World Cup-winning footballer fights for equality

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Monday December 27, 2021 3:00 p.m.

Lilian Thuram has his own foundation dedicated to the fight against racism through education and has written several books on the subject (Credit: Council of Europe)

In this November interview, former French footballer Lilian Thuram, World Cup winner, explains why he turned his back on football when his playing career ended to focus on defending equality through its foundation and, more recently, its books.

Lilian Thuram in glasses grabs a map of the world and turns it over to illustrate his point.

France’s most capped footballer sits at his office desk for this video interview, his studious appearance and the shelf full of books behind him indicating the direction he has taken since his retirement in 2008.

Thuram is today a writer and social commentator who approaches race and equality with the same intelligence and robustness that made him one of the greatest advocates of his generation.

His latest book, White Thought: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity, was published in English last month. An examination of what it means to be ‘white’ and how it shapes worldview, the 49-year-old hopes it will spark vital conversations.

“Racism is a political construction, creating artificial barriers that break the bonds of solidarity between human beings,” says Thuram.

“We inherit certain systems in society and we need to understand how they work so that we can challenge them. We can all be subconsciously biased. We are not really free thinkers.

He shows the piece of paper he is holding in front of his computer camera.

“Why is the world map shown with Europe at the center of the world? Also think of Christopher Columbus. It is said that he discovered the New World, the Americas, but there were already indigenous people living there. What about their rights and their identity?

“We need to question and scrutinize our views on race, color and identity.”

Thuram, as it should be clear by now, does not fit the mold of the stereotypical former professional footballer.

Instead of following teammates of the 1998 World Cup-winning France team, such as Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, in expertise and training, he created his own foundation aimed at combating racism through education.

His children Marcus and Kephren, who play for Borussia Mönchengladbach and Nice, are named after Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey and former Egyptian pharaoh Khafre.

“My audience is not only made up of athletes but also teachers and pedagogues. I use my platform to reach as wide an audience as possible, to encourage dialogue and discussion, ”he says.

“Some far-right people try to delegitimize what I do, but that’s because they don’t want to face these issues. I see myself in the lineage of African-American athletes who have spoken, such as Muhammad Ali.

Thuram was born in Guadeloupe but became the most capped player in France
Thuram was born in Guadeloupe but became the most capped player in France

He recounted how he only became aware of racial discrimination after leaving Guadeloupe for France at the age of nine. A football career that has gleaned trophies in Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona has opened his eyes even more, despite the national team – a mix of white, black and North African players – being celebrated as a integration model.

“The book is the culmination of a process that has unfolded throughout my life,” he says.

This is also all the more relevant in light of recent events in English cricket, where Azeem Rafiq has shed light on racism that has been allowed to flourish unchecked at the club level, at best through a lack of action. efficiency of those who run the game.

Players must take the lead in the fight against racism

Although football has yet to experience a Rafiq moment, non-white players still face racism on social media and, to varying degrees by country, in the stands. Thuram has seen enough to know that the governing bodies and powerful in sport will not lead the way when it comes to equality.

“These are the players who have the most power and influence to change things. All players, regardless of race or color, can have an impact, ”he says.

“You can’t wait for institutions to change. It has to come from the players. They are the actors. The federations defend the status quo and capitalism.

“It is important to take a stand against racism. No one can be neutral. If club management and managers do not speak out against racism then they tacitly accept it.

Thuram supports players and clubs who kneel – “a political act” – and believes that talking more about racism can bring change.

He wants players ‘and coaches’ organizations to unite on the issue at national and international level. He has already worked with one of these groups, the American Black Players For Change.

“The change has to come from the ground floor, not from the stands, from the institutions that oversee sport,” he said.

“I applaud what the clubs have done so far as a first step. Getting down on your knees is a political act. It’s interesting to look at which countries have players knee deep and which don’t. It says a lot about their attitude towards racism.

Thuram (center) was part of the France team that won the World Cup in 1998
Thuram (center) was part of the France team that won the World Cup in 1998

Thuram names NBA star Lebron James, Donald Trump-baiting American Women’s World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe and militant NFL player Colin Kaepernick as sportsmen whose positions he admires.

Closer to home, he also singles out socially conscious England stars Marcus Rashford and Jordan Henderson and their national team manager Gareth Southgate for special praise.

“Young players like Marcus Rashford can change the mindset of society,” he said. “It’s a sign of hope, although the majority of black players are afraid to speak out and question the status quo. For example, Kaepernick was kicked from American football for speaking out.

“That’s why it’s so useful for white players to speak out against racism, like Jordan Henderson. Everyone – black and white – should challenge it. It is a problem that affects everyone. Martin Luther King united all races because the cause was just.

“Gareth Southgate’s support is very important. He gives a good example of what white can do. There aren’t enough of them like him.

Thuram: We must challenge prejudices

Former Thuram teammate Laurent Blanc was accused of racism when the then-French coach was recorded discussing the idea of ​​limiting the number of black and Arab players in the youth squads of the country. Blanc strongly denied the racism and was acquitted by the French sports minister, who said Blanc did not tolerate the proposal.

“Laurent Blanc is someone I know very well. In this situation, he did not question the racism around him, ”says Thuram. “At this infamous meeting racist things were said, but it is because racist assumptions permeate society. It is a cultural heritage and it is very difficult to escape it.

“The received ideas are repeated. We need people to challenge prejudices, for example that blacks are strong and whites are smart.

“Someone [not Blanc] said to me one day: “If I had your physical prowess and my intelligence, I would be a great player”. This is the hypothesis of the intellectual superiority of the white race.

Thuram won trophies at Juventus (above), Barcelona, ​​Parma and Monaco
Thuram won trophies at Juventus (above), Barcelona, ​​Parma and Monaco

Thuram says he was encouraged by the response to his book, which was first published in France last year.

On Monday he will travel to London for two events to publicize his arrival in the UK, a launch at the Houses of Parliament and, later, a seminar and question-and-answer session at the Institute of Modern Languages. Research. It’s his life now and he hasn’t looked back since leaving football in search of the greater good.

“The foundation is more important to me than football. I started it when I was still in Barcelona. I knew I wanted to go into this area then, ”he says.

“The proof that I made the right decision is that you are now interviewing me on these matters and not on football.”

White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity by Lilian Thuram is out now, published by Hero, for £ 18.99.


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