It wasn’t something that could be seen, or heard, or even touched. But you could feel it all around you. Something in the air. Stepping foot on the parking-lot-turned-street-football-pitch at the Neymar Jr’s Five Tournament this past Saturday, it was obvious, like a dawning. Something big was happening here, beyond the sponsor Red Bull and perhaps even Neymar himself. As media outlets poured in to cover 32 hopeful street teams, the level of competition was set high, but this event wasn’t about rivalry. It was about a shared love of the beautiful game in its most raw and commonly played form—on the street.
The concrete pitch could be found on the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, smack dab in the middle of downtown L.A., with only a metal fence and a few steps of sidewalk to separate us from the bustle of the Saturday brunch crowd. In the early morning hours, a spirited Red Bull team worked hastily to set up for the day’s events as young ballers from around the greater Los Angeles area waited anxiously for their turn at tournament glory. The prize? A ticket to Miami to compete in the National Finals, and a path to Brazil where they’d play again for the grand prize, a chance to be Neymar’s guests at an FC Barcelona match at the famous Camp Nou.
The surge in popularity of street soccer feels similar to the way skateboarding started to take off in the ’90s.
In street football, there is no over-organizing or the kind of traditional filter to rank players based on stats, points, or any of that bologna. What you get is a blend of skills, styles, and experience, and everyone knows each other from local leagues and pickup games. The Neymar Jr’s Five contest had crews of five compete in intense, 10-minute games. With every goal scored, the opposing team was forced to drop a player, making the initial point a key factor in each match. This player-elimination style was Red Bull’s unique twist on small-sided tournament play, concocted by Neymar himself, so ballers could showcase their individual finesse and flair when the opportunity presented itself, while the more strategic of the crews kept it simple and smart.
On the sidelines, various leaders in the soccer community rooted for the talent while downing free Red Bulls, and even getting in on the action in the “media tournament.” The Los Angeles Football Club was among those voices eager to promote the street soccer movement. Patrick Aviles, Manager of Supporter Relations for the LAFC, explained that “the surge in popularity of street soccer feels similar to the way skateboarding started to take off in the ’90s. Sometimes fields and large-scale pitches are hard to come by, so events like this here in the heart of L.A. are particularly special because it gives these kids an opportunity and a place to play. It shows them that they can play anywhere! This is what street soccer is about.”
Also in attendance at Neymar Jr’s Five was Power 106 radio personality and owner of the new pop culture media company Hubwav, Mando Fresko. Touching on the widespread enthusiasm, Fresko shared his personal relationship to the game. “We play all the time, just outside of our Hubwav office, and you know, I grew up playing,” he said. “This is something I care about, and many others care about. It’s a very exciting time to get behind this and help it grow and move forward.”
If I had to put ours into words it would be, ‘never give up,’ because we ran our arses off, we were determined to win …
While the tournament continued and narrowed down to a handful of teams, the energy was kept high thanks to a never-ending supply of Red Bull and slick hip hop tracks laid down by a live DJ. In the end, two incredibly skilled teams that couldn’t have been more different in technique, flair, and hustle made it to the championship. The Janoskians and team Bola. While both teams qualified to go to Miami by making it to the final match, it was the tactical prowess, physical domination, and next-level ball handling of Bola that secured the crew’s victory.
While all ballers on team Bola were unique in style and decked to a tee with tekkers that would make any defender’s head spin, it was 18-year-old Ulises Vidal Perez, aka Peewee, that shined the most at times. When asked about the experience, Peewee glowed with appreciation. “We never played with each other before this, so I was nervous, and I’m nervous for Miami, but how amazing is this,” he told us. Peewee was quick to give assurance that his trip to Florida would not be taken for granted, “I’ve never had an opportunity like this in my life! I just don’t know what to say.”
While Bola basked in the glory of victory, the Janoskians weren’t any less thankful for the amazing opportunity. Team leader Daniel Sahyounie from Melbourne, Australia, admitted the team was thrown together last minute, and that they too had never played together before. “I’m not even joking. First time playing together. My mates and I are performing at Coachella this weekend and I thought, why not? So I knew a guy, and he knew a guy, and before you know it we had a team. And now we’re going to Miami?!” he said.
For those who don’t know, the Janoskians are a popular YouTube and Instagram group from Australia who make music and play pranks on innocent bystanders. Oh and they only have a few dozen million subscribers. “Every team had their own unique thing man. If I had to put ours into words it would be, ‘never give up,’ because we ran our arses off, we were determined to win,” Sahyounie said. (Immediately following our chat, Sahyounie had other matters to tend to and could be heard shouting, “Has anyone seen pants?! I lost my pants!” No word yet on his pants …)
street soccer as a whole, it encourages creativity, it drives the desire to be unique and think outside the box …
Like all great things, the day came to a reluctant end. The Red Bull team hustled to close up shop and prepare for their next stop: Phoenix, Arizona. The once-jam packed lot returned back to bare cement, and now only the frustration of the honkaholics in the nearby intersection filled the air. Among the last of the crew members left was Eddie Salcedo, the man who tirelessly conducted the progression of the tournament all day, with a microphone always on the ready. “What this does, and not just this event, but street soccer as a whole, it encourages creativity, it drives the desire to be unique and think outside the box,” Salcedo reflected. “For the better of the game, it helps that younger players can get into street soccer and futsal. Today, we had players that are from L.A. but all with broad and diverse backgrounds. Many different styles, many different skills and finesse. This mixture was the embodiment of street soccer in L.A.”
Street football in Los Angeles is its own beast. It’s a unique force, perhaps even a sleeping giant, and ambassadors of the sport like Salcedo know this. Where else in the world can you get such a melting pot of skill and style? Los Angeles’ beauty and trademark is rooted in its diversity, the culmination of nationalities, ethnicities, and life experiences. This is where skill converges in a multitude of shapes and colors, and when it comes to street soccer, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Photography by Imad Bolotok, Nick Diamond, and LAFC.