Moments before watching Stiliyan Petrov's charity match at Celtic Park, one found Coldplay's latest single Atlas burning in my ears. A typically haunting, melancholy and memorable melody, penned for the latest Hunger Games film, it returns the lyrics: “Carry your world, I’ll carry your world. "
It was perhaps a poignant song on a Sunday afternoon that jolted the senses. Petrov and his young family have had much to carry over the past 18 months, his world ravaged by acute leukaemia and his enforced retirement as an Aston Villa player earlier this year to fight an aggressive form of the disease.
If the 60,000 fans inside Celtic Park in Glasgow yesterday, an astonishing show of support at any level, did not carry Petrov, they at least shouldered the burden somewhat, at least for a few hours, shining a chink of light upon their club's former player amid a period of severe disorder and darkness battling an illness that is no respecter of reputation.
Being reminded of one's mortality at such a juncture is never a bad thing. We are poor mortals. For those of us who complain about jobs, financial health or aspects of our personal lives that are not running to plan, Celtic Park yesterday afternoon was a timely place to be. Here was a monument to something greater than football.
Petrov’s illness has forced him to cut short a burgeoning career as a Premier League performer at the age of 34 after accumulating over 100 caps for Bulgaria. That he continues to fight the disease with as much vigour as he displayed raging at the heart of midfield as the handsome, swashbuckling man he was, and still is, says enough about the Petrov persona.
Flanked by his wife and kids, Petrov was truly humbled, bursting into tears several times, as a full house paid tribute. “You wouldn’t see this at any club anywhere in the world,” commented an emotional Alan Stubbs, a former team-mate of Petrov's, and a man who had to overcome testicular cancer during his career.
Petrov touched down at Celtic at the age of 19 in 1999 from CSKA Sofia without speaking English. Under Martin O’Neill’s management, he blossomed, collecting several domestic baubles in Scotland and playing a pivotal role during Celtic's run to the 2003 UEFA Cup final in Seville, where they lost an epic match to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
He moved to Aston Villa in 2006 for close to £8 million. He was equally revered at Villa Park for his attitude and application as captain, the Premier League side's dependable leader.
Petrov’s general character is the reason why so many turned up in Glasgow’s East End. Celtic have a rich history becoming the first British club to win the European Cup in 1967. Villa won the big pot in 1982. But there are moments that cannot be replicated in football, or measured by success.
These remain more poignant than Celtic’s greatest times in the world game.
Liverpool supporters remember fondly the reception they received at Celtic Park weeks after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. This was similarly protruding.
Lifting a trophy cannot compare to what went on yesterday. Nothing can when a man is fighting for the right to watch his kids grow up. The tribute to Petrov transcended football or sport. There was a spiritual element to it all, an outpouring of goodness and humanity.
Various strands of football nobility in the form of John Terry, Dimitar Berbatov, Robert Pires, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Paul Lambert, Neil Lennon, Jamie Redknapp, Gareth Barry and Henrik Larsson were joined by celebrities in the shape of comedian John Bishop and One Direction's Louis Tomlinson. They all deserve enormous credit for contributing to Petrov’s charity foundation.
But giving time for such a cause should be part of the norm. Or else we are all lost.
The scenes after the match when Celtic Park sung You’ll Never Walk Alone as Petrov embarked upon on a lap of honour were some of the most gut-wrenching you are likely to witness in any sports arena for some time to come.
It was both memorable and terrifically sad all at once. Petrov may have earned millions from football, but what does it matter? Those in the stands standing fit and healthy were true millionaires.
In Petrov's plight, we continue to learn that we really shouldn't sweat the small stuff. In life, it is all small stuff. Certainly in comparison to what 'Stan' continues to face.
Petrov is in remission. He will not be the first nor the last to find themselves caught in this maelstrom. Memories of the untimely death of the former Celtic manager and player Tommy Burns in 2008 after battling cancer remain fresh in the memory.
"Heaven, we hope is just up the road. Show me the way, lord..” breathes Chris Martin as the embers of Atlas begin to fizzle out.
Let us pray Petrov's return to Celtic Park marks one of his last stop offs on a road back to some semblance of a previous life, a full restoration of normality.
Good health and peace of mind are cherished items in life. The longing for everyday monotony should never be taken for granted.
- Sports & Recreation
- Stiliyan Petrov
- Celtic Park