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How They Got Here: Europa League Final Competitors

To make it to the pinnacle of soccer — such as a club championship final like Europa League — it takes more than on-pitch skills. There’s a certain mental edge needed, too.

As you’re probably well aware of, the sport can wear you down. The constant practice, the wins and losses, getting chewed out by coaches, it can all pile on. But resiliency and a burning passion for the game can overcome all that and then some.

You’ll see those mental traits in soccer’s best players, many of which were on the pitch during the Europa League championship game on May 26. Let’s take a look at a few notable examples that can help inspire you along your soccer-playing journey.

“Europe League Cup” by Getty is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Manchester United Paul Pogba

Pogba is a polarizing figure among Man U diehards. On the surface, he’s one of the most talented attackers in the world. However, that hasn’t always translated into on-pitch success as Pogba’s time in Manchester has been marred by inconsistent play.

You think Poga doesn’t hear that criticism from his own fans? You betcha. Heck, not far ago, Poga admitted the pressures of being the club’s “star signing” — he inked a then-record £93.2m transfer in 2016 — had gotten to him. Let’s face it, it’s tough to live up to a world-record purchase price.

Regardless, Pogba hasn’t changed who he is under the immense pressure and scrutiny. Just look at his hairstyles, which has become fodder for his loudest critics. Pogba had to be aware of the chatter, but despite that, he never went away from dying it in one crazy color after another. The lesson? Whether things are going good or bad, always be yourself. The game might beat you, but never beat yourself too.

Manchester United Marcus Rashford

From a very early age, Rashford was ear-marked to become a professional footballer. At the ripe age of seven, he was signed to United’s academy system. Seven years old! Imagine yourself at that age, what were you doing? Probably not mapping out your adult career.

However, signing at such a young age gave Rashford little room to grow up and live a regular childhood. A byproduct of that was his education was largely an afterthought. It’s this very reason why Rashford didn’t begin reading until he was 17. For most people, the reading age and when you decide a career are the complete opposite of what Rashford’s was.

Late bloomer or not, Rashford picked up reading and realized its transformative effects. Today, he preaches reading to children and even has his own reading club. If this teaches you anything, let it be it’s never too early or too late to pick up a new skill — whether that’s in soccer or life in general.

“Manchester United, Marcus” by Catherine Ivill/Getty is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Villarreal Samuel Chukwueze

Chukwueze’s life story feels like the polar opposite of Rashford’s. During his youth in Nigeria, his family pushed him toward education, but Chukwueze wasn’t having it. Soccer was his love, not academics.

As you’d imagine, this clash created conflict among the family. At one point, his parents burned his soccer boots and kits to get the message across that education took a priority. Chukwueze did enough in school to stay in his parent’s good graces, but pressed on with his soccer training, family be damned.

How many children have that burning desire — pun fully intended — inside them to go against their parents wishes? Few, we’d imagine. But it’s that same desire that’s made the 21-year-old Chukwueze a future star for both Villarreal and the Super Eagles of his home country.

Villarreal Sergio Asenjo

An ACL injury is perhaps the scariest thing a soccer player can suffer. One is enough to terrorize a player, but how about four? That’s exactly what goalie Asenjo has had to overcome during his promising career.

Both of Asenjo’s knees are scarred, a harsh and constant reminder that he’s one bad fall away from a fifth ACL surgery. But he presses on, throwing his body at will to guard the net for Villarreal. Asenjo’s mental fortitude has to be in a league of its own.

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