For months, this tournament was billed to be their moment. One player, at the ripe age of 22, carried the pressure of leading Brazil to World Cup glory on its home soil. The other, in his prime at 27, was expected to finally meet the expectations on the international level he has so consistently set with his club. For Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the stage has long been set for both stars to cement their places in history, while carrying their respective countries’ hopes and dreams on their shoulders.
At the club level over a decade, Messi has redefined success in the modern football era. With Barcelona’s First Team since 2004, his accomplishments include two Champions League triumphs, four Ballon d’Or trophies as the world’s greatest player, and an unfathomable 243 goals across 277 appearances. However, with each moment of captivating brilliance on the field, Messi seems to set the bar higher for himself. The quality and quantity of his goals are now commonplace and expected – expectations made more daunting by the fact that he has largely fallen short of them on the international stage. Neymar, on the other hand, seems to reserve his greatest moments for when he is wearing the yellow and green of the Seleção. While he plays a reserve role, for the most part, as a teammate of Messi’s with Barcelona, Neymar consistently shines with Brazil and seems to embrace the expectations his nation places on his shoulders. At the conclusion of this tournament’s group stage, however, the two stars lead all 736 players in the World Cup with 4 goals apiece across three games, along with Germany’s Thomas Müller. Each has been largely the catalyst for his nation’s berth into the knockout round, despite the enormity of the expectations in front of them. In a recent interview with FIFA, Neymar commented on his approach to any perceptions of pressure: “I’m now playing in matches that I always dreamed about…I just want to help my fellow players not only by scoring goals but doing whatever it takes on the pitch to help us win.”
Neymar’s statement speaks less to the existence of pressure in these games – because pressure will almost always be there in some form – and more to his mental interpretation of pressure, and the impact that pressure might have on his performance. As a player, there will be times when you may face pressure or expectations in your career. It is important to recognize, however, that while these expectations are out of your control, your response to them is controllable. Players who are able to embrace these moments and the opportunities created by this pressure (“playing in matches that [they] always dreamed about”) are often able to bring their best performance to these occasions. Try to see pressure as a personal challenge for yourself, and know that the significance of the moment will bring out your best game because you have prepared for it. When facing perceptions of pressure, also consider how your focus before and during these competitive moments plays a major role. Focusing on the parts of your game you can control (i.e., your effort) during competition will help to keep your mind in the present moment, rather than dwelling on the expectations you feel you need to meet in the future. Furthermore, as evident in Neymar’s comment, it can help to focus your attention and energy on your team’s goals and success. See these moments as opportunities to use your strengths to contribute as much as possible to your team’s efforts. Above all, excellence in the face of pressure or expectations comes from a determined effort to stick with what you know works for you – whether that be your routine, the skills you use to stay composed and confident during a game, or your strengths as a player. Hopeful murmurs of a World Cup final between Brazil and Argentina – and a highly anticipated matchup between Messi and Neymar – are already being tossed around. However, with increasingly difficult knockout round games ahead of them, both players will need to continue coping with expectations as they inevitably continue to rise. Similarly, the world will have to be content with marveling at the consistent brilliance of Neymar and Messi in meeting, and exceeding, those expectations each time they step onto the field.
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