A death threat against a professional athlete is a rare, but certainly not an unheard of, occurrence. It happened in Northern Ireland last week and, as befits the often baffling strangeness of the place, it was apparently delivered by, presumably, a fan of the home team — against a member of the home team. Go figure.
Neil Lennon, a 31-year-old Catholic, was set to captain Northern Ireland’s international soccer team in a pre-European Cup “friendly” against Cyprus. A mere two hours before kickoff, he was informed that the BBC had received a warning that if he played he would be killed on the pitch at Belfast’s Windsor Park. The threat was said to have come from the paramilitary Loyalist Volunteer Force.
Lennon chose not to play and soon after retired from international soccer. He hinted that this was not the first time he’d been threatened. “Obviously, I can’t put them [his family] through this every time,” he said in announcing his decision.
It is not surprising that there are strong anti-Lennon feelings among some soccer fans in Northern Ireland. After all, the midfielder plays from Glasgow Celtic in the Scottish Premier League, a team that has a dedicated following among Northern Ireland Catholics. Celtic’s main rival, Rangers, enjoys the support of a mainly Protestant fan base. Had such a threat been made before a Celtics-Rangers game, few observers would have batted an eyelash. But that it happened when the athlete was preparing to tog out for the home side, in preparation for the qualifying round of the biggest tournament this side of the World Cup, boggles the mind. Could there be a Cypriot plant in the BBC? Hmmm.
Fortunately, the threat against Lennon was condemned immediately from both sides of the political spectrum. First Minister David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party, a man who has occasionally been circumspect in criticizing far worse transgressions by loyalists, condemned this one “without reservation.” Even the LVF seemed shaken, a senior member later refuting the claim that the threat against Lennon had come from his organization.
Sports can be a unifying element in a divided society. But Northern Ireland still has such a long way to go to normalcy that even soccer isn’t given a chance to work its magic as a healing, unifying force. If there’s any comfort to be found, it’s in the wide-ranging condemnations. Too bad that it comes at the cost of a man’s career. But then, of course, in Northern Ireland far heavier costs have been borne before.
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