Neymar reinventing five-a-side with 26,000-team global tournament

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The Barcelona star is at the forefront of a huge new competition - and a face recognisable to competitive FIFA fans is aiming to conquer it

It is likely the single largest football tournament taking place on the planet this year.

Now in its second year of existence, Neymar Jr's Five has attracted 26,685 teams and 101,692 players from 53 countries. They are all playing for the chance to be crowned world champions in a unique form of five-a-side football and meet Neymar, who will be at the global final in Brazil to present the trophy.

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Within that huge field there are some recognisable names, but few will be able to claim they are gunning to represent their nation in a world championship in a second variety of the beautiful game like Mike LaBelle.

LaBelle is better known to many as Dirty Mike or Hashtag Mike, and is a professional FIFA player and YouTube personality who has represented the United States at the FIFA Interactive World Cup. With more than a quarter of million subscribers, his YouTube account is more popular than those of many major football clubs.

On Saturday, he will be playing at the US national finals of Neymar Jr's Five in Miami for a chance to fly the flag for his country once again. LaBelle and Mike Chabala, an ex-pro who had stints with the Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers in MLS, formed a team that topped a competitive field in Houston to earn the trip to Florida, which is the last qualification stage before the world final in Brazil.

"I didn’t think that we’d be able to win in Houston - not [because of] our team not being good but just the odds," LaBelle told Goal. "When there’s 40 or 50 teams that show up to any event, the odds of you being the squad or being part of the squad that wins the entire event are low.

Neymar Jr's Five

"But as we started to progress round by round, I just felt like we were going to be able to take that. So it’s exciting that we were able to represent out city well - we have all Houston kids on the team, so it just shows that we’ve got a homegrown squad and if we do well in Miami, once again we can represent our city well."

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Neymar Jr's Five is, as mentioned, five-a-side with a twist. There are no goalkeepers, and goals are scored through a small hole in walls at each end of the pitch that can be played off strategically. Most significantly, though, conceding a goal results in you losing a player.

Games last 10 minutes or until one team has no players left.

Neymar Jr's Five

"There is luck involved and because it’s an elimination tournament, once you lose a player it changes the entire way that you attack, that you defend, even your comfort on the ball," LaBelle (pictured in grey above) says. "You no longer have the same amount of time to pass and move and to rotate.

"As a team we have a lot of smaller, classic No.10, very good technicians in the midfield, which I don’t know is as beneficial for this type of game as you would think. I think the big, physical players that are also, of course, technically sound give you an advantage.

"I think big, physical players can cut a lot of space, cut a lot of passing lanes and sometimes it’s not a matter of who’s the best, it’s a matter of who can get a lucky bounce and push through and create an opportunity."

The nature of the game is such that one goal, fortunate or against the run of play as it may be, can be decisive by giving the team that scores it a man advantage.

Any team that reaches the world final will have received a little bit of luck here and there along the way as a result, but LaBelle's team - named Sphere - does have an edge in the experience and organisational qualities provided by Chabala (pictured below). "We played one match without Mike in the qualifying tournament and it didn’t look good," LaBelle admitted.

"I would say Mike’s most influential quality when we’re on the pitch is leadership, being able to talk from the back. I think myself and Mike show our age a little bit - I’m 27, Mike just turned 33. We’re more vocal than the other guys on the team and I think it makes a big difference both when we’re attacking and defending and keeping our shape."

Neymar Jr's Five

Requiring speed, strength, creativity and some clinical finishing, it is not hard to see why Neymar is a fan of this form of the small-sided game. Asked which player - past or present - he would most like to add to his team, though, LaBelle looks to a couple of France greats from the teams that won the World Cup and European Championship in 1998 and 2000.

"I would either take [Zinedine] Zidane or Patrick Vieira," he replied. "For different reasons, actually. They’re both big, which is important to me. Zidane’s creativity and footwork... oh, it's incredible. I just think he’d lead you to a victory - he wouldn't allow you to lose.

"Someone like Vieira breaks up everything. You just would not get through him. No matter where he is on the pitch, he would just dominate. I think both of them would have a little bit of a different form of value, but I think they'd be amazing in this type environment and even Vieira's footwork is often not given enough credit."

Sphere will be one of 18 teams looking to earn the chance show off their skills in front of Neymar in Brazil when the US finals kick off on Saturday.

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