Let’s get straight to the point: It’s a fake. Each of the above images is a clever fabrication, but the team shot — commissioned by a certain sports outfitter to congratulate the 1990 U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) on its history-making World Cup qualification — was not taken on site, in front of the Roman Colosseum, during Italia ‘90. This admittedly minor historical ruse was confirmed by national team veteran John Stollmeyer (front row, second from left) in early May 2023. “The photo is superimposed,” he told me. “I have never been to the Colosseum.”

Why does it matter? Because my publishers at Dickinson-Moses Press had tried to acquire this image, for use in my 2022 book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America. When contacted, Adidas claimed never to have held the image rights; those remained with the original photographer who, to this day, has not been identified. And now I can reasonably infer the reason why: The image survives into the 21st century not as a work worthy of trademark, but rather of whimsical promotional invention — likely cooked up in a German art department — to which no one cares to lay claim.

One of the cool things about Generation Zero is the diversity and quality of its imagery. The cover and many inside pages feature shots from the era’s official USMNT photographer, the one and only Jon van Woerden. But I also invited those USMNT players I interviewed (a dozen of them) to supply their own behind-the-scenes snapshots — from their youth soccer days, from their travels around CONCACAF and eventually, Italy. Many of these personal images were also published in the book itself.

I had never seen this team poster until 2019, when multiple members of the 1990 men’s national team started sharing jpegs with me. They had copies signed by their various teammates. Eventually, captain Mike Windischmann sent me the poster itself, a clean version, which I duly shot and framed. As I write these words, I can see it out of the corner of my eye, here in my office. Thanks, Mike.

I’m biased toward it, but what’s not to love about this photograph? Not many of the Ancient World’s Seven Wonders are still around. These players and coaches are the subject of my first book, but c’mon: The backdrop and framing are magnificent! In the soccer context, it’s about as striking and dramatic as any team photograph could possibly be.

For a time, I was determined to deploy this image on the cover of Generation Zero, or perhaps the back cover. Maybe wrap it around the spine, so as to occupy both covers! Just one problem. Two, actually. First, my designer, Peri Gabriel, wasn’t so taken with the shot. Too static, she explained. Quite rightly. Second and more important: I didn’t know who took this photo, and still don’t. This was my first book, but even rookies can understand that it isn’t a good idea to publish a cover photo where the rights could not be identified, much less secured.

DMP and I did make every effort to run down this important detail. Over the winter of 2021-22, when publication of GZ remained in process, I reached out to anyone and everyone I could in the sports photography community, and at Adidas. I did get an answer from corporate headquarters there in Herzogenaurach, Germany. Alas, while the U.S. Soccer Federation’s official outfitter back in 1990 had clearly commissioned this photo, it never owned the rights — or rather, it didn’t care to pay for that privilege. So, the rights remain with the photographer. And no one at Adidas, no one anywhere, could tell me who that was.

Now we know why: This wasn’t a photograph created in the traditional sense. It was instead a skillful Photoshop job (Adobe released that game-changing, digital-art software in 1987). Photographers don’t normally make a stink over those, not 30 years down the road, not when they’ve been paid for their original work.

Ironically, it was the other, obviously doctored image above that got me thinking analytically about the team shot. I can appreciate the vibe here, as well — this canny imagining of a modern match taking place in this ancient venue (under lights that cast shadows, apparently, but don’t appear to exist!). Yet this image, which I came across this spring, did oblige me look at the USMNT shot more critically. I had long wondered why the entire USMNT wasn’t included: striker Peter Vermes and keeper David Vanole are missing. Then there’s the weird splice between the older, more rusticated Colosseum backdrop and a newly renovated portion at right. The ancient stadium was renovated from 1993 to 2000 (then again from 2013-2018), but the meeting of old and new façades is far more angular in real life, not straight up and down. This particular view may exist on the other, less frequently photographed side of the edifice, or perhaps the image has been mirrored/reversed.

Either way, I ignored all these clues for a time. I wanted to believe the image was genuine, despite the fact that humans have made a habit of projecting their own self-serving beliefs and desires onto this structure for nearly 2,000 years.

Completed in 80 A.D., during the reign of emperor Vespasian’s son and heir, Titus, the limestone Colosseum was first known simply as amphitheatrum caesareum, meaning the emperor’s amphitheater. The word “Colosseum”, concocted later in the 1st Century, actually refers specifically to another famous piece of public art, a massive bronze statue of Nero, commissioned by the emperor and modeled on the Colossus of Rhodes (another Wonder of the Ancient World). Nero had preceded Vespasian and was, of course, a famous historical douchebag. Once he died, his head was quickly replaced with a crowned likeness of Helios, the sun god. The Colossus Solis proved big deal; it stood intact well into the medieval era. For ancient Romans, however, the word “Colosseum” was essentially created to mean “that place by the Colossus.”

Today, this appellation feels curiously backhanded for such an antiquated, iconic structure, still the largest freestanding amphitheater in the world. Yet, the Colosseum has served as screen to diverse human projections from the start. Christians, for example, revere the Colosseum as the locus of self-sacrifice — the place where so many martyrs were put to death by pagan overlords. Yet there is no historical truth to this claim. They were mainly tortured and killed down the street, at the Circus Maximus. Earthquakes and fires battered the structure before and after the rise of Christianity; once Rome fell to invading Visigoths, the Colosseum served as a cemetery, as quarry to other building projects in Rome, as medieval rental housing, and as artisanal workshops in the vaulted spaces and arcades under the seating sections. Another earthquake, in 1349, brought down the south façade and convinced locals the place was no longer fit for habitation.

Several popes nevertheless tried and failed to repurpose yet again: one suggested a woolen factory to employ Rome’s population of prostitutes; another, in 1671, floated the idea of bullfights; Pope Benedict XIV formalized the martyrdom narrative in the 1750s, consecrating the Colosseum to the Passion of Christ and installing Stations of the Cross. The Catholic bureaucracy continues to superimpose its beliefs and desires on this ancient thoroughly pagan edifice: Popes lead a Via Crucis procession to the amphitheater every Good Friday. The church is not alone: Paul McCartney, Elton John and Billy Joel have all staged concerts there, deploying the famous façade as backdrop. The Colosseum remains perhaps the city’s most popular tourist attraction; it remains The Selfie Capital of Rome.

And I suppose this evolution answers all my questions: The U.S. Men’s National Team did in fact visit Rome in June 1990, for its now iconic match with the host country during Italia ’90. All along, I had assumed they stopped at the Colosseum at some point to assemble for this team photograph. Alas, that’s merely what Adidas wanted me to believe.