Todd Boehly must be wondering what exactly he said to kick up such a kerfuffle. A transatlantic brouhaha like this is usually reserved for any Brit promoting the benefits of free at the point of use healthcare. All the Chelsea chairman, part owner and interim sporting director had suggested was a 90 minute football match.
And yet the suggestion of a Premier League All-Star Game has already drawn condemnation from the likes of Jurgen Klopp to sit alongside the inevitable raft of North and South XIs to enrage supporters up and down the land. If only you’d waited another week Todd, it’s the international break coming up and the content well is already running dry after a weekend without English football.
Speaking at the Salt thought leaders conference at New York, Boehly, dressed like a man ready to sell volcano insurance to the people of west London, was perhaps guilty of not having considered his proposal before he offered it in a fireside chat streamed around the globe. But it was a fairly simple concept, one that would have immediate familiarity to most in the Stateside audience. Surely he could not have predicted the alarm bells that would ring in the United Kingdom, where Gary Neville was soon renewing his call for an independent regulator of the sport to protect the English game from the “clear and present danger” that had travelled across the pond.
“They just don’t get it and think differently,” he added. “They also don’t stop till they get what they want!” To his credit he certainly kept the Jack Ryan motif running throughout that particular tweet. Perhaps a decade plus of Glazer ownership at Manchester United has Neville seeing malignant US influence in every boardroom. Boehly has hardly made himself an easy man to warm to for the punditocracy since his accession to the Chelsea throne, reportedly offering Thomas Tuchel helpful suggestion like “sign Ronaldo” or “play one extra player than everyone else.”
Still it’s hard to shake the sense that the All-Star pitch is less the act of a cynical puppet master with designs on a European Super League and more… a bit of fun. After all that is the function it serves for the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS: a brief respite from the intensity of the calendar, a moment to ditch the po-faced commentary and get back to a more joyful version of the sport. No one’s idea of a sporting pinnacle comes at the All-Star Game. It isn’t the moment when the greatest separate themselves from the rest. But it is also an occasion where the most talented players in a league indulge their creative side like never before, digging deep into their box of tricks for the most ludicrous moments they can come up with.
An All-Star weekend such as the NBA’s is a festival of fun, one which could easily be adapted for the Premier League needs. The era of Ultimate Team and superhero team up movies demands a free kick duel between James Ward-Prowse and Trent Alexander-Arnold before Nick Pope and Aaron Ramsdale duke it out in the goalkeeper’s skills challenge. Utterly daft and decidedly low stakes, there are few things football needs more in this era of perma-crisis and outrage.
No one is going to worry about Giannis Antetoukounmpo twinging his ankle in Salt Lake City next February because he is hardly going to be going hell for leather in pursuit of victory. He is just going to enjoy playing some basketball with friends, some of whom might even play on rival teams.
Hard as this can be to believe for those outside the sport, there is no Premier League blood feud that extends beyond the football pitch. Living in an environment few outside football could imagine, far away from their homeland, are Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Ruben Dias going to swerve each other because they happen to be employed by different football clubs? Could they really not stand to share a pitch together if it were not in Portuguese colors? Though, as a sidenote, North vs. South seems a far inferior selection method to the NBA’s approach, where the best pick the rest and James Harden side-eyes them both.
And those who know top flight footballers well think they would be invigorated by the chance to win All-Star honors. The game itself would be not much more than a glorified exhibition, but being named to one of the teams would be a ringing endorsement for players at a time when much of the PFA Team of the Year is blocked off by the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk.
There is though one objection to the All-Star Game to which there can be no rejoinder. As Jurgen Klopp noted last night, there simply is not space for it. “When he finds a date for that he can call me,” the Liverpool manager said. “He forgets that in the big sports in America, these sports have four-month breaks so they’re quite happy they can do a little bit of sport in these breaks. It’s completely different in football.”
At a time when there are just three free midweeks between January and May for English football to make up its recent postponements it goes without saying that throwing another game into the mix, even a friendly that would allow most of the league to rest its weary legs, would be ludicrous. And yet to dismiss the All-Star Game because the calendar is a mess is an act of conservatism, defending a status quo that will inevitably play havoc with the fitness of players in years to come.
Instead of yet another fixture, conversations on the All Star Game should bring with them a debate about what we want from the calendar. If we take Boehly at his word and this one game could bring $200 million to trickle down the footballing pyramid might that not also allow some reflection on the future of the EFL Cup, which soldiered on through the grim trenches of COVIDball because the lower leagues needed the revenue of fixtures against the biggest teams. No one ever seems to want to watch, attend or play in the Community Shield. Why couldn’t the best start to the new season be a celebration of the best and brightest from the past 12 months?
It may be that none of these ideas work, that the All-Star Game is a concept best left Stateside, like Cadillacs, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Big Bang Theory. But one thing these games reliably do is make money; if that could be directed from the top of the English game down to the lower reaches then it is clearly an idea worth exploring.