Towards the end of last year, PokerStars announced a coup. The Brazilian football superstar Neymar Jr. was joining the team, beginning a new partnership that promises all manner of exciting and enticing possibilities to be announced over the coming months.
In some parts of the world, Neymar Jr. is little short of a living legend, but in areas where football is perhaps not quite so popular — perhaps those areas where it’s more commonly known as soccer — Neymar might not enjoy the same kind of status. “Football is the national sport here in Brazil, and Neymar Jr. is our biggest star,” said Sergio Prado, who writes the Brazilian version of PokerStars Blog. “I think is really hard to find someone in our country who doesn’t know who he is!”
To bring everyone else up to similar speed — to explain why PokerStars’ new partner is quite such a big deal — here’s everything you need to know about Neymar Jr. We’ll start with the fact that today is his 29th birthday. Happy Birthday, Neymar!
It sometimes seems built-in to the myth of Latin American soccer greats that their rise to stardom begins in abject poverty, kicking a knackered old ball along dusty tracks. The young Neymar Jr. was certainly not born into enormous wealth, but he had a roof over his head, friends to play football with on the streets outside his house, and most significantly, he had sportsman’s genes. His father, Neymar Sr., was a journeyman professional footballer, making a living playing in the Brazilian lower leagues.Neymar da Silva Santos, Jr. was born on February 5, 1992, in Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil and showed immediate promise. He was certainly a cut above the kids with whom he formed five-a-side teams to play around his neighbourhood in the Praia Grande district of Sao Paolo.
His first coach, Betinho, recalled seeing Neymar play for the first time in 1998, on a local beach, and was struck immediately by the youngster’s balance and poise.
“I saw a six-year-old boy running through the stands and that caught my attention,” Betinho said. “Of all the boys I dealt with, none of them had what Neymar has. He moves fast…That’s something that someone like his biotype has, this facility to trick the opponent, to dribble, moving your own body. He has this ‘thing’.”
The “thing” has followed Neymar throughout his career. He is a lithe and gracious footballer, with exceptional balance and an ability to ghost past opposition players. He credits early games of “futsal” — a version of soccer played on a smaller pitch, with only five players — for developing the skills that pushed him to greater heights.
“Futsal had a massive influence on me when I was growing up,” Neymar told Munin Sports. It’s a very demanding game and it really helped to develop my technique, speed of thought, and ability to perform moves in tight spaces.”
Neymar Jr. first enrolled in the youth team of Portuguesa Santista, but his family later moved to Santos, home of Santos FC, one of the most successful Brazilian football teams. The player most commonly described as the greatest to ever kick a ball, Pelé, was a Santos FC alumnus.
Neymar Jr. joined his new home-town team, and immediately caused a stir. He first caught the eye of the giants of European football when he was 14 and had a trial with Real Madrid. Santos gave him a professional contract in 2008 and upped his wages, handing him a first team debut in 2009.
But by 2012, he was already a two-time South American Footballer of the Year and Santos could no longer keep hold of him.
In 2013, Neymar Jr. packed his bags for Spain, but he was not headed to the capital. Instead he joined Madrid’s arch rivals, the Catalan giants Barcelona, for €56 million (around $76 million at the time). It was one of the biggest fees ever paid for a player, let alone one who was only 21 years old.
Barcelona got their money’s worth, though.
Playing in a formidable forward line alongside Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Neymar was prominent in Barca’s sensational 2014-15 season. The team won the La Liga championship, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League, the three most important competitions they entered, completing the treble for the second time in six years. Between them, Messi, Suarez and Neymar scored 122 goals that season. It was a club record but lasted only one year. The following season the trio weighed in with 131 goals. Neymar scored 39 of them in the first season and 31 the second. All three players were unstoppable.Throughout his entire career, Neymar’s record in front of goal has been extraordinary. By the time Neymar left Barcelona in 2017 he had scored 105 goals in 186 games in all competitions. His value had increased four-fold, with Paris Saint-Germain paying €222 million (around $263 million) for his services — still the record for the most ever paid for a footballer.
PSG won the French league title in each of Neymar’s first three seasons with the club, where he played a pivotal role in a new devastating front line alongside Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe. He remains in Paris.
Throughout it all, Neymar Jr. was also a linchpin of the Brazilian national team and, at time of writing, has made 103 international appearances. His tally of 64 goals is the second most of any player, behind only Pelé. His influence is such that when Neymar Jr. was injured during the World Cup finals in his home country in 2014, breaking his back in a quarter final match against Colombia, his team-mates lined up before their semi-final match holding shirts bearing his name. Brazil were unbeaten to that point, but in Neymar’s absence were humbled 7-1 by Germany.
There is every expectation that Neymar Jr. could go on and beat Pelé’s goalscoring record, cementing his position as one of Brazil’s all-time greats. Although rumours invariably persist that he may move domestic clubs again, Neymar Jr. currently seems settled at PSG under a new manager, aiming for a fourth consecutive title there, and is targeting Champions League success at a second club.
There’s no one way to quantify how much love any player has for a card game, but when Neymar Jr. bought a dog, he named it “Poker”.
Perhaps more than any other “celebrity” who has played poker, Neymar’s association is founded on a true love for the game. He first appeared on the major poker circuit at EPT Barcelona in 2015, trailed by a media scrum and joining his then Barcelona team-mate Gerard Pique in a $25,000 High Roller event. But Neymar went on to surprise almost everyone in the room by playing multiple events during that trip to Casino Barcelona, whether or not anyone was noticing.
In fact, people in Barcelona remember seeing him tucked upstairs in the most peripheral of overflow rooms playing a €250 buy-in event into the small hours. His bodyguard sat idly by as the superstar happily blended in with the poker-playing populace. He was simply another player in love with the game.
“It’s amazing for poker to have someone as passionate for the game as he is,” says Prado, who follows all Brazilian poker players, including Neymar. “At the tables he has the same winning spirit that he shows on the field, he always wants to improve and do his best. I think poker players can relate to this, they know he plays from the heart.”
Neymar subsequently hosted a star-studded charity sit n go at EPT Barcelona, and also featured in The Duel, a series of high-profile heads-up matches filmed by PokerStars. It may have been designed for its marketing potential, but with a group of other enthusiasts in Girona for the event, Neymar arranged another game away from the cameras and invited a handful of journalists to play. He was simply eager to stay at the tables as long as he could.
According to Brazilian Tea Pro André Akkari, Neymar Jr. is simply applying the attitude that has taken him to the top of his profession to his other passion.
“Neymar is conditioned for competition, he is always evolving,” Akkari says. “He prefers not to play something when he cannot be minimally decent in performance and with poker is no different. He loves to play, always with a technical perspective. He questions me, records his plays to ask me and Rafael “GMValter” Moraes for our opinion. He already talks about plays at a high level, taking note of his table position, his and the opponent stacks, players profiles, just like a professional does. He’s not at professional level yet, but he is above the regular amateurs!”
For some fairly obvious reasons, Neymar can’t play as much poker as perhaps he’d like. He’s still playing football every week for PSG (and still, incidentally, banging in the goals). But Neymar also plays poker whenever he gets the chance, on PokerStars.FR when he’s in Paris and on .com when he’s back in Brazil.
His screen-name is “iamneymarjr”.
Best of all, he has started streaming on Twitch, and often plays three tables at a time, interacting with fans in the chat and tossing Throwables at table-mates. His channel is Neymarjr and he already has 1.3 million followers.
He is also deeply involved with a number of charities, including playing a prominent role with UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. He was widely reported to have been behind a recent donation of £775,000 to the charity to help with the global fight against the coronavirus.
He is also still the face of the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five — an annual tournament for five-a-side football teams. It’s the game he grew up playing, and he remains an enthusiastic supporter of this format of the game, particularly for the way it introduces sport to participants who might be under-privileged in other areas of life.
Needless to say, we’ll keep you up to date whenever Neymar Jr. is doing anything extra special. That’s something we’ve come to expect, and something he is sure to deliver.