Neymar of Brazil lies injured during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 group G match between Brazil and Serbia at Lusail Stadium | AP pictures

There have been several references given at the ongoing World Cup 2022 to explain what real pressure is.

Australian defender Milos Degenek drew on his own life experiences to say pressure was fleeing a war or being in the middle of it as a child.

Ghana coach Otto Addo said pressure was wondering about what there would be to eat the next day.

Imagine telling that to Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, or probably even Neymar. For them, winning the World Cup means everything; this is the one piece of silverware they crave. The time you touch the golden trophy, you turn into gold.

At least for Messi and Ronaldo, 35 and 37, respectively, Qatar represents probably their last crack at it: the Last Dance. The slogan for the World Cup in Qatar says: ‘Now is All’. For them, tomorrow might not come.

For those players potentially playing their last World Cup in Qatar, there is pressure to deliver, at long last

It’s all because there’s a huge amount of difference between the expectations placed on stars such as Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar than those on those of Australia or Ghana for that matter.

“You can’t understand what the World Cup means to our country,” said Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, a standout of their World Cup-winning side in 2002. “Not just the fans and players, but everybody in Brazil lets us know that they expect it. Our president, people in politics, all tell us to come back with the World Cup.”

The world has changed a whole lot since 2002. In the age of smartphones and social media, the pressure on superstar players is perhaps even more intense.

Fernandes’ cross brushes off Ronaldo’s hair before going in

That’s no disrespect to Degenek of course. Degenek was born in Croatia to Serbian parents, who had to flee to Belgrade when he was 18 months old, amid the Croatian war of independence, and then migrated to Australia as refugees, when he was six, after the Kosovo war broke out.

There’s a different perspective to life for everyone; every person’s travails are different.

Lusail Stadium is Qatar’s showpiece venue for the final, in a futuristic city built for the World Cup. This is the place where everyone wants to be on December 18. The Lusail Stadium has this grand appeal, a magnetic pull once it comes into view, driving north from Doha.

The boulevard adjacent to it, with shops and restaurants, is a buzz of activity. There’s just standing space. In an hour, Messi and Argentina were to take the pitch inside; their World Cup hopes on the line after a loss to Saudi Arabia in their opener at this very venue.

Ahead of their opening game, Messi had arrived at the Qatar National Convention Centre, FIFA’s centralised media hub for the World Cup, to speak to reporters at a news conference. The interest was sky high. The reporters have been queuing outside for half an hour just to be inside the same room as Messi, to get the chance to ask him some questions.

Unlike the Messi of the past, this current version had a smile on his face. He said he was now trying to enjoy every moment and not overthinking too much. He admitted this will potentially be his last World Cup and he wanted to win it.

A day later, Messi stood on the pitch, stone-faced, expressionless. He vowed Argentina would bounce back in a must-win game against Mexico.

There was widespread frenzy ahead of the game against Mexico. If Argentina lost this, would this be Messi’s final farewell in his national team jersey? Would he, with Argentina knocked out, play their last group game against Poland?

Argentina’s World Cup hopes were on the line, and Messi delivered with a stunning goal to set them on their way to victory. Now, everyone wanted a piece of Messi: the whole world, the universe, a select number of accredited reporters who got the chance to witness this at the Lusail.

The reporters would get the first chance and then beam this to the world and beyond. The game ended at 12am and Messi arrived nearly two hours later and there was a scrum for his reaction.

“Now every game is a final for us,” said Messi. The pressure of keeping Argentina in the World Cup was now off. The pressure of winning it and emulating the great Diego Maradona, however, remains. Messi can afford to smile, for now.

Messi has been close to winning the World Cup before. Eight years ago in Brazil, he led Argentina to the final, only for them to come up short. Now is the time to make up for that.

Unlike his great rival, Ronaldo has never reached a final.

Messi celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal during the World Cup group C match between Argentina and Mexico at the Lusail Stadium

Ronaldo did reach the semi-finals in 2006 but, at that time, Luis Figo was Portugal’s main man. But like Messi, there is a media frenzy accompanying Ronaldo and it reached fever pitch because of his explosive interview with Piers Morgan about his situation at Manchester United.

It’s a distraction. Portugal’s sessions with the media are peppered with questions about Ronaldo. Three days before Portugal’s opening game against Ghana, Ronaldo announced a shock press conference and reaffirmed his focus was on winning the World Cup. Later that day, United announced a parting of the ways with him.

Ronaldo now needs the World Cup more than ever. Not just for his legacy but also his future. He didn’t appear in Portugal’s official press conference on the eve of their first game. Bruno Fernandes, his now former club-mate at United, did and fended off questions about Ronaldo.

The talent Portugal possess, perhaps they don’t need Ronaldo anymore. But Ronaldo started and netted the opening goal, from the penalty spot, in their 3-2 win over Ghana, becoming the first player to score at five World Cups.

Ronaldo may have lost his pace, and the step-overs have gone as he has transformed into a more classic goal-scorer, but the desire to win is unmatched. In Portugal’s second game against Uruguay, just two days after Messi’s majestic performance against Mexico, Fernandes’ cross brushed off Ronaldo’s hair and went in.

This seemed to be his moment in Lusail but the goal wasn’t awarded to him, denying him the chance to go level with the legendary Eusebio as the nation’s top goal-scorer at the World Cup, with nine goals.

Portugal won 2-0 to secure passage to the round of 16, with a game to spare. The pressure will be back in the knock-outs.

Brazil haven’t won the World Cup in two decades. It’s a long wait for a nation that expects to return with the trophy in every edition.

For the last two editions, Neymar has shouldered that pressure. Now it seems that he has the team around him to win it at last. But will Neymar be fit come the round of 16, is the big question. An ankle injury in Brazil’s opening 2-0 win against Serbia ruled him out of the group stage.

Brazil seem to be doing fine without him, like Portugal, booking a spot in the last 16 with a game to spare after a 1-0 win against Switzerland. But Neymar, despite being derided in his homeland at times, will be a shoo-in once he returns to fitness.

Neymar and Brazil could yet face Messi’s Argentina in the final. There could also be a final for the ages between Ronaldo and Messi; one that would potentially be decided by the player that rises above the pressure.

After all, pressure can do funny things. It can make or break careers. But in Qatar, at this World Cup, it will define the careers of some of the greatest players to have graced the game.

Note: At the time of writing, Argentina and Messi were still in the race for the last 16

The writer is Dawn’s Sports Editor

He tweets @UmaidWasim

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 4th, 2022

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