In elite sports, mentality is everything. Often the difference between athletes is more psychological than physiological, and those fine margins are what separate glory and failure. One of the central preoccupations of sports psychologists is the question of motivation. Broadly, it can be split into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Someone who is intrinsically motivated will typically seek to succeed to fulfil their own sense of ambition. By contrast, someone who is extrinsically motivated will strive to succeed for a separable outcome such as receiving plaudits, financial gain, or increasing their influence. In football, two players who exemplify these different approaches are the Paris Saint-Germain forwards Neymar and Kylian Mbappé.
Both transferred to PSG in the summer of 2017 and are part of Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s vision to create a European superpower in the mould of Real Madrid or Barcelona. His desire for an era of dominance required prestigious attacking talent so he handpicked two of the most exciting forwards in world football to serve as the firepower for the juggernaut he was building.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
The main reason cited for Neymar’s move to Paris was his desire to break the duopoly that Messi and Ronaldo have had over the Ballon d’Or for a decade. He also wanted to create a legend in his own right – Messi is arguably the greatest player to grace the game, so his shadow at Barcelona looms large over the rest of the team. Neymar’s desire to step out of this shadow and finally stamp his authority on a team by becoming their talisman was clear to see. This desire to be the main man likely stems from his treatment when he plays for Brazil, he is an icon that is adored by both the Brazilian public and his teammates.
Herein lies the difference between the two. Mbappé’s reasoning for the move was primarily focused on winning trophies and being involved with a club that had more ambition than Monaco. I’m not suggesting that his move was entirely altruistic — PSG significantly improved on the wages he was receiving in Monaco and his new contract is likely to have favourable incentives. But there is no question that he saw the move as mutually beneficial to himself and the club.
He was a breakout star of the 2018 World Cup and raised his profile amongst even the most casual of football fans. Whilst at the tournament he was quoted as saying he “couldn’t care less about that” when asked about his chances in the Ballon d’Or – a view completely at odds to Neymar’s.
A Question of Maturity
For Neymar, it appears as though his move to PSG has caused him to regress on a psychological level. The senior players at Barcelona weren’t afraid to stand up to him and let him know when his behaviour wasn’t appropriate. Whereas now the situation has changed entirely. Neymar has been given free rein in the dressing room by the club’s hierarchy to keep him appeased so that he won’t force a move elsewhere. Such actions are enabling the kind of childish and petty behaviour that draws ire from both crowds and pundits.
The World Cup was a microcosm that showed the full range of his abilities. At his best, he was using his excellent close control to bamboozle helpless defenders and playing inch-perfect passes in the final third. However, when things weren’t going his way, he showed his worst: overplaying the ball and diving followed by excessive amounts of rolling around on the floor. That kind of behaviour doesn’t help him when it comes to winning over his critics and unless he can stop this kind of petulance then history is unlikely to remember him favourably.
By contrast, Mbappé doesn’t seem fazed by anything. He continues playing the game his way with complete faith in his ability that he can turn it around. At only 19 years old, his style of play shows the wisdom of a player that’s much older and, unlike Neymar, he doesn’t feel the need to constantly be the centre of attention on the pitch. The adage of an old head on young shoulders seems particularly apt to describe him and this is what makes him such a good player. He needs to now focus on sustaining the success he has achieved for himself and ignoring those who will try to drag him down.
A Crossroad in Neymar’s Career
Ultimately, Neymar’s sideshow has overtaken the circus and he’s now becoming more famous for his off-the-ball antics than his breath-taking natural ability. It’s a great shame that a player that is blessed with his flair and talent has been reduced to being synonymous with the greedy and cheating preconceptions that people have of footballers. With Kylian Mbappé making a name for himself in the French capital, Neymar is once again at risk of having his star eclipsed so it’s now or never: forget playing for individual glory or risk squandering his talent and forever being associated with what could have been.
Both Neymar and Mbappé look the closest to overcoming Messi and Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or dominance but, despite his unending desire for individual accolades, Neymar may be left in someone’s shadow once again.