Lilian Thuram isn’t just any footballer; he’s emerged as the game’s moral conscience, not just in the French-speaking world but more broadly.
Recently, a packed hall at New York University came to listen to Lilian Thuram talk about racism in football … on a Friday night. Of course, we got our picture taken (see here) with one of the best players of his generation.
Born in Guadeloupe, Thuram’s single mother took him and his siblings to Paris when he was still a child. He played club football for Monaco, Parma, Juventus, and Barcelona (in that order). He retired from playing in 2008 after being diagnosed with a heart condition. After he scored two goals for France in the 1998 World Cup semi-final against Croatia, no less than Zinedine Zidane told journalists: “You write and write about Ronaldo and I, but you don’t even see that the greatest footballer of all is right in front of you: Lilian Thuram.” He’s also well-read and cites Aimé Cesaire, the Martinique poet and longtime communist mayor of Fort-de-France, as his hero.
Two days before his NYU appearance, Thuram had told the BBC that white players have a responsibility to speak out when black footballers like Yaya Touré (recently the subject of racist chants by fans of Russian club CSKA Moscow) face racist abuse. “As a general rule, we always go to the players who are victims of racism, and I think it’s the others who can change things … The action of not saying anything—somehow—it makes you an accomplice.”
When I speak about racism, or Yaya Touré or Kevin-Prince Boateng speak, everyone knows what to expect. But if tomorrow all the white players from Manchester City say that from now on if something happens we will refuse to go back out on to the pitch, and if the players from AC Milan, from Inter Milan and from all the big clubs say the same thing, you’ll soon see that we’ll find a solution.
Thuram’s challenge to how racism is addressed in football, as in broader society, is profound: The failure of moral leadership against racism from those who are not victims of it constitutes complicity and ensures that racism persists.
We’ve raised this issue before and also criticized the connected problem of how the media represents racism in football. Any report on racist abuse suffered by a footballer is invariably accompanied by an image of the black player concerned, but that isn’t an accurate representation of racism. The abuse they suffer, not their mere presence on the pitch, is the story and should be the focus.
On stage, Thuram was interviewed by the American soccer writer Grant Wahl, who made a go of it and guided what could otherwise have been a tedious affair of platitudes and speechifying into an exciting conversation. For example, Thuram was in good form and recalled an incident from his time at Parma when Lazio wanted to sign him and sent their infamously racist Ultras to convince him. They assured Thuram that he would be spared their monkey chants and bananas. Their pitch to him was: you’re so good that we’ll even put our racist abuse on hold if you join us. He signed for Juventus instead.
But we became especially interested when the conversation shifted to the recent spate of racist incidents involving European fans. Wahl asked whether, like Yaya Touré, Thuram would advocate for a boycott by African countries and black players of the 2018 World Cup in Russia if the country failed to deal with the issue.
Some background: A boycott seems justifiable given the wide acceptance of racist behavior among Russian fans combined with the denial by Russian sports authorities/administrators to deal with racism. See the reaction of CSKA’s manager, for example. As for the efficacy of boycotts, the historical record suggests it’s not such a bad idea: Remember when Kwame Nkrumah urged African football associations to boycott the 1966 World Cup in England. Until then, the sole African representative at the final tournament had to play the Asian or European team for a place in the finals. The result was that for Mexico in 1970, African teams were rewarded with one direct slot just for them (which has since been increased to 5). And who can forget how sports boycotts messed with the resolve of South African whites?
But there are also good reasons why boycotts don’t work. Not everyone you think will or should support it will comply. At the Olympic Games in Montreal (boycotted by African nations) or Moscow (boycotted by the US and its allies), those attending competed as if nothing had happened. Also, the South African boycotts were undermined by “rebel” teams traveling there or English football players (Kevin Keegan, Roy Hodgson, come to mind) going to play club football there in Apartheid’s leagues. And who is to say some smaller and weaker African footballing nations won’t see the absence of Côte d’Ivoire (who Yaya Touré plays for) as their chance to get to the World Cup?
But Thuram added his criteria. He’d only push for sports boycotts or the cancellation of international tournaments hosted by countries that have clear discriminatory policies based on the basis of race, ethnicity, origin, and so on. Russia was not officially promoting xenophobia or racism, he argued.
In any case, Thuram argued, it would be better to confront racism directly by going to Russia and playing in front of racist fans.
This is not a flawed argument. There’s a historical precedent for it, as the American sports historian Jeffrey Sammons reminded the NYU audience: At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, African-American athletes on the US team, after campaigning for a boycott, eventually decided on this strategy, using their time on the medal stand to bring attention to US racism. By the way, an excellent BBC documentary covers those events. You can watch it here.
Wahl, though, changed the subject, and it seemed settled for the night.
That is until Elliot got up during question time and brought up Israel.
As is well known, Israel has discriminatory and oppressive state policies towards Palestinians. Yet earlier this year it hosted the UEFA Under 21 Championship, in which the best young European players competed. In the lead-up to the tournament, a group of mainly French-speaking African players (and black French players), led by Frédéric Kanouté (he played for Sevilla, Tottenham and Mali), wrote a letter to UEFA protesting the tournament. Elliot wanted to know from “Professor Thuram” whether he supported the campaign, as well as why it was that yet again it was a case of black footballers providing moral leadership in the game.
Thuram seemed to pause, then responded that UEFA should have insisted that matches be played in both Israel and Palestine.
Some clapped. We were disappointed but soon realized we missed what Thuram had done. He had exposed the absurdity of Israel being a member of UEFA. In what sense is Israel part of Europe? Why not Palestine? He knew that his proposal to insist that tournament games be played in both Israel and Palestine was impossible since this would have meant holding European championship games within the Asian Football Confederation, of which Palestine is a member.
And what was the substance of our disappointment? We were waiting for Thuram to tell us what we already knew, to offer a strident condemnation of Israel’s racism. The temptation was to be frustrated by his canny answer. But what right do we have to place a special obligation to combat racism on Thuram? Why should we expect him to provide moral leadership on every issue when most other prominent players never speak out on any issue at all? One can criticize Thuram, but isn’t it crazy when so many other players are silent?
The best question Thuram got all night was from a 15-year-old boy who announced that he reckons Thuram committed a foul in the run-up to his second goal against Croatia in 1998 (exactly 15 years ago), and that it should have been disallowed. Thuram: “Watch what you say, young man!”