So you get your dream coaching job and within two years you have round-the-clock police protection, a panic button in your home, safe houses for your wife and kids, enemies sending you sophisticated parcel bombs plus bullets in the mail, a fan assaults you on the sideline on national television while hate on the internet fires death threats at you almost hourly. Welcome to the life of Neil Lennon, coach of Glasgow Celtic Football Club, a man with the sporting world's most dangerous job.
Scotland's sectarian/soccer problem is like a rotting onion. Peel away the layers on decades of social poverty, ignorance and failure and you'll weep. Writing about the subject without taking criticism is almost impossible, each layer possesses enough ammunition to discredit any attempt at balance. Because there is no balance. This story is harnessed to the wheel of religious spokes and the Irish troubles. Neighboring Scotland is now the proxy front for repressed and exported Northern Irish communal tensions. While the clamp of peace still largely holds between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, the chorus of bigotry and rebellion that still runs in an aggressive minority's veins has found the perfect outlet in Scottish soccer's biggest house -- the rivalry between Glasgow's Catholic population represented by Celtic, and the city's Protestant half, striped by the soccer club, Rangers. When they meet on match day, Glasgow becomes the ring for the oldest colonial duel -- Ireland v. Britain.
Neil Lennon is from Northern Ireland. As a player he wore his country's colors many times but was forced to retire due to death threats. He is a Catholic with Irish Republican sympathies. That did not fit with the Red Hand of Protestant Ulster emblazoned on his uniform. Like many Irish Catholic soccer players, his dream was to play for Celtic, a club established by Irish immigrants to Scotland in the nineteenth century. With Lennon's safety now in peril, many assume he will resign or be replaced by the club for his own good. On the other hand, caving in to bigotry could spell more trouble for the divided city and hand victory to the minority.
The new nationalist Scottish government is planning an assault on sectarianism in Scotland, which has become popularly known as "Scotland's shame." Stiffer sentencing for violent hate crimes and incitement to hatred on the internet are coming down the pipeline, but deep down at the root everyone knows that the social surgery required will feel like tooth extraction without the numbing. Generational passing of prejudice is ongoing among the minority desperate to keep their identity by widening the divide; each side is intensely angry. The middle ground seems to be empty. The vast majority of Scots wish it would all just go away.
When soccer becomes the ball for war, one can't help recall the words of the legendary Scottish manager Bill Shankly -- to paraphrase, "soccer is more important than life or death." In Neil Lennon's case, the latter must be on his mind every waking minute. Check out the latest assault on Lennon in a game played last Wednesday in Edinburgh. Celtic were playing Heart of Midlothian FC, the Scottish capital's "Protestant" club.