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Something was definitely amiss at Fenway Park Wednesday night. Sure, the fans were all there (over 32,000). The architecture was the same as it always was: the Green Monster looming over left field, the Budweiser sign illuminating right, Fisk and Pesky marking the corners. The songs were the same too: “Dirty Water,” “Shipping Up to Boston,” and “Sweet Caroline.” There was even a wave that spread across the stadium. But something didn’t feel right. Instead of the traditional reds and blues of Red Sox jerseys, the seats were a sea of green and white. “Shipping Up to Boston” played before anything started, not near the end. It was joined by a lesser known Irish folk song, “Fields of Athenry,” also made famous by the Dropkick Murphys, but not typically sung on Landsdowne Street. People chanted, but “Let’s go Red Sox” was oddly replaced by “Let’s go Celtics,” as if Causeway Street had migrated. And oh yeah, the outfield had been turned into a soccer pitch.
Football at Fenway was taking place, an international friendly soccer match between Celtic F.C. of the Scottish Premier League and Sporting Clube de Portugal of the Liga Sagres. It was the first time soccer had been played at Fenway park in over 40 years, and the fans poured in and cheered as if they had been waiting for it to come back.
It was jarring to watch a game played at Fenway where play moved laterally across the outfield instead of radially from home-plate. Perhaps the players were equally jarred by the strange setting, as both sides looked jittery through the first half. Passes went astray. Players clustered and cluttered the field, showing none of the grace and using none of the space we had come to expect after watching the World Cup. No one scored through the first half, and midway through the second half people started to wonder if the first football match at Fenway in 40 years would end in a 0-0 draw. Sporting outplayed Celtic slightly, mounting a few more attacks and getting off a shot or two more on goal, but neither side looked dominant. However, the play began to shift towards the Sporting goal in the second half, as the Bhoys’ subs began to outplay the Lions’. The crowd, mainly supporting Celtic due to the team’s Irish Catholic roots, began to get hungrier and hungrier for a goal. Then in the 71st minute, they got what they wanted. Forward Georgios Samaras beat his defender to the left side of Sporting’s goal, then passed the ball back towards the center. As he cut back to take a shot, he was cut down by the defender and awarded a penalty kick. He buried it in the right corner of the net, putting Celtic up 1-0.
The final 20 minutes of the game looked to be Sporting’s offense vs. Celtic’s defense, and for awhile it seemed like the defense was winning. Then, in the 81st minute, Sporting tied the game. After midfielder Diogo Salomão headed the ball off Celtic’s goalpost, forward Hélder Postiga put a second header into the back of the net. After 70 minutes of nothing, two goals had happened in 10 minutes. The final 10 minutes played without incident (if you don’t count the fan who ran onto the field, was promptly tackled by security, then escorted out), and the game went into penalty kicks, per the rules of the game. The official final score was Celtic 1, Sporting 1, with penalty kicks used to decide a winner only. Both teams made their first five penalty kicks, so the shootout went into sudden death. Sporting’s sixth kicker, forward Liedson da Silva Muniz, skied the ball over the top of Celtic’s goal. Celtic forward Paul McGowan then nailed his penalty kick to put the game away and give Celtic the Fenway Football Challenge Trophy, much to the delight of most of the stadium.
No soccer had been played at Fenway Park since the first and only season of the Boston Beacons in 1968. This was actually the second time Celtic FC had played at Fenway Park. The first game was a 1-0 loss to a soccer team called, ironically, the New York Yankees, and it took place in 1931. So in some ways this game was a culmination of a Boston soccer tradition that spans nearly 80 years. And after viewing the game, and in spite of limited interest in the New England Revolution, it is clear that there is still a major interest in soccer in Boston. With a city bristling with both Irish and Portuguese, fans flocked to this game. They sang, they chanted, they cheered. There was no casual applause, no disinterested crowd pretending to care. This was fandom, as true and as pure as you would find at any Red Sox or Celtics game. Between the record-breaking TV viewership of the World Cup and the overwhelming success of Football at Fenway, it’s impossible to look at Boston and not see a deep love for soccer. It’s worldliness takes fans back to the days of their ancestors, to the days when most of the families who would eventually wind up here lived in cities like Dublin, Glasgow and Lisbon.
Some might wonder whether bringing soccer to Fenway somehow damages its image as a baseball stadium. But this is not even the first time this has happened. Soccer has been played in Boston since the 1920s. It’s interest has always sat in the back of Bostonian minds, waiting for opportunities to express itself. Wednesday night was one such opportunity, and Boston made the most of it.
It is also not as if baseball is the sole activity of Fenway Park. Concerts are a yearly occurrence, as they are in stadiums across the country (think the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965). And this past winter saw the Winter Classic, the first hockey game to be played at Fenway Park. This doesn’t damage Fenway’s image or reputation: it enhances it. Boston is called “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark.” To be beloved by your city, you have to appeal to as many aspects of your its culture as possible. Boston’s interest in baseball is undeniable. Its music scene is just as strong. And its love of hockey goes back almost as long as it does for baseball. Football at Fenway brought out another facet of our city: our love for soccer. Perhaps if the Revolution played in Boston proper instead of out in Foxboro (or if the MLS wasn’t such a joke league worldwide) the team would have a more devoted fan-base. This game magnified our city, made it a shade more complex and a tad more unique. And that uniqueness was reflected in the place where all of Boston merges, just like the merging of the streets in nearby Kenmore Square: Fenway Park. In short, we should do this more often.