Two weeks before landing in São Paulo, Brazil I had a phone call with the director of the RedBullTV show we were about to make. We were creating a two hour live show surrounding the Semi Finals and World Finals of Neymar Jr’s Five. The most awesome Five a Side competition on the planet. The director walked me through the grand scale of this global tournament which brought 53 national champions to Brasil and told me all about how he visualised the show. He explained Neymar Jr’s passion for the game he played on the streets as a child. He expressed just how genuinely involved Neymar Jr was and how Neymar Jr would be opening the show with me….Hold up….Opening the show? like, links to camera? by my side? like a co-host?
Yes. Neymar Jr was to be my co-host. Opening and closing the show as well as off the cuff interviews and naturally, he was going to play. I’d have to work around security issues but, as much as possible, Neymar Jr wanted to be part of the show.
I didn’t believe a word of it.
I was confident that when we arrived it would all be called off. Security restrictions, time restraints and general complications would mean Neymar Jr wouldn’t be by my side. Let’s be realistic I’d get an interview at best. It’s a massive event and he’s arriving by helicopter less than twenty mins before we go live. Of course he wasn’t going to make it. I re-wrote my intro excluding Neymar’s parts and prepared for the intro alone. I believed my director was a ‘Cup Half Full’ kinda guy but I just forgot about it.
My expert side kick was Djibril Cisse. I was excited. Champions league winner Djibril had recently stunned the world by coming out of retirement and I’d get to bounce off a man who knows the meaning of pressure like no other.
As I landed in São Paulo I began to discover more about the league. With no women in sight I mentioned how one day it would be cool to have a women’s version too. I’m always the first one to fight for the girls, but this time I didn’t have to. This tournament has no gender limitations. Girls were invited, many did play but they did not make it past the nationals and our final 53 teams just so happened to be all male.
A two hour drive from the airport and we arrive in Praia Grande, where Neymar Jr grew up and where he has built his incredible instituto. Instituto Projeto Neymar Jr is a non-profit organisation created to help the poorest of the local children. The schools cornerstone is teaching through football but they also hold Spanish lessons, English lessons, Technology lessons, swimming classes and even have an orthodontist on site to help with the children’s dental health. I met with the children and was in awe of this special space. A space that clearly made many disadvantaged children feel happy.
Show day arrived and we ran rehearsals without our star. We never expected him for rehearsals, I didn’t even expect him for the main show, but people we all still talking as if my co-host was indeed Neymar Jr.
Twenty mins before we go live and right on cue we see his personalised helicopter circles the stadium. The crowd goes wild and suddenly everything felt very real. Neymar Jr was arriving. Immediately you see security men appear everywhere shuffling people around and making way for arrivals. Ten minutes before live I’m beckoned upstairs to greet and brief Neymar Jr. Time was tight. It took forever to get to his room and he wasn’t even there yet. I watched the clock ticking down and could hear the producers in my ear panicking. The UCI downhill championships were airing before our show, we had a short opening title sequence but it was a hard start. Bang on midday. There was no way we could delay it.
Normally twenty minutes before live I’m on my spot wired for sound and waiting. Instead as it approached five minutes to live I was stood in a room surrounded by security still waiting for Neymar Jr. I knew he wouldn’t make it and if I didn’t leave now I wouldn’t make it either. I heard his agent arrive and as she explained that Neymar Jr still had to get changed – I bailed. I ran out the room and went back to the original plan I always had in my mind. I’d be opening the show alone.
As I rushed down the stairs I crossed paths with a small circle of people literally throwing clothes over their heads. Neymar and his team were in the building and were changing whilst walking. They too knew of the epic rush.
I rushed on to my spot and as I stood in place, out of breath and nervous the 30 second countdown in my ear began. I had made it just 30 seconds before live. My sound man is still pulling a wire through my clothes and I’m feeling very flustered. Suddenly it changed and I was overcome with sadness. I just felt really really sad. Although I never believed I’d open the show with him, I really wanted to. I really truly wanted him to be there and thought it would be the most incredible moment of my career welcoming a live audience to Neymar Jr’s Five World Final…with Neymar Jr. I was gutted.
I hear a voice in my ear say ’20 seconds, smile Layla’ and as I catch my breath I felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘Oi’ he says. The crowd went mental. Screaming and crying. The sheer volume was overwhelming, I get goosebumps and kinda just want to cry with happiness. Neymar Jr is stood next to me. He is super calm and I immediately run through with him what we’re doing. He can barely hear me through the screams and as I hear a faint countdown from 10, 9, 8 I scrap his lines make a last minute change to script and say NEYMAR ‘você vai falar seu nome’ – just say your name. I’ll say Layla Anna-Lee and I’ll point to you and you just say ‘I’M NEYMAR JR’ that’s all…3, 2, 1 and we’re live.
I had ten seconds to brief Neymar Jr and now I’m opening a live broadcast with him. He smiles a huge smile like a natural and, as I say my name, someone from the crowd shouts ‘Te Amo Neymar’ he turns and completely forgets to say his own name. It was hilarious, somehow we got away with it. He laughed and the day continued in his fun loving spirit. Nothing on time, but everything joyous and thrilling in every way.
I still cannot believe I opened the show with Neymar Jr.
The whole event was awesome – the attendance of Gabriel Jesus sums it up. The Manchester City Striker was not paid to be there, uncommitted he chose to come during his holidays because he wanted to be there. He didn’t have to play, he wasn’t obligated to do interviews but he chose to support Neymar Jr and the institute and wanted to have a good time. He had a bloody great time!
Work wise it’s the most fun I’ve ever had. The tournament itself is incredible. The twist in the five a side rules Neymar Jr and RedBull have created make the game more dramatic. If you concede a goal, you lose a player. Draws are decided by epic one on one battles and there’s no goalkeeper. I cannot express enough how brilliantly entertaining this format is and how you must not miss this show. If only to see Neymar Jr completely forget his own name.
Watch Neymar Jrs Five World Final HERE
Give to Neymar Jrs non-profit institute HERE.
see more photos from Neymar Jrs Five on my Instagram HERE.