How easy it is to forget that athletes at their peak are, by the very nature of their tasks, young but expected to be wise in their event,world-travelled but isolated and vulnerable.
This week, Emmanuel Adebayor, the goal scorer for Manchester City, gave up the captaincy and, he said, the calling to ever play again for his country, Togo. He is 26 and a millionaire, and he said he just cannot get out of his head the day in January when Angolan separatists fired on the Togo team bus, killing three people in it.
"We were just footballers going to play a football match and represent our country," Adebayor said in a statement. "Yet we were attacked by people who wanted to kill us all. It is a moment I will never forget, and one I never want to experience again." Whether he knew it or not, Adebayor's abandonment of his national team coincided with an explicit threat by a group allied to al-Qaida that it plans to attack players and spectators at the U.S.-England match during the World Cup in South Africa on June 12.
Interpol is already on the case. U.S. State Department officials spoke of "appropriate precautions" for its citizens at the tournament. British intelligence sources offered no comment.
Italy, France and Germany were also named in the warning over the weekend. Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of Italy, referred to the deaths of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics on his Facebook page when he said, "The world wouldn't tolerate another Munich." Now, as at Munich, sports officials insisted their show must go on.
"It does not mean that because we receive a threat, the World Cup should not be allowed to be contested in South Africa, or any other country," Jerome Valcke, the secretary general of soccer's global authority, FIFA, told journalists in Johannesburg.
"We have freedom in the world to celebrate what we want. As the management of the organisation that governs world football, we know there is a threat. We will not stop the organisation of the World Cup because we got the threat." Since terror is represented by words as well as bombs or bullets, we can expect more of this crossfire of rhetoric as the global focus on South Africa intensifies.
Adebayor's withdrawal is no doubt chastened by his stated anger that not only did the security forces fail to protect his team in an area where separatists were known to pose a threat, but the African soccer confederation subsequently banned Togo from the next two African Nations Cups.
The officials still stick to the line that the show must go on, even when a team is traumatised and taken home at the order of its head of state for safekeeping and mourning. Maybe, one day, African soccer will stop vilifying a group of talented young men whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe, if that day arrives, Adebayor will return to the fold. He is a volatile and impressionable young man who had leadership thrust upon him by virtue of being his country's most visible celebrity.
What does he know, what can an athlete living in the cocoon of being paid a hundred times what he might earn in his own country, know about the real world? For others, preparation for the World Cup has already begun. On the day that Adebayor issued his statement in Manchester, a group of Mexican players became the first participants to go into training camp for this World Cup.
The isolation of Mexico's players, called into camp 60 days before their tournament begins in South Africa, echoes an old Brazilian custom. It dates to the 1950s, when a 17-year-old-Pele was among the soon-to-be champions who was called in. The Brazilian squad would travel to Teresopolis, a mountain retreat above Rio de Janeiro. They ate, slept, lived their game and their bond.
Javier Aguirre, Mexico's coach, has 17 players in camp. Others, on duty with clubs abroad, will join when their seasons in Europe and elsewhere permit it. Aguirre said Monday that he believed he had the finest group of young Mexicans ever. His task is to improve the collective mentality, to devise the tactics and, for the next 60 days, the lifestyle.
"I asked the players: ‘Guys, do you want to make history?
It's going to cost, the sacrifice is hard, and it's difficult to leave your families to be here for 60 days."' He did not say whether the security at the gates was to keep the news media out, or the players in.