Curiously, perhaps the most significant cultural moment in basketball’s history did not happen in a finals game, or any game at all for that matter, but when Michael Jordan leapt from the free-throw line in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest, scoring a perfect 50 and cementing a cultural legacy that continues to envelop basketball culture and apparel decades later. Over here we don’t seem to have a footballing equivalent – who knows, maybe it’s because we’re more reserved, team-focused, pessimistic or just plain miserable.
In the US, however, these all-star events are much more common, where regular seasons are suspended and the characters of the game get to express themselves, free from the shackles of league positions or team dynamics. And as the need for glitz and glamour bleeds into the US version of our humble game, the MLS has got on board too: they just announced they’ll be debuting new skills challenges at the 2019 MLS All-Star game in Orlando in July, as individual players get a chance to showcase skills they showcase every single match-day, but with points. Soccerball gets all showbiz.
Thing is, we don’t care for precise passing or who can hit enlarged targets in a goal. We want intrigue; we want curiosity; we want something different. The MLS skill challenge should look more like this.
The ‘professional foul without being booked’ challenge
We’ve all been there: Saturday mornings at the local park, sweating out the drinks from Sharon’s leaving drinks the night before. He’s been mugging you off the entire game, that striker. Never letting up. Never leaving you alone. ‘Just chase the other centre-back for a bit’, you internally scream as you frantically throw an exhausted foot at his fourth goal-bound shot. At least this one goes out for a corner. Please, some relief.
Now your side are attacking a corner swung into the box – at least we could make it 4-1, you think. That wouldn’t be so bad. It clips off Damon’s shoulder (never could get his head on much) and drops to that same bloody striker. The pacey one who’s seemingly flamboyant and reserved at the same time. A peacock and a donkey; a showman and a workman. He’s already on the loose ball and set his sights on your goalkeeper, 60 yards away and alone. Only one thing for it, really. Can’t do a lot else. You charge at his accelerating legs and, as nonchalantly as you can, you pull on his shirt. And flick his shin. And lean into him. Just a bit, of course – he flies over, the ref immediately blows and gives you a stern word. No card, mind: the Professional Foul, perfectly executed.
This event is all about subtlety and pushing the envelope. Four players are each lined up five yards behind an opposing striker, who is set out of the traps like a greyhound. It’s a whirr of Mitre balls and Adidas Copas- first one to bring down the opposing striker wins. But, adding dramatic flair akin to our American cousins’ other sporting events, the refs can blow up for a foul. Look, Mark Clattenburg’s turned up out of nowhere and his unnervingly monotone north-eastern voice booms around the ground’s speakers: “Yellurw card: Carlos Velah, Los Anjeelees.” The crowd cheers. Carlos is gutted.
The ‘Milad Mohammadi throw-in’ challenge
⏮ Throwback to this time last year when Iran’s Milad Mohammadi decided to try something different with his throw in…
He failed…#OnThisDay in 2️⃣0️⃣1️⃣8️⃣…
— Football On This Day (@footieonthisday) June 20, 2019
Just this, really. Nothing too complicated about it – nothing Rory Delap nor Thomas Gronnemark need concern themselves with. Just every single player in the MLS attempting this throw-in. All 672 of them. Six attempts each, any successful attempt automatically earns a gold medal. Have it in one corner of the stadium just gently ticking over, like the distant sound of a hedge trimmer on a lazy summer afternoon.
I guess it’d be like the javelin in the actual Olympics; does that ever end? Or does it gently burn alongside the torch for the entire two weeks, captivating nobody and yet somehow enthralling fans? Anyway, just endless attempts of the Mohammadi Special, please.
The ‘How far can Wazza boot it?’ challenge
“Pinballs to Rooney! Rooney sees Rowe out! OhhhhhoaAHHWWW IT’S IN THE NET! … CANYOUBELIEVEIT? IT’S WAYNE ROONEY OF COURSE YOU CAN BELIEVE IT!”
This commentary was the cherry on top of Rooney’s tonking slice of cake, served up FROM BEYOND MIDFIELD in DC United’s 1-0 win over Orlando last week. And, quite frankly, the MLS needs more of it all. More of Rooney turning gently, considering whether to hold the ball up for about a third of a second, before launching a surface-to-air missile across state lines. More absurd commentary from the beautiful, batshit American commentators.
So this event would involve two separate strands. Much like the javelin event – or indeed the under appreciated hammer throw, which is the more technically challenging and balletic throwing event – competitors essentially line up behind a strip of chalk and lump the absolute shit out of it. Manchester City’s Ederson drop-kicked one 75.35 metres last year, the official Guinness World Record. But Wazza Rooney? 150 metres? 500 metres? Over 11 miles, the maximum width of the Mississippi River as it passes through Bena, Minnesota? Who knows? Wazza knows.
And, simultaneously, commentators from various worldwide networks can compete for the greatest number of syllables and words crammed into a single strand of speech. Points to be awarded via a diving contest-style points system. Shaquille O’Neal is there, alongside Brad Friedel and Jimmy Fallon. Sir Alex watches on, proud.
We all love keepy-ups. They’re your classic form of one-player-one-ball football. Former Brazilian footballer Milene Domingues (Ronaldo’s ex-wife) kept a ball up 55,187 times once. You all know that. But how many could an ageing Nani achieve, with 35,000 fans watching on and no flailing defender’s leg to try and nutmeg or throw himself over? That’s the real question.
VAR 100m sprint
VAR’s had a tough time this year. Opinions range from ‘the Star Wars prequels’ (a good idea, poorly executed) to ‘women in 1692 having more than one female friend’ (witchcraft/heresy). So let’s get back to basics, and help these guys train their eyesight and instincts to the level of a Navy SEAL sniper, seeing as that’s supposedly what we want…
100-metre sprint. Nothing complicated about it, but the players aren’t the ones competing. It’s actually for the VAR officials, and they’re competing to correctly identify who crosses the line first. It’s easy: just eight runners, all crossing the line simultaneously, whilst eight other players follow them and obscure their view, and a ball is whipped into the middle of them, and there are 58,000 screaming fans in the stands and millions more watching at home. Straightforward.
The ‘Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Wayne Rooney extravagant volleys’ challenge
Dust your boots off, Wazza, you’re in again. This time it’s against the self-proclaimed lord of the MLS, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it’s basically a game of headers and volleys. Except there are no headers and only outrageously flamboyant volleys are allowed. Similar points-scoring to the commentators from earlier.
Rooney starts off proceedings with a run-of-the-mill bicycle kick a la Manchester Derby. Nothing frightening about that. Zlatan returns serve with a left-footed effort from the seat of a flying Harley Davidson that’s just left a ramp, as Born In the USA blares out around the ground. Wazza, not to be outdone, takes it up a notch. He flies into the ground literally strapped to Lindsey Vonn’s skies as she flies down a purpose-built slope and connects with the ball with such force it punctures Zlatan’s impenetrable forcefield of self-belief. He is left winded and defeated. Sir Alex watches on, proud.
Charlie Morgan – follow the man on Twitter.