This article profiles the 10 players in world football today who have the strongest mental games.
To assess a player’s "mental game," I have considered several qualities such as consistency, concentration, decision-making, influence and determination. Many of the players celebrated here have overcome injury or adversity to rise to the very top of their profession. They have all excelled at dealing with the intense pressure of elite fixtures and have made a habit of changing the complexion of the most high profile clashes.
Consistency and an ability to handle intense pressure have allowed the players listed here to make the most of their physical and technical gifts.
For this article, I have only considered players who are currently playing. Therefore, the likes of Obdulio Varela, Roy Keane and Franz Beckenbauer have not been considered for inclusion.
Vincent Kompany’s influence at Manchester City is so marked, that when the centre-back and skipper is absent, the Sky Blues can look like a completely different team.
He is, obviously, a fine defender, with all of the physical and technical qualities required in an outstanding Premier League stopper. However, his mental strength also sets him apart and has made him such an ideal figurehead and captain for the successful project that has taken place at Manchester City over the last few years.
Back in February 2012, Kompany, speaking to the Independent, assured reporters that the Citizens had the mental toughness to bring the Premier League crown back to the Etihad Stadium. They did then and, one suspects, with Kompany fully-fit, they will do so again.
Bleacher Report’s Gianni Verschueren once described Kompany’s impact for the national team to me as such: “He's the fearless leader, the captain, the guy that handles the media and is always asked for all the post-game interviews.”
Amazingly, considering his unfortunate spell as a young striker at Manchester United, Forlan will be remembered in history as one of the most-consistent big-game finishers of his generation.
To change big games with goals so regularly takes amazing mental strength, but to overcome such an inauspicious goalless period at a club sets Forlan apart as having terrific resiliency.
He has scored in the semi-final and final of the Europa League, including an extra-time winner against Fulham. Similarly, he has found the net five times in the World Cup, including a semi-final equaliser against the Netherlands in 2010.
He also helped Uruguay to the 2011 Copa America title, scoring twice to down Paraguay in the final.
He’s not the nicest bullock in the barn, but it would be hard, churlish even, not to include John Terry’s name among the 10 players celebrated in this list.
Terry is one of the most determined, single-minded "winners" in world football. He may not have been present for Chelsea’s Champions League triumph against Bayern Munich, but his unswerving desire to give everything to the Pensioners’ cause has set him out among his peers.
Terry will always be remembered as one of the finest captains of his generation and even now, at the age of 33, he is still making game-defining contributions (at both ends of the pitch) in intense Premier League fixtures.
Like David Beckham before him, Cristiano Ronaldo bore the brunt of animosity forged in a major international tournament while playing for Manchester United. Like Beckham, however, Ronaldo also used this very public disdain to motivate himself into becoming one of the world’s most outstanding players. In this respect, at least, Ronaldo has far outshone Beckham.
With a resiliency and a determination born both from that public hatred, as well as the cajoling of the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Sir Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo has the kind of mental focus and desire that few can match.
He has become a master of single-handedly winning matches by himself, and while he has long dominated weaker opponents, his resume also includes big game showings and elite performances under the most intense pressure.
He has scored crucial goals in Champions League semi-finals in 2007, 2009 and 2012, as well as the final itself in 2008. He scored in the semi-final of Euro 2004 as Portugal qualified for a final on home soil, and he recently demonstrated his intense mental focus in the World Cup play-off thriller against Sweden.
Xavi Hernandez, like other players on this list, has overcome adversity to rise to the very top of the game. Not only that, but he has demonstrated strength enough to break barriers and raise the bar, redefining the notion of what is expected of central midfielders in the process.
Before Xavi came to prominence, the modern game was populated by powerful, energetic midfielders. Today, however, players who possess the qualities of Xavi are ubiquitous—Swansea’s Leon Britton is one pertinent example.
Xavi has managed to achieve an almost-unprecedented level of consistency and success, winning, over a glittering five-year period, a World Cup, two European Championships and two Champions Leagues.
The mental focus and concentration it has taken for Xavi to achieve such consistent success and outstanding statistics (he averages over 100 passes-per-game), particularly in the face of such intense physical attention and adversity, is commendable.
While Pirlo is often praised for his technical mastery, his cultivated touch and his exceptional passing ability, a terrific mental game underpins his success.
Pirlo, more so than any player in world football, seems to enjoy extensive time on the ball. His quickness of thought and ability to weigh-up possibilities and angles are the foundations that allow him to flourish.
His composure and concentration are both exceptional, and he must also be praised for demonstrating the focus required to maintain such a long-term consistency of performance.
At Euro 2012, during the tense quarter-final against England, his perfectly-executed Panenka penalty in the shoot-out was serenity personified and was evidence of an outstanding ability to cope with pressure.
If you had told Chelsea fans circa 2005 that only seven years later they would be naming Didier Drogba as their greatest-ever player, they would have laughed you out of Stamford Bridge.
The Ivorian’s early showings in the Premier League were a mixed bag of petulance and poor sportsmanship and, having already arrived as a player passing his mid-twenties, one could be forgiven for imagining there wasn't much room for improvement.
But Drogba was made of stern stuff.
The forward became determined to make a success of his time in London and, under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, was transformed into a relentless winner.
Numerous high-profile matches have been shaped by Drogba’s mental focus and unswerving desire to achieve, not least the 2007 and 2009 FA Cup finals, while he was the outstanding performer (and the match-winner) in Chelsea’s sole Champions League triumph.
Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge once explained how Drogba had impressed upon him the value of mental strength. As reported by the Mirror, Sturridge said: “Being strong mentally is the one thing that can separate you from anyone else.
"When I worked with Didier Drogba at Chelsea, the one strength he had above everybody was his mental strength."
Writing for the Guardian, Spanish football expert Sid Lowe described Iniesta as the man who "draws the most pressure on himself." The reason why? Because he "trusts his ability to overcome it."
Iniesta, like Pirlo, is a man who is consistently and completely in control. Every touch is measured and every pass is calibrated, but this technical prowess is only completed by the mental strength that makes Iniesta such a regular game-changer.
Iniesta has overcome near-constant injury concerns during his career, but he has still managed to enjoy such immense influence over the major occasions and the big matches. He was Man of the Match on three occasions during Euro 2012, achieved the same number of awards during the World Cup two years previously and, most importantly, scored the winning goal in the World Cup final.
On the biggest occasions, when the pressure is at its most intense, Iniesta delivers. Why? Because he is that good.
Throughout his career, Steven Gerrard has embodied many of the ideals and qualities present in the footballing hero of comic books, Roy of the Rovers.
Early in his professional life, Gerrard overcame serious injury, showing mental toughness, to kick on with his development. His early showings with Liverpool were characterised by nervousness and Gerrard also endured problems with his back and his groin (requiring four separate operations) that might have dampened the enthusiasm and progress of lesser players.
He is a big time, big-game player and, to date, remains the only footballer to have scored in a Champions League final, a UEFA Cup Final, an FA Cup Final and a League Cup final. This record is surely evidence of his indefatigable mental toughness.
Beyond the pure goals, however, Gerrard has also changed the complexion of numerous major contests with immense contributions. Both the famous Champions League final triumph over Milan in 2005 and the FA Cup victory over West Ham a year later were matches that pivoted on a vital Gerrard interjection.
His versatility demonstrates maturity, while the England and Liverpool skipper is described, on the ESPN website, as a "real leader."
As with Xavi and Iniesta, Lionel Messi has overcome both injury and perceived physical impediment to not only reach the top of the game, but also to push and extend what it means to be the "World’s Best."
Again, consistency is one of the finest measures of Messi’s mental strength. He hasn't just achieved regular consistent performances, however, constantly performing "well," he has, in the words of Sid Lowe, been “making the extraordinary look ordinary for four years.”
Messi produces “astonishingly brilliant performances with a regularity that has made them no longer astonish.”
While he may be showing current signs of weariness, Messi’s performances and achievements at the truly elite end of the sport set him apart as a player with incredible mental faculties.