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Thursday, July 22, 2010
Fenway creates unique soccer experience

By Gus Martins

BOSTON -- Baseball and soccer seemingly have little in common. But in reality, the sports, which trace their origins back to the mid-1880s, played major roles in the modern transformations of the countries that embraced them by knitting together cultures and bridging generations like almost nothing else.

Wednesday night’s “Football at Fenway’’ -- which featured Scotland’s Celtic FC vs. Portugal's Sporting of Lisbon playing in the stadium made famous by the Boston Red Sox -- turned legendary Fenway Park into a sea of the traditional green, white and black colors of the two teams. And the 32,162 in attendance were richly rewarded for the festive atmosphere they created.

Fenway Soccer
Fenway Park gave soccer a new look when Celtic FC took on Sporting of Lisbon there Wednesday.
After a 1-1 score with 90 minutes played, Celtic prevailed 6-5 in penalties. A second-half goal by Celtic forward Georgios Samaras on a 71st minute penalty kick was followed by Helder Postiga’s header 11 minutes later. Portuguese international Liedson, a native of Brazil who has enjoyed a stellar career at Sporting, was the only one of 12 penalty takers to miss in the shootout.

“It was incredible,’’ said Celtic coach Neil Lennon, whose team made its fourth stop on a tour of the States. “To be fair, the three previous games as well, the atmosphere has been great and the crowds have been great, so I think the players have really enjoyed the experience. We knew there was a huge following, obviously. The Irish and the expats and the second generation and the third generation, so it was important to come and try and connect with the supporters and take the team here. It was important to put on a performance and send our fans home happy because a lot of people have come a long, long way to come and see them here tonight, and I think the boys appreciated that.’’

Sporting’s first-year coach Paulo Sergio, who replaced Carlos Carvalhal (who was an early-season replacement for the once-popular coach Paulo Bento until he was fired), said he enjoyed the atmosphere as well, and recognized that his team would be well-supported during the game after fans showed up at the airport to greet them. The coach played his entire team last night, stating that the rules of the friendly allowed him to do so.

“We are in a preparation for an official match and I think we did a very good job,’’ Paulo Sergio said. “We are going to play another game, and I think we won’t have the same opportunity to play so many players.’’

Sporting is headed to Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, N.J., where it will participate in a tournament featuring Tottenham, the New York Red Bulls and Manchester City. Paulo Sergio said he hadn’t identified his starting team as of yet for that tournament, in which Sporting opens against Manchester City.

Paulo Sergio enjoyed the atmosphere at Fenway Park despite the baseball design putting the fans in awkward positions to what he’s accustomed to at a soccer stadium.

“It was a little bit strange because we have the habit of having the crowd in a geometrical position,’’ he said. “When I look from the pitch to the other side, it was too long. I have the impression that my left was too large. But it was an honor because it is a mythical stadium, and I will go from here as a fan of the Red Sox and I’m going to be more curious about baseball.’’

Paulo Sergio, who got a big voice of support from Pedro Mendes, the Portuguese World Cup midfielder who is one of Sporting’s top players, will be in the hot seat this season as Sporting tries to maneuver its way back into contention to capture the title that was won by Benfica last season and by Porto the four previous seasons.

Celtic FC, which has played in Seattle, Philadelphia and Toronto on this exhibition tour, was very fortunate to play Sporting because the game served as an ideal test for its Champions League tilt next week with Sporting of Braga, another Portuguese club with a similar style.

“I know they had a pretty good season last year and I know during the past three seasons they’ve had some positive results in European competition,’’ Lennon said of Braga. “They are technically a very good team, a very attack-minded team and a tough draw, and we know we’ll have to be at our best in Braga.’’

Lennon said playing in Boston was something his players would always remember.

“I think it’s the setup really,’’ he said. “It’s not like your normal stadium. Obviously, there’s the Green Monster ... and there’s people sitting up top of that. The tradition of the stadium, as well. It’s not as corporate as a lot of stadiums would be. It generally is a different kind of atmosphere, and I think we enjoyed it. Just the fact that it’s one of the most famous stadiums in the world, and to come and play a football game here is pretty unique.’’