Category Archives: soccer

Upside down in Trinidad

This time, the United States needs only a tie in its final World Cup qualifying match in Trinidad.

This time, home-standing Trinidad & Tobago (with only one win in nine qualifying matches) isn’t nearly the threat it was in 1989, when a T&T victory or tie would have sent the Trinboganians to the 1990 Italy-based World Cup instead of the Yanks.

This time, the atmosphere can’t possibly match the frenzy in Port of Spain 28 years ago, when all residents of the dual-island Caribbean nation appeared to be dressed in red; when the week leading up to the game was a wild party of Calypso and reggae music in the streets—“jump-ups,” they were called; when the passionate locals giddily chanted, “We goin’!” and “Bum dem!” (“Burn them” visitors.)

It might have been intimidating to our small group of American reporters if it hadn’t been so downright entertaining and spirited. And good-natured. Amid the cries of “Search and destroy!” smiling T&T natives greeted us—we were easy to spot—with wishes of good luck or teased us with calls of “Yankee Doodle went to town.” Followed by, “Where is your red?”

Red, the national color, was on sale everywhere. Caps, shirts, underwear, scarfs. Schoolchildren had replaced their standard uniforms (some red, but many of other hues) with all red. Songs from Trinidadian Calypso singer Blue Boy’s latest album, all related to the World Cup effort, were booming throughout the capital city: “Journey” and “Football Dance” and “Goal!” and “Trinidad Boys, Tobago Boys” and “Road to Italy,” with the lyric, “When the Yankees come to the stadium/We’re going to beat them like bongos.”

T&T’s team was called “Strike Squad” and prided itself on “Kaisoca”—Calypso soccer—a flowing, fast-paced, dynamic style that seemed superior to the mechanical, defensive methods of a U.S. squad severely limited in international experience.

That was seven years before the first legitimate U.S. professional league, MLS, debuted. The Yanks had not been to the World Cup in 40 years, and their mostly bland play through the ’89 qualifying process had their federation officials worried that the commitment to place the 1994 World Cup in the United States could be rescinded if the team failed to earn a berth in Italy.

So our little knot of U.S. scribblers was mostly of the belief that the Trinboganians, who clearly cared more about international soccer than the typical American, would have their wishes fulfilled. They chanted, “T&T, we want a goal. On the roooooad, on the rooooad, on the rooooad…..to It-a-ly.” During pre-game festivities, one T&T fan marched around the stadium with a sign, “Even Bush”—George H.W. Bush still was in the White House then—“supports T&T.”

We stayed at the famous “upside-down hotel,” built into the side of a steep hill, with the lobby entered from the top of the hill and the elevators going down. The 10th floor is at the bottom. Everything was just disorienting enough to be memorable.

The game was played on a Sunday afternoon. That morning, we U.S. reporters—there couldn’t have been more than six or seven of us—were invited to have breakfast at the hilltop mansion of then-U.S. ambassador Charles Gargano. He politely welcomed the representatives of such big-time publications as the New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. But it was me, from little old Newsday on Long Island, who got the long-lost friendship treatment. Because Gargano had made his fortune in construction on Long Island, and his son recently had built a site in my village of Babylon.

(A few years later, Gargano was in some hot water for iffy campaign contributions, but I can assure everyone that I never saw the man again).

Anyway, from Gargano’s perch above the city, we could look down on the National Stadium, already overflowing with more than 30,000 red-clad spectators more than five hours before kickoff. Among my fellow journalists then was the Times’ esteemed George Vecsey, who noted in his 2014 book, “Eight World Cups,” that then-T&T soccer federation honcho Jack Warner had had 45,000 tickets printed, creating a dangerous overcrowding situation.

Somehow, everything turned out all right, in spite of the Trinboganians’ crushing disappointment when the U.S. conjured an unlikely 1-0 victory. The Yanks’ decisive goal, a looping 30-yard left-footer by Paul Caligiuri in the 30th minute, arguably is one of the two most historic shots in American soccer history. (Joe Gaetjens’ 1950 World Cup goal that shocked England is the other.)

The exact time of the score could be questioned. Because there was no scoreboard clock, my wristwatch served as “official” timer for our handful of scribes. More remarkable than the U.S. victory—and the Yanks’ sudden efficiency after months of bumbling around—was the grand reaction of the T&T crowd.

It sent the American players off the field to warm applause (and more Calypso music). It called the weeping T&T players back for a final lap around the stadium with chants of “We want Strike Squad.” Following a chaotic round of interviews in the sweaty, cramped, celebratory U.S. lockerroom, several of us reporters walked back to our hotel just after sundown and were repeatedly called to by locals along the way.

“Hey, Yankee.” Uhhhh, yes? “Congratulations!”

This time, I won’t be there. But it couldn’t match 1989, anyway.

Helmut Kohl, soccer and the Berlin Wall

Helmut Kohl was at the game. March 26, 1990 in Dresden, East Germany. That was not quite five months since the fall of the Berlin Wall and six months prior to the official reunification of the two Germanys following 45 years of Cold War antagonism.

So the event, an old-timers’ soccer match featuring a Unified Germany team for the first time since the 1964 Olympics, was far more about symbolism than competition. And it was much more about Kohl, who was in the process of deftly engineering Germany’s new coexistence, than about the former international stars who were scurrying around on the field.

The Unified Germany side was stocked with retired fellows from East and West Germany’s separate 1974 World Cup teams, and pitted against a Rest Of The World outfit that featured such former international stars as England’s Bobby Charlton and Brazil’s Jairzinho. Yet the hardiest pre-game cheers from an overflow crowd of 38,000 were for Kohl, the West German chancellor.

Aside from his physical heft—he was 6-foot-4 and at least 300 pounds—Kohl brought a social and cultural weight to the process. He walked with spectators into the stadium. He performed the ceremonial pre-game kick-off. He mingled with players from both sides after the game. For purposes of sports? Or politics? “Probably both,” German soccer luminary Franz Beckenbauer said then.

News of Kohl’s death last week, at 87, brought all this to mind. A handful of us American sports journalists, who had been in East Berlin to cover a World Cup tune-up match that week between the United States and East Germany’s national team, commandeered rental cars and drove to Dresden to spend another day on the front porch of history.

We had been staying at a hotel on the East side of the Berlin Wall, short blocks from the Brandenburg Gate, cite of President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 “tear down this wall” speech. Steps away in the other direction was the Allied Checkpoint Charlie, where sidewalk vendors recently had set up a flea market peddling concrete chips of the wall and virtually entire military uniforms of Soviet and East German border guards, as well as various military pins that had been worn by those guards. It was like some gift shop on the way out of a museum dedicated to the Iron Curtain era.

We could walk through ragged new holes in the wall, no problem.

But for Germans, particularly in the East, there was a state of confusion with the sudden arrival of democratization and reunification. For one thing, East German money had become essentially worthless.

“Mr. Kohl told all the people, ‘Vote for my party and you will get [West German] deutschmarks,’” Sigfried Koenig, an East German sports official, told me. “Well, I voted for Mr. Kohl”—actually for Kohl’s sister party in the East. “I voted for deutschmarks. That was March 18. What is it now? March 28 already. Where are my deutschmarks?”

In fact, Kohl fulfilled his promise with remarkable speed. By that summer, he allowed the 17 million East German citizens to adopt the mighty West German mark at a rate of 1-to-1, an extraordinary economic stroke that further solidified his popularity and likely stanched a destabilizing flow of refugees from East to West.

Meanwhile, though, there was our Dresden adventure.

Forty-five years before, Dresden had been hit by the Allies’ worst firebombing of World War II. (Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant 1969 novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” was based on that horrific incident.) When we were there in March of 1990, the wartime ruins of the Frauenkirche church still were untouched. (Starting in 1994, the church was rebuilt as part of reunification.) The firebombing’s rubble from the city’s 16th Century castle, the Schloss, likewise was visible. (Some of the proceeds from that Unified Germany soccer exhibition were earmarked to restore the Schloss, finally completed in 2013).

(Frauenkirche ruins)

Tickets had gone on sale two months before and were snapped up—at prices equivalent to $1.20 to $2.40, U.S.—in a half-hour. On the night of the game, scalpers were getting up to $40, U.S. We U.S. reporters were able to convince officials we belonged in the stadium by using the only word we could conjure in our rudimentary German: Zeitung. (Newspaper.)

Of no significance whatsoever was the soccer result—Rest Of The World, 3; Unified Germany, 1. But even that had its echoes of the hostile past that Kohl was working to mend. Charlton, the great English player who was then 52 years old, was mostly kidding when he said, “I suppose it would have been diplomatic to let the Germans win. But we’ve never been very diplomatic that way.”

That was reminiscent of one British sportswriter’s snarky advance story of the 1966 World Cup final, when Charlton and his English mates were about to take on Germany: “Fret not, boys, if on the morrow, we should lose to the Germans at our national  game, for twice this century we have defeated them at theirs.”

The beauty to March 26, 1990 in Dresden was that it was about neither soccer nor war, and that sports sometimes can be more than just sports. Political? Yes. And having seen Helmut Kohl score was a memorable occasion.

(My little piece of the Berlin Wall)

How firing the coach represents U.S. soccer progress

 (Jurgen Klinsmann)

(Jurgen Klinsmann)

America fired its national soccer coach this week, which qualifies as a relatively new fashion. A mere generation ago, the U.S. team could have lost of couple of World Cup qualifying games, as Jurgen Klinsmann’s lads just did, and almost no one would have noticed.

This is a reminder that a coach’s job security is directly proportional to the sport’s cultural significance—that is, the degree of interest, and therefore the expectations, among the populace. More than that, it is a reminder of how dramatically (and how quickly) soccer has progressed on these shores.

Twenty-six years ago, the best the U.S. soccer federation could scrape together for a national team was a jury-rigged collection of recent college players. There was no U.S. professional league because there was no demand for one. The rag-tag team that qualified for the Italy-based 1990 World Cup did so, in large part, because the region’s perennial power, Mexico, had been banned for using ineligible players.

Even so, the Yanks barely squeezed into the championship tournament, their first such appearance in 40 years, and were promptly destroyed by Czechoslovakia, 5-1. The most skilled player on that U.S. team was Tab Ramos, who went on to a successful career as a player and coach and now, at 50, briefly was mentioned as an outside favorite to replace Klinsmann—before U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati settled on a more obvious choice, Bruce Arena.

After that 5-1 thrashing in Florence, Italy, in 1990, Ramos was one of only a few U.S. players brave enough to face reporters’ post-game interrogations. So I asked him, if he somehow could have known beforehand how disappointing his World Cup debut would be, might he have preferred to take a pass?

“This,” he said, “is the greatest experience of my life. If I had to go through it again, just the same way, I would.”

(Tab Ramos, 1990)

(Tab Ramos, 1990)

“It’s a reality,” he said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of. If we lived in another country and lost, 5-1, we couldn’t go home. But we’ll go home and walk through Kennedy Airport and no one will recognize us, anyway.”

Ramos was born in Uruguay, where his father had played professionally, but had moved with his family to New Jersey when he was 7. He knew very well the pecking order of American sports at the time.

“Soccer’s a way of life everywhere but in the U.S.,” he said. “Everywhere else, your team loses, you cry and stay home from work the next day because you’re so upset. Your team wins, you don’t go to work because you’re so happy.”

He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself to be an “American soccer player” (an oxymoron, in those days, like “living dead” or “definite maybe.”) He was appreciating his great (and unlikely, in those days) opportunity on the sport’s biggest stage.

One of Ramos’ teammates then—and another fellow whose name momentarily was tossed around as a possible Klinsmann successor—was Peter Vermes, who had spent two years playing in the lesser European pro leagues in Hungary and The Netherlands. Vermes recalled reading the Dutch newspapers shortly after he was hired by Holland’s F.C. Volendam club and seeing quotes from his new teammates, who wondered, “Why did we sign him? What do we need an American for?”

Now, the reality is markedly different. Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional league, is in its 21st season. American players regularly find jobs with European teams. Soccer, as a spectator sport in the States, now is on the order of ice hockey, just behind the big three of football, baseball and basketball. The United States, in fact, is one of only seven nations to have qualified for the past seven World Cups, a streak equaled only by global powers Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain, plus Far East regional force South Korea.

Enough people, from soccer fans to soccer officials, care enough about the national team’s recent struggles that Klinsmann’s ouster was inevitable. His record over six years was 55-28-15, a winning percentage (.638) second only to Arena’s (71-30-29, .658) for any of the 35 coaches who were around for more than two games in the national team’s 100-year history.

(Bruce Arena)

(Bruce Arena)

But it matters more than ever that Klinsmann lost those first two Cup qualifying games. And it was Arena, from 1998 to 2006, who managed the Yanks’ highest World Cup finish in 2002—a 1-0 quarterfinal loss to eventual runner-up Germany. Arena did so with the same clear-eyed awareness of America’s relative come-lately soccer status acknowledged by Ramos and Vermes in the horse-and-buggy days of 1990.

“I mean, if I said my philosophy was to play like [five-time World Cup champion] Brazil,” Arena said early in his first tour as national coach, “I’d look pretty stupid, wouldn’t I?” But, too: “You can only put 11 on the field,” he said. “If you could put 500 Brazilians on the field, or 500 Italians [winners of four World Cups], against 500 Americans, we’d have a problem.”

His only problem now is qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Because a lot of people will notice if he doesn’t.

Iceland’s soccer referendum on England: Leave

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Dateline LONDON.

Now does not appear to be England’s finest hour. Apart from the obvious—the so-called Brexit vote to pull Great Britain out of the European Union, rattling the world’s financial markets and unleashing political chaos within the United Kingdom—there is the matter of football. (Soccer, to us Colonists.)

England is the Motherland of Soccer, the sport’s original superpower, and Monday’s staggering upset loss in the European Championships to historically insignificant Iceland has contributed to a sense of England’s fading global influence. The 2-1 loss to Iceland, just days after filing for divorce from the E.U., loosed a soul-searching anguish in a nation so long convinced, as Shakespeare wrote, that it was “the envy of less happier lands.”

“Less happy” would be an understatement for England’s general mood right now. Prime Minister David Cameron is resigning, his opposition party has declared an overwhelming lack of confidence in its own leader, European bigwigs are taking a good-riddance stance on the Brexit vote….and the soccer loss is being cast as a “disgrace” and “pathetic failure.” “Stiff upper lip” does not appear to apply.

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It happened that I arrived here for a brief holiday just in time to read the supremely self-assured pre-match analyses of the Iceland duel, with English fans—and especially English bettors—certain there was “no way,” an one pundit put it, “that a major footballing force like England should be losing to a country you could make disappear with a hairdryer in about four hours.”

Normally, I could work up a reasonable passion for England’s endeavors. This is a polite, civilized nation of diversity and gumption, the land of Churchill, the home of the Beatles, the team of David Beckham. But  Iceland’s rollicking advance into the Championships’ knockout round, against all odds—coinciding with My Fellow Americans’ semifinal loss in Copa America—had moved me to declare a week ago that Iceland is my new favorite team.

When the big game arrived Monday evening, we were strolling through Leicester Square in search of theatre tickets, while pubs overflowed with fans straining for a glimpse of TV sets inside. That included a pair of policemen, who informed my wife—not too long after kickoff—that Iceland had a one-goal lead.

Iceland! The tiny Nordic island with more volcanoes than professional soccer players! The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major soccer tournament! My new favorite team!

For the last 20 minutes of action, my daughter and I strained for a glimpse over jostling patrons, beers in hand, on the fringes of Philomena’s Irish Sports Bar and Kitchen in the Holborn district. The end left muttering fans dispersing into the night, and the next morning’s papers raged at the players’ bewildering lack of offensive pressure and English goalie Joe Hart’s “huge blunders” after he had gotten only his fingers on the decisive goal.

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English manager Roy Hodgson immediately fell on his sword, quitting in shame even faster than David Cameron had over the Brexit vote. There was much angst over England’s training deficiencies and the poor investments of the national soccer federation. “English coaching is rotten to the core,” one headline declared.

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Even some of the art at the Tate Britain gallery seemed to address England’s current misery. But, too, this is the home of Monty Python, and The Times of London showed the good humor to run a large feature headlined, “So we all want to be Icelandic now, ja?” Because, the piece pointed out (among other things):

—The men are beefcakes (citing “Game of Thrones” bad guy Gregor Clegane, who is played by Icelander Hafthor Bjornsson)…

—They have magnificent beards…

—Iceland is the third happiest country in the world, according to a U.N. survey (behind Switzerland and Denmark. (Take that, Bill Shakespeare.)

—Plus, the Times writer added, “Did I mention they’re good at football?”

Ja, and that’s my new favorite team. But I’m not worried about England. Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

 

My new favorite team

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Iceland has become my default position in this Summer of Soccer. Now that My Fellow Americans have been eliminated from Copa America, thrashed by world No. 1 Argentina in that major tournament’s semifinals, Iceland’s compelling—shocking—advance into the knockout round of the European championships has my full attention and rooting interest.

This hardly is a renunciation of citizenship. And certainly not a dismissal of the Yanks’ decided progress over the past generation, from Third World to Emerging Nation to legitimate international presence in the sport. While countless pundits in my chosen field of sports journalism continue to dismiss U.S. proficiency and—especially—U.S. fan interest in soccer, the Americans in fact are one of only seven nations to qualify for the past seven World Cups. (Only global powers Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain—plus Far East regional force South Korea—have equaled that.)

Furthermore, there hardly was shame in the Yanks’ 4-0 loss in the Copa semis to Argentina and its Messi-merizing superstar, five-time world player-of-the-year Lionel Messi. Despite the embarrassing admission recently by New York talk radio blowhard Mike Francesa—who claims to speak for mainstream U.S. fans—that he and his listeners never had heard of Messi or Copa America, a sizeable chunk of the populace long ago came to realize that there are few displays in sports to equal the cool, lyrical expertise of Messi and his mates.

Still, I must move on. And what better spectator value than a classic case of unexpected overachievement against great odds and established potentates? The Washington Post precisely summed up matters with a headline labeling Iceland “your new favorite team.”

More than the team, which never had qualified for a major soccer tournament in 23 previous tries and has levitated more than 100 spots in the sport’s world rankings over the last three years, is the appealing mash-up of Iceland’s distinct culture, geography, language and people.

leif

Of course it is ironic, as a native of the land that celebrates Christopher Columbus, to be discovering Iceland at this late date. Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson found us first, 500 years before Columbus. Iceland also beat the United States to the punch by (at least) 36 years with a female head-of-state. In 1980, Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the world’s first democratically elected woman to the presidency, and served for 16 years.

Bezoek president IJsland, mevrouw Vigdis Finnbogadottir inspecteert met Koningin Beatrix erewacht op Rotterdam Airport *19 september 1985

Now, with its soccer team threatening to pass the Yanks in the world rankings—Iceland began the month No. 34, the U.S. No. 31—the only reasonable thing to do is get aboard the bandwagon and embrace an appreciation of the tiny Nordic Island, where everybody literally is known as someone’s son or daughter.

The traditional Icelandic system of naming children discards surnames with each generation. If I were Icelandic, for instance, I would not be John Jeansonne, taking my father’s family name, but John Fredsson—because my father’s given name was Fred. And my daughter would not be Jordan Jeansonne, but Jordan Johnsdottir. “John’s daughter.”

(The full name of Bjork—the singer-songwriter who possibly is the most widely known Icelander in the world—is Bjork Guomundsdottir.)

bjork

Isolated up there at the juncture of the Norwegian Sea and Atlantic Ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle, and 1,000 times smaller than the United States in population, Iceland is easily (and logically) overlooked. At least until its national team pulls the rug out from under Hungary, Portugal and Austria with two ties and a win on the big stage of the European championships. Then, we begin to notice that roughly 10,000 of its folks, among a population of 330,000, are merrily chanting and wearing Viking helmets in the crowd in suburban Paris, while the players put on an a stirring show.

The country is so tiny—60 U.S. cities have larger populations than all of Iceland—that Iceland defender Karl Arnason considered the crowd in France and estimated that “I know probably 50 percent of them. Or at least recognize them. It’s like having your family at the game.”

The Iceland fans are “Tolfan,” which translates to “Twelve.” As in the “12th man” moniker famously adopted by U.S. football fans of the Seattle Seahawks and Texas A&M Aggies. Johann Olafur Sigurdsson, blogging for the Euro2016 Web site, declared upon Iceland’s conquest of Austria that “June 22 should be a national holiday from here on.” Exhibit A of that day’s outrageously unlikely success can be found on the Internet in the shrieking, enraptured (and unintelligible) reaction to Iceland’s last-second winning goal by Iceland broadcaster Guomundur (Gummi Ben) Benediktsson.

Tolfan refer affectionately to their players as Strakarnir Okkar—“Our Boys”—and American-born, Iceland-raised soccer pro Aron Johannsson recently offered a translation of the compliment “duglegur” that is being lavished on those Iceland lads.

“You know how, in the United States, you say ‘good job’ or ‘good boy’?” Johannsson was quoted. “In Iceland, we say, ‘Hard work! That was some hard work you did there!’” Duglegur!

At 8 p.m. Monday, local time in France, Iceland will play England—the nation that merely invented soccer—in Nice, for a ticket to the Euro quarterfinals. I’ve got to get hold of a Viking helmet to show some solidarity.

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Who won the Women’s World Cup?

Apparently, the United States has won the Women’s World Cup soccer title for the third time in the history of the seven global tournaments. Except the champs who bludgeoned Japan, 5-2, on the July 4th weekend appeared to be representing some mysterious land that flies a white, black and neon green flag.

flag

Or, very possibly, the Nation of Nike.

The Americans’ raiment was so counterintuitive that, when the duds were introduced in April, a Nike vice president, Charlie Brooks, had to scramble to the outfitter’s defense by claiming the uniforms were meant to “paint inspiration for the team itself—something crisp, stylish, sharp, strong and impactful, like the team itself.”

green

But, neon green? Rally ‘round the shoe company? Ev’ry heart beats fine/’neath the white, black and lime?

In international sports, nationalism can get a bit haywire at times and morph into an unattractive jingoism that denigrates the Other Side. Nevertheless, those keenly skilled American women were, after all, members of the U.S. National Team. Their fans, who dominated the large crowds at the various Canadian Cup venues, logically draped themselves in red, white and blue flag motifs.

Typically, even those national teams that eschew their flag look tend to opt for hues with significant links to their homelands. Italy (red, green and white flag) wears blue—the Azzurri—because blue is the official color of the Royal House of Savoy, under which Italy was united in the 19th Century. The Netherlands (red, white and blue flag) wears orange, the traditional color of the Dutch monarchy and a symbol of national unity.

I’m of the conviction that U.S. teams—as suggested long ago by my friend John Powers of the Boston Globe—should outfit themselves like Apollo Creed in the old “Rocky” films. All stars and stripes, a little like the 1994 U.S. men’s soccer team.

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Instead, the women’s attire in this World Cup reminded that it has been some time since Nike, the sportswear-and-equipment beast, began dictating uniform colors and, in the process, providing a glimpse into the dark shades of Nike’s voracious capitalist heart. By assuring that traditional colors wear out before your souvenir shirt does, Nike can increase its sales. The retail tail wags the on-field dog.

So black is the new blue, neon green the new red. (And subject to change.) Is this the kind of thing that Yale law professor Charles Reich was warning about in his 1970 book, “The Greening of America”? “The corporate state,” he argued, “is an immensely powerful machine, ordered, legalistic, rational, yet utterly out of human control, wholly and perfectly indifferent to any human values.”

book

Paul Lukas, the sports uniform maven who runs the Uni Watch web site that obsesses over team logos and color combinations, told me several years ago that, in this marketing era, “the first question [uniform designers] ask is, ‘How is this going to sell at the team shop or Modells?’”

Lukas called this all part of the “video-game-ization of sports, the superhero-ization of sports. Superheroes don’t wear uniforms. They wear costumes.”

OK, superheroes: Time for a revolution. Storm the Nike barricades. Take back the nation’s colors.