"We're so glad it's finally here," said Red Sox executive vice president Sam Kennedy during a brief welcoming ceremony on Tuesday. "To see these football players running around behind us is surreal."
In anticipation for Wednesday's historic exhibition matchup between European soccer powerhouses Celtic FC and Sporting CP, Fenway Park has become a soccer field, with one goal planted in front of the visitor's dugout and the other right outside the home bullpen.
Although a bit shorter than European regulation size, the pitch fits perfectly inside the confines of one of America's most beloved ballparks. Celtic and Sporting each got their first taste of Fenway during hour-long walk-throughs on Tuesday night, and though they may not be all too familiar with baseball, they certainly have gotten a sense of what the sport means to this city.
"They walked in tonight, and they saw the history in the park," said Celtic commercial director Adrian Filby. "You can see the history with the retired numbers and you can see it means something special in a place like this."
The two clubs were chosen for a reason, and it's because they bring their own unique history to the event — something that allows them to appreciate Fenway's splendor all the more.
"To come to such a storied ballpark — for me, the home of baseball — it's like our club. It's got a history," Filby said.
While Wednesday's game will only count as an exhibition match, there's plenty on the line for both squads, starting with pride. They have one chance to prove to Boston who's boss, and according to Filby, Celtic has the edge.
"It's great to be here, great to be in this city — we've got so many Scottish and Irish ex-patriots here and so many supporters in the city," he said. "We have to bring the club here more often."
Celtic is led by former club captain Neil Lennon, who finished the 2009-10 season as interim manager and is now in his first full season at the helm. The standout began his career with Celtic as a defensive midfielder in 2000 and became captain in 2005.
Lennon's counterpart, Paulo Sergio, is also in the midst of his first season as manager, taking over for Carlos Carvalhal in April. Though none have been quite as high-profile as this one, the 42-year-old has had several coaching jobs prior to Sporting, most recently with Pacos de Ferreira, Beira-Mar and Santa Clara.
Scott Brown will captain the Celtic squad after being appointed in March. The 25-year-old midfielder joined Celtic in 2007, appearing in 91 games and scoring nine goals. Sporting, however, has yet to name a new captain in lieu of Joao Moutinho, who jumped ship for rival F.C. Porto earlier this month.
The timing of Football at Fenway couldn't be better, following the conclusion of the 2010 World Cup by fewer than two weeks. Whereas Americans are usually apathetic toward soccer, Wednesday's event, which features several of this year's World Cup alumni, ensures that Bostonians, at least, will continue to ride the wave of enthusiasm following this year's festivities in South Africa.
"As the World Cup showed, this is truly a world sport," said British consul general Phil Budden. "I think having this world sport played at such a high level here in Boston shows that Boston is truly a world city."
The Celtic roster includes South Korean World Cup alums Cha Du Ri and Ki Sung Yeung, plus Greek forward and 2009-10 leading scorer Georgios Samaras.
Sporting features four players who appeared in the World Cup, including midfielders Pedro Mendes and Miguel Veloso, 2006 South American Player of the Year Matias and striker Liedson.
Though it wasn't quite as prolific as January's Frozen Fenway events, there was an air of excitement permeating Fenway Park on Tuesday afternoon. It was strange to see grass where the pitcher's mound should be, and it was strange to see a cone marking the spot for corner kicks inside the Pesky Pole, but it was intriguing. Perhaps it's a good thing Wednesday's game won't count because it will allow both sides to appreciate how special it is to play at Fenway Park, regardless of whether they win or lose.
"You feel some kind of magic here you cannot describe," said Sporting football director Francisco Costa. "It's really impressive."
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