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Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Bigots score another own goal
Sectarianism in Northern Ireland is nothing new, but the death threat directed at Neil Lennon prior to Northern Ireland's friendly against Cyprus highlights how it can affect sport.
Troubles on the football pitch in Northern Ireland are symptomatic of the province's larger problems - a few hooligans spoiling things for the majority.
In general in Northern Ireland, rugby is played by Protestants and Gaelic games by Catholics.
But both communities play football, and, as a result, the sport has become another forum for the larger debate that divides Northern Ireland.
Lennon has been subjected to abuse from the crowd in the past when representing his country.
The last occasion came in February 2001 when he was booed every time he touched the ball at Windsor Park in the 4-0 defeat by Norway.
For some Northern Ireland supporters, Lennon is guilty of a trinity of sins: he is Catholic, he plays for Celtic and he was reported to have said that he would be willing to play for a hypothetical all-Ireland team.
Those three things explain why he is a target, they do not in any way justify it.
Days before the game against Norway, Lennon's warning came in Northern Ireland vernacular - a "Neil Lennon RIP" slogan daubed beside a hangman's noose on a wall near his home in Co. Armagh.
Now the hatred directed at the midfielder has intensified.
But Irish News columnist Kenny Archer told BBC Sport Online last year that the abuse Lennon has received was not based on religion.
"Without a doubt this is to do with Neil Lennon playing for Celtic not with him being a Catholic," said Archer.
The present Northern Ireland team is evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, while Catholics such as Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings enjoyed distinguished Northern Ireland careers without ever being subjected to abuse.
But the last player to receive Lennon-esque levels of abuse was Anton Rogan, another Celtic player.
"I can understand why he might want to pack it in, because he got a torrent of abuse, worse than I had to endure," said Rogan.
Whatever the reason for the baiting of Lennon - and it certainly seems more anti-Celtic than anti-Catholic in character - the end result is disaffection with the Northern Ireland team among the Catholic community.
After all, a Celtic player being attacked by Northern Ireland supporters is unlikely to entice Celtic-supporting Catholics to support the national team.
Belfast Celtic, a successful team that played in the famous green and white hoops of their Glaswegian namesakes, bore the brunt of the early hatred.
The club was forced to disband after a serious incident during a game in 1949 at Windsor Park, the home of Linfield, a team with strong Rangers connections.
With feelings between the supporters running high, a section of the crowd invaded the pitch, and Celtic's Jimmy Jones broke his leg when he was pushed over a wall.
Jones recovered to win three Northern Ireland caps in the 1950s, but the incident had a lasting effect.
The Irish League was then robbed of another 'Catholic' club in 1972.
A supporters' bus from Ballymena United was burned on a visit to Brandywell, the home of Derry City.
Derry quit football in Northern Ireland and now play in the League of Ireland, south of the border.
Since then sinister elements have repeatedly stirred up trouble in an attempt to disrupt the running of football, and everyday life in Northern Ireland.
The death threat, and Lennon's subsequent withdrawal from the national team, is a serious blow for IFA's "Kick Sectarianism Out of Football" campaign.
Aware of the game's problems with bigotry, the IFA has also established a Community Relations Office.
"The Football Association has tried everything in our power to stamp out bigotry and sectarianism," said Jim Boyce, president of the Irish Football Association.
Although those to blame for the situation remain unpunished, the IFA is finally making the right noises.
Whether those noises will be heard above the sectarian din is another question.
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