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Political Football: Lilian Thuram

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 June 2008

French full-back Lilian Thuram is a passionate advocate for the rights of ethnic groups. He becomes the final selection in Simon Kuper's Political Football XI.

It's October 2001, a month after the attacks of September 11. France are playing Algeria in Paris. Tensions between French whites and Muslims are high. They get even higher in the stadium before the game when French youths of Arab origin jeer the Marseillaise.

Shortly before time, some of the youths invade the pitch. All the players flee, except one. Lilian Thuram, France's giant defender, grabs one of the pitch invaders and begins lecturing him. Can't you see, Thuram asks the amazed kid, how you are damaging the cause of France's ghettoes?

Sporting soapbox

There's no other footballer like him. France's captain and record international, who this week led the national side into Euro 2008, has turned his sport into a soapbox.

Perhaps more than anyone else, Thuram speaks for France's ignored minorities. He does it brilliantly. Because his country needs him off the field too, he becomes the final member of our political footballers' XI.


Perhaps more than anyone else, Thuram speaks for France's ignored minorities. He does it brilliantly.

Thuram was born in Guadeloupe, officially part of France even if it's a poor, mostly black island halfway across the world in the Caribbean. As a kid he wanted to be a priest.

His mother, who had grown up learning in French school textbooks that she was descended from the ancient Gauls, took the family to a poor Paris suburb when Thuram was nine.

There he met the only overt racist he claims ever to have encountered. "There was a guy who lived opposite me in our apartment block, who was racist. But his family wasn't," Thuram reminisced to me over an Italian dinner in Barcelona this spring.

But Thuram's worries go beyond overt racism. His mission since childhood has been to assert that black people can be French too.


(credit: Reuters)

   'Black-blanc-beur'

A bonehard defender, he helped the multicoloured "black-blanc-beur" French team become world champions in 1998. Many of those players, right up to Zinedine Zidane from a Marseille ghetto, had struggled for acceptance as Frenchmen.

The great-grandfather of midfielder Christian Karembeu, who came from New Caledonia in the south Pacific, was once one of a hundred islanders taken to Paris and exhibited there as "cannibals". Later the "cannibals" were swapped with Germany for some crocodiles. No wonder Karembeu wasn't too crazy about singing the Marseillaise.

Thuram himself has said he only fully felt French after scoring the two goals in the semi-final against Croatia that put France in the final.

More or less integrated

Winning the World Cup didn't miraculously integrate France's minorities. Thuram had never expected it to, even if some politicians did. Football, he points out, has always been more integrated than the rest of French society.

"In sport the prejudices favour the blacks," he told me. "For instance, a physical trainer here at Barcelona said of Abidal [the big French full-back], 'He's an athlete of the black race.' It's not because he stays after training to run. No, it's because he's black."

Football makes blacks so welcome that for years they have dominated France's national team. Surveys have shown that about one in three French people think there are too many "players of foreign origin" in the side.

When the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said the "black-black-black" team made France a global joke, Thuram erupted. Various members of the French establishment protested that Finkielkraut was no racist. Thuram shrugs, in his deadpan manner: "I don't know if he's racist. I just look at what he said."

Email us your Political Football suggestions

Over the past 12 months Simon Kuper has compiled his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers (plus one president) whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.

But we want to know who you would include. It doesn't have to be an entire team (although that would be fascinating) - just a player for whom life has meant more than a mansion in Belgravia and a fleet of 4x4s.

Email your suggestions to Channel 4 News by clicking here.

When the French ghettoes rioted in 2005, and the then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters "scum", Thuram got so upset and angry while talking to journalists that the French coach Raymond Domenech had to drag him away.

'Je ne suis pas noir. Je suis francais.'

But by the time the far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen issued the ritual complaint about blacks playing for France, Thuram had regained his usual cool: "Personally, I'm not black. I'm French."

Over an evening of pasta it becomes clear that Thuram is not just a speaker but a listener too. He's fascinated to hear about Liverpool's past as a port in the slave trade.

He says he often has these kinds of debates with teammates too. Another Barcelona defender, Gianluca Zambrotta, had told him about going to a nightclub in the Caribbean while on holiday there with his mates. Everybody else in the nightclub was black, and Zambrotta and his friends felt so out of place that they soon left. Thuram explained to him that that's how blacks in Europe often feel.


'From the moment you give your views in public, you divide opinion. If you stay neutral, you can imagine that you are with everyone else.'
Lilian Thuram

But surely, I suggest, Thuram is more of a political animal than other footballers? "I don't think I'm different. We all have reflections on life. Perhaps certain people think like me but don't want to say it in public. Because from the moment you give your views in public, you divide opinion. If you stay neutral, you can imagine that you are with everyone else."

Pascal Boniface, one of France's leading experts on international relations and a friend of Thuram's, says: "He's a voice that has to be listened to, an emblematic voice in France on the issue of citizenship."

Has Thuram, in some way, made a difference in France? "It's clear," says Boniface. Expect the 36-year-old Thuram to play football for one more season, and then to devote all his time to his anti-racism foundation, the Fundación Lilian Thuram. Then he could make even more of a difference.

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times

Simon Kuper's Political Football XI


Goal Rene Higuita
Defence Paul Breitner, Franz Beckenbauer, Lilian Thuram
Midfield Walter Tull, Neil Lennon, Diego Maradona, Zvonomir Boban
Forwards Matthias Sindelar, George Weah, Paolo Di Canio
President Silvio Berlusconi

 

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