Confronting reality: Lilian Thuram on standing up to racism and why Fifa needs to do more

Lilian Thuram won some of soccer’s most coveted titles, but the Frenchman remains unsatisfied. Now retired, he tells SportsPro about his experiences of racist abuse, and discusses what must be done to combat discrimination in sport.

Confronting reality: Lilian Thuram on standing up to racism and why Fifa needs to do more

There are certain characters in soccer that demand recognition; others have earned it.   

Lilian Thuram’s 142 caps for France remain unrivalled, and the towering defender was a permanent fixture in the country’s 1998 Fifa World Cup-winning side, scoring twice in the semi-final against Croatia before shutting out a much-fancied Brazilian attack in the final in Paris - a 3-0 victory which went some way to unifying a nation divided by brewing feelings of dissonance between cultural groups across France.    

In a career spanning some 17 years, the Frenchman also swept up two Italian titles with Juventus before bowing out after a short spell playing in front of 99,000 fans at Barcelona’s famed Camp Nou. And yet for all his achievements on the pitch, Thuram remains unsatisfied. 

In September 2016, Fifa announced that it was disbanding its anti-racism task force, declaring its objectives complete despite growing concerns over discriminatory behaviour in Russia, the host nation of this year’s Fifa World Cup. The task force had ‘completely fulfilled its temporary mission’, according to a statement released by the global governing body. ‘The task force is hereby dissolved and no longer in operation’, it added, seemingly content that the issue of racism could be put to one side with the same haste as the group formed to combat it.  

Others, though, were less convinced.

“When Fifa disbanded the group it sent out a message that is negative to society,” Thuram explains, speaking to SportsPro at December’s Peace and Sport International Forum in Monaco. “Although Fifa continues to advertise against racism, and although Fifa has the power and strength to reach millions of people, it needs to push a stronger message denouncing racism.”   

Thuram is not the only prominent figure in soccer to express concern over Fifa’s decision. At the time, Jordanian Football Association president Prince Ali bin Hussein described the move as ‘incredibly worrying’ and ‘shameful’, while Ivory Coast and Manchester City star Yaya Toure claimed that it made ‘no sense’, and accused Fifa of complacency ahead of Russia 2018.

“We need a strong symbol to give the message of struggle against discrimination and racism to people who like football,” adds Thuram. “I am not sure whether for normal supporters of football if the struggle against discrimination is that important in their minds. What would be great is if one day, when people who like football hear about Fifa, they immediately think about the fight against racism and discrimination. That would be a very powerful message.”

Fifa continues to campaign against racism, but its anti-racism task force was disbanded in 2016

At 46, Thuram is uniquely qualified to discuss the divisive topic of racism in sport. Looking out from Monaco’s Monte Carlo Bay hotel - just a few miles along the coast from where he started his playing career - he tells traumatic tales of when he first left France, in 1996, to ply his trade in Italy, where he was the target of ‘monkey’ chants and other racist taunts during stints with Parma and Juventus.

More than two decades have passed since then, but has he seen attitudes towards black players change over that period?

“What is unbelievable is that I still hear and see racism,” he says. “So during 21 years there has been no change and there is no political will to make that change. There is no will from football clubs across Europe. Racism is deeply ingrained in European society.”

He adds: “It is always the same people who are the victims of racism in the stadium - people with black skin, or people of certain religions, or homosexuals. It is always the same groups who are the victims of discrimination, but it is not always these people who can change things. 

What would be great is if one day, when people who like football hear about Fifa, they immediately think about the fight against racism and discrimination. That would be a very powerful message.

“The people who could change this mentality are the people who are not the victims of racism or discrimination. So the question is, why are players who are not black, not Jewish, or not homosexual not taking action or positions against this issue? Usually, they do not take action because these topics do not affect their life. 

“If Fifa’s anti-racism group has been disbanded it is because they do not understand that racism is total violence. The only people that can say we live in a society without racism are the people who are not the victims of racism - this is unbelievable.” 

Thuram might struggle to see soccer taking a lead in the fight against racism and other forms of discrimination, but that has merely spurred his own efforts. In 2008, he founded the Lilian Thuram Foundation under the premise that no individual is born racist, but rather that they develop racist attitudes as a result of their intellectual, political and economic environment.      

Thuram (left) sings the French national anthem ahead of a game against the Netherlands at Euro 2008

During the riots that raged in France in 2005, when tensions over inequality in the country’s suburban banlieues reached boiling point, Thuram spoke out to identify with the young rioters after Nicolas Sarkozy, then France’s Minister for the Interior, attributed the unrest to the behaviour of ‘scum’. ‘If they are scum, then so am I’, responded Thuram, whose own childhood was spent in the more wretched, hidden suburbs of Paris after he and his family moved to France from Guadeloupe in 1981. 

A year after the riots, Thuram sparked further controversy when, along with his international teammate Patrick Vieira, he invited 70 African refugees to a European Championship qualifier between France and Italy. The two players made the gesture after Sarkozy had expelled the refugees from a squat in Cachan, where they lived illegally.

It is clear, then, that Thuram isn’t afraid of taking a stand against intolerance. But now he wants other soccer players – and not just those who are subjected to racism - to do the same. 

“First of all, we must talk about racism,” he asserts. “We must address the reality and talk about it. We must show pictures and show that it really exists. 

If a white football player walked off the field whenever there is a racist act made against a black player, things would be solved very quickly.

“The problem with racism is that when you are not a victim you think it does not exist, but it is very easy to stop. 

“For example, if a white football player walked off the field whenever there is a racist act made against a black player, things would be solved very quickly. Because football is a business, people would find solutions very quickly in that instance. But the problem is that we always think it is the victim of racism who should stand up.” 

Thuram (middle) speaks at December's Peace and Sport International Forum in Monaco

Thuram’s desire to give a voice to those who otherwise might not be heard is part of why he was selected to talk alongside Peace and Sport’s Champions for Peace, a group of over 90 present and former elite athletes committed to using their position within sport to create a more harmonious world. His truths are damning and, at times, awkward to confront, but his passion is simultaneously stirring and inspiring. 

As he speaks, one envisages cogs working overtime inside his head. He is clearly a deep thinker, but for all his infectious energy and enthusiasm, he is a man who recognises that there is still a long and fractious battle ahead, one which must start with the world challenging some uncomfortable realities.

“I am realistic, not optimistic,” he says. “The reality is that we now live in a society that accepts thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea for pursuing a better life. This is reality. 

“We should observe that across Europe there has been a rise of the far-right, and because of that people don't want to talk about racism anymore. Tackling racism is not seen as the priority for the world of football or for the European Union, but we should never stop talking about it. 

“When we talk about racism, a certain type of person thinks that the world belongs to them. Does the world belong to everybody like it should? Not in reality, and unfortunately most of the world is not aware of that.”

Lilian Thuram was talking at the Peace and Sport International Forum in Monaco. To find out more, click here.