Fenway Park: hallowed ground for many American sports fans; site of many dramatic baseball events, some good (Fisk’s home run), some bad (Bucky “F-ing” Dent’s home run); soccer pitch? Wednesday, the historic venue, played host to a sport looking to capture the hearts and minds of Americans the way the Red Sox have captured those in New England.
Gone was the pitcher’s mound, replaced by penalty spots. Gone were line drives into the corner, replaced by corner kicks. Gone was “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, replaced by soccer chants rendered almost unintelligible by the enthusiasm with which they were sung. For non-soccer fans, the game was a novelty. For those who are fans of the beautiful game, this was a chance to see two storied European clubs face off, and it just happened to be taking place in “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark”.
Wednesday marked the first time a soccer ball has touched the Fenway grass since 1968 when the Boston Beacons of the NASL used the field at the corner of Yawkey Way and Brookline Ave. as their home ground. The match up between Celtic FC and Sporting Clube de Portugal, while lacking the cache of a Manchester United or Real Madrid, still presented the fan the opportunity to see high level soccer. Celtic is one of the most storied clubs in Scotland, having won the Scottish League 42 times and the European Cup (the predecessor to the Champions League) in 1967. Sporting, one of the “Big Three” soccer clubs in Portugal along with FC Porto and Benfica, has won 18 Portuguese League titles and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964.
The whole experience was a tad surreal. The Fenway area was nearly as busy as when the Sox play, bared out by the announced attendance of 32,162, with tables at many of the area restaurants hard to com by. As I was walking toward Fenway to meet my friends for dinner before the game, I was surrounded by a sea of green, horizontal stripes (both Celtic and Sporting use a green and white striped jersey as their main kit) instead of the ubiquitous Red Sox jerseys and “Yankees Suck” t-shirts. Replacing the pink hats were women with green wigs (some of them riding power scooters).
Once I entered the park, the entire surreal experience continued as a good portion of the infield and parts of the warning track had freshly laid sod over the dirt. The pitcher’s mound was gone but it’s specter remained, as you could clearly see the outline of where the mound had been on Sunday. While the pitch seemed a little smaller than normal, the transformation was astonishing. The center circle was just past 2nd base in shallow right-center. One goal was where third base used to be, the other goal in RF. It was a such a crazy site, one accompanied by fans with Portuguese flags tied around their necks in the right field bleachers and fans with the Scottish lion or St. Andrew’s Cross nestled next to the Green Monster.
The game followed usual protocol, with both teams entering the pitch and lining up while the national anthem was played. Both teams fielded their B+ teams, some of their usual starting eleven were in the game, but many started on the bench or did not even accompany the team on their North American tours. One of Sporting’s best players, João Moutinho, was transferred to Porto prior to the tour but, Portuguese internationals, Pedro Mendes (started) and Liédson (off the bench) both played roles in the game. Celtic without former starting keeper Artur Boruc, now with Fiorentina, but did start Georgios Samaras and captain Scott Brown .
Once the game got started, the first half was less than beautiful. The type of soccer played in the first 45 minutes belied the fact that both teams are in preseason, and fed into every stereotype Americans have about soccer. While there were a couple of half-chances, neither team looked like they were going to score. The game did pick up in the second half, with both teams attacking more, but still not looking comfortable on the makeshift pitch. Several corner kicks, mostly by Sporting, were sent flying over the 18 yard box, much to the consternation of the Sporting fan sitting next to me. Liédson, introduced at the beginning of the second half, looked dangerous and provided a near goal with a well placed header.
Celtic drew first blood in the 71st minute thanks to a penalty kick by Samaras. Samaras created the chance when he was taken down in the box on what looked to be a bit of a flop, but by the rules of the game, it was a penalty and the ref made the right call. Samaras fooled the keeper, Rui Patrício, sending the ball to the Patricio’s right as he dove left. The goal drew a hardy roar from the Celtic fans and prompted chanting from both sides. Sporting was able to level 10 minutes later when Hélder Postiga, who had been subbed on just minutes prior, nodded home a rebound off the crossbar. Following the goal, the Sporting fans had Fenway rocking with intense cheers and flag waving. There were several other good chances, but the game ended regulation in a 1-1 draw. Since the Fenway Football Challenge Trophy was at stake, there had to be a winner. Rather than playing the usual 30 minutes of extra time, the game went straight to the penalty shootout, much to the delight of the crowd. While soccer purests may dislike the shootout, you cannot deny the intensity it creates.
The entire stadium was on its feet as Hélder Postiga stepped to the spot to takethe first PK, which he was able to put past keeper Łukasz Załuska despite Załuska getting a hand on it. The clubs alternated scoring until Liédson stepped to the spot for the 6th PK. As he stepped to the spot, I turned to one of my friends and mentioned how Liédson was probably the best player on the pitch and that he should easily make the spot kick. Apparently, I jinxed him, as he sent his shot high over the bar and into the bleachers. Paul McGowan, then stepped to the spot and won the game for Celtic 6-5 on penalties. The mostly pro-Celtic crowd erupted as the team celebrated on the field. As “Dirty Water’ blared in the background, I consoled my pro-Sporting neighbor and left the park hoping that Football at Fenway would become a yearly tradition.