually in Robinson et al. the height-related SNPs only explain small inter-population differences in height. This will be an underestimate, because not all height-related genes were considered/are known. The extent to which genes explain population differences in height is not fully resolved.
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