Last night, the beautiful game and a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark came together for the Fenway Football Challenge. Celtic Football Club of Glasgow and Sporting Clube de Portugal of Lisbon met for the first soccer game in Fenway Park since 1968. I didn’t even hear of the event until Monday, but immediately found myself a ticket for this can’t-miss game once I heard of it.
The Red Sox and the Fenway Park staff set up everything perfectly. First, the choice of teams was inspired as it represented two of the Boston area’s largest ethnic groups the Portuguese and the Irish (while Celtic is a Scottish team they are strongly identified with Irish Catholics in Scotland, Ireland, and around the world). I also like that they set up supporters’ sections for each team behind the goal lines. I sat in the neutral section close to the Sporting supporters section and there were partisans of both sides all around me. As a true neutral I rooted for a good game and for all the goals to be scored in the net near my seat. As luck would have it, all but one goal would take place right in front of me.
The seating for the game was a bit awkward for soccer, although there are many seats at Fenway that are also awkward for baseball. The pitch looked alarmingly small too. There didn’t seem to be a midfield and goal kicks looked like they would soar into the opposing stands. I read after the game that the field was only 98 meters long, short of the standard 110 meters.
I had an excellent front row seat just behind one of the corners in right field beyond the Pesky Pole. The game was well-contested but scoreless until the 72 minute when Georgios Samaras (hirsutely reminiscent of Johnny Damon circa 2004) scored on a spot kick. Hélder Postiga equalized on a gorgeous header at my end of the field ten minutes later. That was the end of the game as far as FIFA was concerned but since they had a trophy to award the two teams participated in a penalty shootout. All was even after five shooters per side, but then Sporting’s Liédson kicked the ball over the net and into the bullpen and Paul McGowan netted the winning goal for Celtic.
Other highlights of the game:
- Both clubs wear a home uniform with horizontal green & white stripes. While the Sporting players wore a navy & green away uniform, it was really hard to tell apart the fans in their replica jerseys.
- The PA announcer introduced the starting forwards as “attackers.” I liked that.
- Fans were amused that the Celtic captain is named Scott Brown, especially when he drew a yellow card.
- Despite being a friendly there was some pushing and arguing during the match.
- The Boston Pops played “The Star Spangled Banner” before the game. They didn’t play the national anthems of Portugal and Scotland. Does Scotland have a national anthem of its own?
- Just before the game started they played “Shipping Up to Boston” on the PA system. During the half they played “Sweet Caroline” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” After the game they played “Dirty Water” and “Tessie.”
- The atmosphere was great but the teams’ supporters did not do European style football chants and songs. Mostly they did variations on the Red Sox chant “Let’s Go Cel-tic!” Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.
It was a fun night, and definitely should be the start of an annual tradition. Perhaps Celtic can return to defend their title against a side from Brazil or Italy? And maybe the Red Sox should play a baseball game at Celtic Park in Glasgow. What I’d like even more though is if the New England Revolution build a soccer-specific stadium near public transportation in the Boston area.