Winning ticket: Celtic ‘beat’ Sporting, 1-1, at Fenway

Green was the order of the evening last night when football -- the world version -- returned to Fenway Park for the first time in 42 years. Not just because the basepaths had been turfed over as part of the pitch, or because the Green Monster was looking down on the proceedings, but because the two European sides taking part in the contest -- Glasgow's Celtic FC and Lisbon's Sporting Clube de Portugal -- both have green as their predominant team color. In fact, they have almost identical shirts, with green and white horizontal stripes. It's an unusual strip -- apart from South Africa's Bloemfontein Celtic FC (modeled after the Glasgow side), they're the only prominent club teams to wear it.

It made for a confusing atmosphere outside the park in the hours before kickoff. Whether it's the Sox against the Yankees, the Celtics against the Lakers, or Manchester United versus Manchester City, you don't expect to have to look twice to tell the supporters apart. But here those green and white hoops were everywhere. A good eye would detect that Sporting's green is a little darker than Celtic's kelly shade, but the easiest way to distinguish them was the sponsor: TMN (a mobile communications company) for Sporting, Carling for Celtic.

There were, of course, fashion variations. The Celtic away/goalkeeper closet includes a green-and-black vertically striped number, all-green and all-yellow jerseys, and the ever-popular one with bands of black and nausea-at-noon chartreuse. Every Celtic shirt I saw was newer than the 1991-'92 model with the orange "Peoples Ford" logo that I was wearing. (It did get an appreciative thumbs up from one fellow fan.) And I could have seen more if there had been any for sale at the Yawkey Way shops. One fan explained that Nike -- Celtic's equipment sponsor - hadn't licensed Fenway sales, with the idea that fans would buy their gear at Niketown. Wouldn't it be easier to bring the merchandise to the fans?

Sporting supporters also sported the dark red of the Portuguese national side, often with Cristiano Ronaldo's name on the back, and wrapped in a Portuguese flag. If you didn't come as a fan of either of the competing teams, you wore what you had: Man U, Liverpool (a lot of these), Newcastle, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Juventus, Italy, Argentina, LA Galaxy (always emblazoned with Beckham), New England Revolution (not many of those, and no Brazil at all that I saw). If you didn't have a football shirt, you wore your Chicago Blackhawks jersey, or your Curt Schilling Red Sox uniform. Some Irish Celtic fans wore county Gaelic football/hurling shirts: Ciarraí, Ard Mhacha.

The last time football was played at Fenway, in 1968, Brazilian club Santos defeated the Boston Breakers 7-1. That match drew 18,000 spectators, most of them there to see Pelé (who was only 27 and still in his prime). The announced attendance for last night's match was 32,162 -- with not a single household name in sight. The same evening, a Wayne Rooney-less Man U drew 44,000 fans to their clash with MSL newbies the Philadelphia Union. The Revolution, meanwhile, have averaged just under 12,000 for their eight home games this season.

You can't underestimate the importance of the European connection. Ireland's football clubs are not worldbeaters, so many Irish fans have adopted Celtic, whose colors reflect their tie to the Emerald Isle. (Some even wear Celtic shirts while watching the Irish national team.) That brought the Boston Irish into play -- and indeed, Irish men and women from all over. Inside Fenway I found a banner replicating the Irish Tricolor with "The Bayou Bhoys - New Orleans Celtic Supporters Club" on it and a couple of alligators in Celtic shirts. Stephen Patterson told me that 10 of them had come up from the Crescent City just for the match, and that they'd been to watch Celtic all over the world. Sporting are only the third most successful club in Portugal, after Benfica and Porto, but they obviously don't lack for support in the US.

Inside, it quickly became clear that, European football sophistication notwithstanding, people were also here for the Fenway experience. That meant an endless parade of tall young men obstructing your view as they went up and down the aisles hawking Coke and water and lemonade and pizza and hot dogs and Cracker Jack and kettle corn and ice cream. On the field, you can get sent off if you handle the ball; in the stands, however, you'll want both hands in top form to carry those pint cups of beer. (In the course of the entire evening I didn't see a single person, man or women, carrying just one.) And fancy footwork is just as important when negotiating those shallow Fenway steps as it is on the pitch -- you don't want to stumble and spill your beer over the folks sitting on the aisle. (I was, in fact, sitting on the aisle, and I had to dodge flying brew on two occasions.) "Sweet Caroline" got played at halftime, and the Fenway faithful sang along. "Sarah, Will You Marry Me?" (only one Sarah in that 32,162?) showed up on the big video screen. "Dirty Water" greeted the winners after the game.

Oh yes, the game. The first question was how they'd lay out the pitch -- shortened from the usual 110 yards to 98, it stretched from about third base at one end to the bleachers at the other (you could still see the basepaths underneath). Then, which side would get to wear their home strip? That turned out to be Celtic (coin toss); Sporting settled for all-black with green trim. Next was whether each set of supporters would have its own section. Didn't look like it -- there were certainly both in my area. Maybe that explained the lack of singing. You'd hardly know the sides had kicked off: there was no roar, only an uncertain buzz, as if we'd all had our vuvuzelas confiscated and didn't know what to do. The first half was a scrappy affair, with neither midfield in ascendance and just a few quick breaks to prevent the keepers -- Lukasz Zaluska for Celtic and Rui Patrício for Sporting -- from nodding off. There was some confusion in the 34th minute: referee Mike Kennedy ran across the pitch and appeared to show Celtic striker Marc-Antoine Fortuné a yellow card, whereupon Fortuné immediately went off in favor of Paul McGowan. That prompted some end-to-end action: Georgios Samaras shot wide with just Patrício to beat, and then Carlos Saleiro rounded Zaluska only to see his shot cleared by Glenn Loovens.

The second half brought an entirely new Sporting 11, some hard tackling from Celtic (with the attendant yellow cards), the kind of overhit crosses we got our fill of during the World Cup, and beer after beer after beer, even though signs had said sales would be cut off 10 minutes into the half. The intensity on the pitch didn't translate to the stands: in the 60th minute, the wave started to go round, and a few minutes later, the dreaded "Olé, olé, olé, olé" was heard throughout the land. In the 71th minute, Samaras, who had been Celtic's most industrious player, broke the deadlock, falling over Daniel Carriço's outstretched leg in the box and drawing a dubious penalty. (He must have been taking notes when Italy's Fabio Grosso did the same against Australia in World Cup 2006.) Kennedy pointed to the spot without hesitation, and Samaras rolled the ball in as Vitor Golas went the wrong way. Ten minutes later, with Sporting piling on the pressure and winning corner after corner, a cross found Diogo Salomão unmarked in front of Zaluska, and though Salomão's header went off the crossbar, Helder Postiga, who had just come on as a substitute, had an open net into which to nod the rebound.

Eight minutes left. Sporting surged; Celtic sagged, and they had Zaluska to thank for preserving the draw -- which seemed a fair result. But the rules of the competition, we were told, required a winner, and so it went to penalties. The first 10, five to each side, were splendidly taken; then Liédson scooped his shot over the bar, and McGowan converted to win the trophy for Celtic. The Sporting fans didn't seem too disappointed -- they'd gotten to see their team. And if the size of the crowd and the action at the concession stands means anything, there'll be more "Football at Fenway" next summer. Hey, can we get Arsenal and Chelsea?  
| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Phlog Archives