We went to Spain to play poker with Neymar
I’m stood in the foyer of the Casino Peralada just outside Girona, Spain, waiting for a taxi back to my hotel, when I feel two hands pinch down on my shoulders.
I spin around and see Neymar, one of the world’s best footballers, more or less jumping on my back, a beaming smile on his face.
We’ve just played an impromptu €50 poker game, organised by the Barcelona star with the casino’s blessing, and I’ve ridden my luck to beat him heads-up. But rather than being frustrated in defeat, he’s actually chosen to hang around to congratulate me.
While some celebrity endorsements can seem like by-the-numbers face-on-a-poster stuff, Neymar’s deal with PokerStars appears to be based on a genuine love of the game. He’s gone above and beyond his contract commitments, having flown to Girona for a poker game show before inviting media to join him and his entourage in a private game afterwards. If that doesn’t tell you how enamoured he is by his new favourite pastime, the 24-year-old has even named his dog ‘Poker’.
“He's very famous and it's a way for him to be amongst people and just play a game, and for it to be okay. “ says Fatima Moreira de Melo, an Olympic hockey gold medalist-turned-poker-pro who has spent time at the poker table with Neymar.
It’s more than simply providing distance from his life in the spotlight - Neymar legitimately loves poker, according to everyone who has played the game with him - but the ability to just be one of the crowd can’t hurt.
Since making his Santos debut at the age of 17, escaping the spotlight for however long has always been a challenge for Neymar. Pressure is an inevitability for any talented Brazilian forward who dons the famous black and white worn by Pelé - just ask Robinho - and even the decision to stay in Brazil for four full seasons, longer than 2003 Copa Libertadores finalists Diego, Nenê and Ricardo Oliveira, didn’t remove the weight of expectation.
Poker levels that playing field, though. Everyone starts with the same number of chips and anyone can beat anyone. Even those with a target on their back, like the big-name pros slumming it with regular joes in World Series of Poker tournaments, will regularly chat to their table-mates as equals.
Neymar briefly led in the European Poker Tour main event in Barcelona, and you can sense the excitement in his voice when he reflects on that achievement.
“Being chip leader in my first tournament was an incredible feeling,” Neymar says.
“Even having lost afterwards I was really happy with my performance and hope to go further with the next ones.
Even now, with fame and pressure poised to reach a crescendo with the Olympic football tournament in Rio, we can see how much more comfortable Neymar is around familiar faces.
A quick look at his Instagram account will see a few friends crop up on a regular basis - pals from back home in Sao Paulo - and members of this entourage have joined him in Spain, hanging out in the green room before the recording and enjoying complimentary drinks at the poker table afterward (Neymar himself sticks to soft drinks). One senses that if they were uncomfortable, it would affect him too. With such a tightly-regimented career with Barcelona and the national team, downtime is at a premium and has to be filled with anything-goes fun. When he switches off from the day job, he needs it to be a clean break, even for just a day.
That’s not to say he can’t apply his footballing work ethic to his new field, however.
“It’s really easy to try to teach something to Neymar, because he just gets everything from just hearing it once,” his friend and poker coach Felipe ‘Mojave’ Ramos explains.
“Football takes a lot of practice, and he understands poker takes a lot of practice too, if you want to get better.
“He’s getting a lot more confident now, he’s playing more, and he’s figuring it out for himself.”
But Neymar isn’t content to settle, revealing that he is “trying to improve at everything.
“I consider myself a guy who likes to be better than himself both on the field and at the tables,” he explains.
Plenty of elite footballers - and sportspeople in general - have used poker as a way to put their competitive spirit to good use.
De Melo is the most recognisable, beginning her poker career by playing heads-up games with her boyfriend, former tennis pro Raemon Sluiter. These days she is a member of Team PokerStars Pro and arguably better known as a poker player than a hockey player, at least outside her home country of the Netherlands.
Brazilian superstar Ronaldo won himself some new fans after finishing 26th of 816 players at the prestigious PokerStars Caribbean Adventure tournament, a tournament in which former MMA pro Rami Boukai took home a quarter of a million dollars for his run to the final table
Elsewhere, Teddy Sheringham and Neymar’s Barcelona team-mate Gerard Piqué have been doing themselves proud with five-figure wins.
You get the sense it’s not really about the money, though - one of Neymar’s biggest online poker wins is a drop in the ocean compared to his Barça pay-packet - but rather about the prestige of being the best across multiple disciplines.
It is this mindset which has driven the private poker games between Barcelona regulars, with Neymar joined by Dani Alves and Rafinha on at least one occasion.
“Dani is a feared player because he is very aggressive and Rafinha is a very analytical player,” Ramos explains, while acknowledging how poker can be a great help when it comes to maintaining focus in a competitive environment. Especially, as has recently been the case with Rafinha, while embarking on a recovery from a long-term injury.
Top-level American poker pro Maurice Hawkins took up the game after a hamstring tear nixed a promising American football career, while former Leyton Orient striker Steve Watts has won more than £500,000 from poker since injury forced him to hang up his boots.
Elsewhere, we have seen plenty of others dabble in the game after reaching the top of their chosen sport, among them former golf world number two Sergio Garcia and Rafa Nadal, a man who was until fairly recently considered the best tennis player on the planet.
De Melo has high hopes for Neymar, who she describes as a “pretty aggressive, all-or-nothing, a river deep, mountain high sort of kid."
“He’s a top athlete so he knows how to become better, and if he’s aware of his weaknesses and reflects and has people around him who can help him, then he could develop into someone who can actually play," she adds.
“I’ve met Rafa Nadal, Ronaldo and Boris Becker through poker, and I think what we all have in common in terms of being athletes is our learning curve is pretty steep.
“If we put our minds to it we can pick up on new things pretty fast because we are trained to convert information into action. Neymar has this and when I heard that he really liked the game, I knew he’s going to develop.”
But it’s not just the competitive spirit and readiness to learn that allows athletes to excel at the table - with long hours (the World Series usually involves 12-hour days), concentration is key and that requires physical fitness as much as it does mental. Poker pros will regularly speak of their workout plans or healthy-eating regimes, so when that is part and parcel of your day job, it’s one less thing to worry about at the felt.
“With a tired body, your mind is simply not working,” Neymar says.
“It wears you out to be sitting down for so many hours working your mind, more than the average, so I think you have to be in shape in body and mind.”
The Casino Peralada has a very Bond-esque aura to it. Set back from the main thoroughfare in Girona, 64 miles from Barcelona on the Costa Brava, it is a converted medieval castle which now acts as a particularly picturesque setting for poker, slot machines and table games like roulette and blackjack.
As we arrive on the grounds, as if to add for the exclusive atmosphere, we pass an ambassadorial car and a lush garden with swans roaming the grounds.
It is the setting for PokerStars’ new show Duel, the premise of which boils poker down to what could be considered its purest form. Two players. 10 hands of Texas Hold’em. Luck plays a part, but aggression and positivity are essential.
“They picked the right guy [for the format], that’s for sure,” De Melo says of Neymar.
“When I started out I just wanted to play all the time, and that's the same with him.”
It’s this kind of enthusiasm which can see Neymar rise to the top of the poker world in the same way he has flourished in football.
Years spent playing under the likes of Luis Enrique and Luiz Felipe Scolari have taught him to respect coaches regardless of whether they’re vastly experienced or relatively new to their role, on the grounds that there is always something you can learn.
The same goes for his poker career, as Andre Akkari - one of Brazil’s most recognisable pros - tells me.
“He's excited about the best parts,” Akkari explains.
“He wants to know how to play and keeps punishing himself about mistakes. Even if he doesn't know he keeps asking what he did good and what he did bad.
That desperation for self-improvement isn't unique to footballers - indeed, it is a trait common to many of the world's top poker players, or at least those with the greatest longevity, regardless of background.
Similarly there's no guarantee that success in sport will translate to poker, but those who can marry these traits with a level of patience are those most likely to succeed.
And Akkari is already noticing similar traits from Neymar and his Barcelona team-mates.
"They are used to adrenaline, but after playing at the top level for such a long time they maybe don't feel the same adrenaline as at the beginning," he says.
"But they have found in poker the same excitement and they fall in love with the game.
Days later, I’m back playing $10 online poker tournaments while keeping half an eye on Barcelona’s league match against Levante - their fourth domestic outing of the season and Neymar’s team-mate and close friend Rafinha suffered his ACL tear.
If Neymar was affected by that news, or exhausted from his poker trip, it didn’t show. He scored the second goal in a 4-1 victory, before proceeding to add six more (as well as missing a penalty) in Barça’s next five games.
He seems well aware of what he needs to improve, both in football and in poker, and when he needs to (or is permitted to) down tools in one discipline to focus on the other.
With a bit of time off before he takes his place in Brazil's squad for the Rio Olympics, he has been out in Las Vegas and even managed to qualify for this year's World Series of Poker Main Event, winning a $1,000 satellite tournament to guarantee him a seat in the championship event, which last year paid out more than $7.5m to the winner.
The Main Event regularly attracts upwards of 6,000 players and five Brazilians have made the top 100 in the last three years alone. Sadly, other commitments mean Neymar is unable to play this time, but he has been presented with an honorary WSOP bracelet by organisers.
Some of the country's top footballers were among those to lend their support to Brazil's Bruno Foster when he recorded his country's best ever finish in the tournament, taking eighth place in 2014, and enthusiasm has only grown after Neymar's achievements.
"Poker is exploding in Brazil," Akkari says.
"It's getting bigger and bigger and this relation between poker and Neymar has brought really good things to Brazil."
This summer our eyes will be on Neymar's footballing exploits in Rio de Janeiro, but next summer his and our attention could turn to another Rio - the Las Vegas casino where World Series champions are made.