Global soccer superstar Neymar Jr., while busy winning titles with FC Barcelona, organized a worldwide soccer tournament for anyone with a ball who’s willing to compete, and this weekend, it’s coming to Houston.
The Neymar Jr.’s Five soccer tournament is a unique five-a-side global tourney that allows any group of friends — ages 16-25, with no gender restrictions — to put together a team that competes in regional qualifiers in the hopes of making national qualifiers. The winners of the national qualifiers get an opportunity to travel to Brazil to compete in the world finals.
One of the participating players in Houston will be Mike Chabala, a former starting outside back for the Dynamo. Chabala, who enjoyed a successful ten-year MLS career, formed a squad that features YouTube star Mike LaBelle, aka Hashtag Mike, a professional FIFA gamer and e-sports competitor.
“It’s always been really important for me to connect with the community,” Chabala said. This is indeed a great opportunity, as Chabala will run out a squad primarily featuring players who attend workouts at the soccer-themed workout gym he owns, Sphere.
17 locations across the United States have held or will hold qualifiers throughout March, April, and May. 53 nations across six continents will send representatives to Brazil, from Mexico to Oman to India. More than 19,000 teams have registered, all hoping to be the ones that get to meet Neymar himself in Brazil.
The rules are unique. Each match is 10 minutes long — no more, no less — and every time a goal is scored, the conceding team is forced to remove a player. The game ends when either 10 minutes has passed or one team has run out of players. No goalkeepers allowed, and each team is permitted two players over the age of 25.
Allowing for maximum participation across the globe, the playing surface can be anything: grass, turf, concrete, sand, or many others. The field may or may not have sideboards (optional), and the ball is size four, commonly used for futsal. Kick-ins are used, and after a tie in a knockout round game, a golden-goal 1v1 decider is held.
The US’s national qualifier is held in Miami, meaning the final winner of the Houston competition wins a trip to south Florida to compete for a chance to go to Brazil.
Chabala and Hashtag Mike face a tough challenge in advancing out of the Houston round. The former pro, who enjoys playing pickup games throughout the Houston area, realizes the challenge.
“The Houston area is ripe with talent and is home to a lot of talented players,” Chabala said. “They may not play at as high a level, but still play competitively. I’m sure there will be a lot of hungry players interested in a trip to Miami and an opportunity to play against some of the best players in the world.”
The rule that forces teams to remove a player when they concede a goal will make every game even more intense. Just one little mistake could result in disaster, forcing teams to adapt and focus their game-plan on turning this obstacle onto the opponent.
“(The rule) is going to make things a lot more interesting, and strategy will be important,” Chabala opined. “It will make the games, I think, a lot quicker. Teams will have to be a) fit and b) strategize properly. It will help teams that are not as competitive.”
Fitness should not be an issue for Chabala’s squad, given that they all participate in work outs at Sphere. The Houston-based gym emphasizes team-building through soccer, a perfect philosophy for this fast-paced, physically-demanding tournament that can be won or lost based on team communication and passing.
Hashtag Mike, who is part of an e-sports club competing in EA Sports FIFA called Hashtag United, met Chabala through the fitness program.
“He took a really strong liking to the workout and what we were doing,” Chabala said. “We were really connecting through the game.”
Now, an unlikely mix of a former pro player and a YouTube gaming sensation will take the field for a chance to show they have the best five-a-side soccer club in Houston.
Chabala says he’s never met Neymar, but maybe, with some luck, he’ll get to introduce himself in Brazil this summer.