Summer tours reveal an ugly truth
It was the summer of 1954, and Mr Coley was quite appalled. The football of his Luton Town side's European hosts might not have been too bad -- "surprisingly good," in fact -- but their timekeeping was terrible, and their idea of accommodation deeply disappointing.
"They are very lax," he wrote. "The kick-off may be anything up to half an hour over the stated time. Our hotel would be rated third class in England, but it was looked upon as first class [there]." There was only one way of expressing his disillusionment. Mr Coley and his companions would not have a bath until they reached a locale they deemed sufficiently clean. "It was our first since leaving England, a matter of 14 days."
Phil Coley, the Luton Town secretary, was a member of the party that embarked on the club's tour to Greece and Turkey in the summer of 1954. By that stage, English teams had been undertaking such ventures for almost half a century: the first recorded trips came at the start of the 20th century, and by 1914 even Exeter City had been invited out, their journey to South America taking in the first-ever game played by the Brazilian national team.
As Coley's recollections, sent to the FA News, make clear, these were not always easy trips. It was, though, something of a money-spinner -- Luton were paid 150 pounds for each of the seven games they played in Athens and Istanbul -- but just as importantly, it was educational, and not for the travelling side.
"Unless some teams are prepared to make the effort and show these people the English way of conducting and playing the game, it is difficult to see how their standards are ever going to be brought on a par with our own," Coley wrote, quite wonderfully pompously.
Nothing is new in football. The world turns and the game with it, but everything has been done before. Tiki-taka? Try Queens Park, in the 1880s. Zonal marking? Brazil were doing that in the 1950s. The front-loaded formations beloved of Barcelona and Real Madrid? Look at it on the pitch and it looks an awful lot like a 2-3-5, the very first tactical system.
The summer tour, cast now as the very embodiment of the modern game's obsession with money, is in reality a tradition dating back to football's early years.
Of course, there are differences between Luton's adventure in 1954 and those undertaken this summer by the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. The hotels are probably a bit better now, while the rewards are even greater -- the two Premier League giants shared $1.5 million between them ($1 million going to United) for reaching the final of the International Champions Cup, which sounds an awful lot like what the Champions League used to be called on "Pro Evolution Soccer" before the game bought the naming rights.
And then there is the hype, of course. That article in the FA News was just about all the coverage Luton's tour got in 1954. They were not exactly a high-profile club, but suffice to say that even the larger sides would have just a local reporter with them most of the time.
There was no television coverage or breathless articles dictating "what we learned." What happened in the games was incidental. Not so now. Now we are told, increasingly, that all of these matches matter. This is odd, because they do not. Not really.
There are many reasons that hyperbole has been allowed to manifest. The International Champions Cup, for example, garnered some pretty impressive attendances, and it fuelled the storyline of America's "new" "infatuation" with football. Never mind that it's not new, that it's not an infatuation, and that it has been the case for some time that there are a lot of people in the States who like football. Such things are immaterial. They get in the way of the narrative.
Those attendances showcased the appeal that the top English clubs have in the States, giving rise once more to the subject of the 39th game, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore's short-lived idea for the league to introduce an extra game every season, to be played abroad. That has fed the frenzy over the International Champions Cup, too.
Mostly, though, the buzz around these matches is linked to the nature of modern football, its capacity to hyperbolise anything and everything, to pretend that everything matters all of the time and to refuse, generally, to let go of its vice-like grip on the collective consciousness.
It would be easy to suggest that it is because of the post-World Cup buzz, that we are all desperate to see some competitive football again, but in reality the opposite is probably true.
Europe's clubs must loathe the World Cup, with its ability to hold the planet in its thrall in a way that they can only dream about. These preseason adventures are being turned up to 11 to make us forget about the World Cup, to convince us that these old tribal meetings are what we really want, that the summer is just a fevered dream, to keep the fever going.
Forget the hype, though, and the standard of the hotels and the amount of interest, because there is a much more significant difference between the tours English teams used to take and those that they go on now. And no, it is not money; they get more of it these days, but it was a factor then, too. No; what has gone is the educational element. Luton and the rest thought they were seeding the rest of the world to love the game. United and Liverpool are doing the exact opposite.
All this talk of the 39th game, of more tours and more tournaments and bigger television markets offers a glimpse of an important truth. The way representatives of La Liga and the Premier League and Serie A talk about the U.S. and the race to achieve primacy there, too, tells us something. It tells us what the old world thinks of the new.
These teams do not want to popularise football across the Atlantic. They do not want to teach the natives the best way to play. They see America as virgin territory, as ground to be conquered, as a canvas on which to paint their imperial dreams. They do not see it as a legitimate football culture.
There is a reason nobody goes on high-profile tours to Brazil or Argentina. There is a reason that South Africa has become less popular, too. In places where local clubs take precedence, there is a limit to how much money can be made. Yes, United would get vast crowds if they came to play in Rio de Janeiro, but they would not convert lots of new Manchester United fans. The cariocas would go on supporting Flamengo or Vasco or Fluminense.
That is not the case in the United States. The leagues of the old world see America as a place to be fought over and to be conquered -- in that sense, some things never change. What they are doing is not designed to support the development of a healthy, native football culture. It is aimed at casting Major League Soccer into the shadows.
They do not want Americans to watch their own league. They want them to watch the Premier League, or the Bundesliga, or La Liga, or Serie A. That way their viewing figures are higher, their broadcast rights are more lucrative. These tours do not help to increase awareness of football in the States. They increase awareness of the Premier League and Real Madrid and Roma. They have little to do with football. These clubs are not missionaries. They are evangelists.
Mr Coley might have been appalled by the foreigners' ways, but cut through his pomposity and he and his club were engaged in something vaguely noble. They were trying to spread the gospel of the game. Their modern descendants are doing nothing of the kind. Luton were trying to teach the world to play; Liverpool, United and the rest just want them to watch, and to pay.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.