Lilian Thuram: World Cup winner urges players to run off field if racially abused

“The day white players understand they are part of the solution and they know they can’t be neutral, things will move forward,” said the French football legend, who has played for Monaco, Juventus and Barcelona during a glittering career. Darren Lewis of CNN Sports.

“We have to invite the players to delve into the topic of racism so that they understand that they can change things.

“If they know that and then decide to leave the field, you will see that the institutions will find solutions to the problem of racism.

“If you stop the games, you stop the business – and football is above all a business.

“So if we stop the matches, the football institutions will be forced to find a solution.”

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Lilian Thuram plays for France in 2006.

From Guadeloupe to France

Thuram, 49, was born in Guadeloupe but moved to France when he was nine years old before representing the French national team 142 times and winning the World Cup in 1998.

He says his move to France and racial abuse by children at school marked the first time he became aware that he was perceived as a black person in society.

Thuram says he has been the victim of racial abuse, such as monkey singing, throughout his career, most notably after signing for Italian club Parma in 1996.

He recently wrote a book entitled: White thinking: behind the mask of racial identity which examines how societal norms still work to divide people and fuel systemic racism.

He says education is key to tackling the problem in a more meaningful way, both in football and in wider society.

There have been many incidents of racism in world football this season, with players being mistreated both on the pitch and via social media.
Recently, the German Olympic football team walked off the field during a friendly against Honduras after one of the German players was racialized, the German Football Association (DFB) said.

Thuram urged athletes not to be complicit and to continue using their platforms as activists for social causes.

“You should know that the authorities will be able to promote more equality in society because we are going to oblige them to do this,” he said.

“That’s why you have to teach everyone to understand that we have a role to play and that we must have the courage to expose injustice.

“It is the number of people demanding change that will force the institutions to change.”

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Thuram (left) plays for Parma in 1997.
Following a number of high-profile incidents in 2019, the European Football Association UEFA has introduced a three-step protocol for referees to combat racism at the stadium.

It gave officials the option to suspend the match “as a last resort” if racism persisted after the match was restarted for a second time.

Meanwhile, FIFA, the governing body of world football, says it is constantly working with the European Commission to eliminate discrimination from the game.

“There is no place for racial discrimination in football or in society,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said earlier this year.

“As the governing body of football worldwide, FIFA recognizes and embraces its responsibility to lead the fight against discrimination.”

Since retiring as a professional footballer in 2008, Thuram has seen his son, Marcus, follow in his footsteps in professional football.

Marcus, who now plays in Germany for Borussia Mönchengladbach, was one of several players to kneel during a match after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

Other players used their social media platforms to share messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and English Premier League clubs still kneel before every game to raise awareness of discrimination.

“What was extremely interesting after George Floyd’s death was that a lot of the players who got down on their knees were young players,” Thuram said.

“That’s something very important and it shows why we need to educate the youngest people in society, because as a rule, they are the ones who make the change.”

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Pushing for a better future

Thuram has praised white players such as Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson for addressing the topic of racial injustice, but is aware that athletes, especially black athletes, can face criticism if they speak out.

Colin Kaepernick, for example, became a lightning rod in 2016 when the former NFL quarterback knelt during the national anthem, protesting racial injustice and what he believes to be ongoing police brutality in the US.

He was criticized by some for kneeling and has not been signed to any team since.

Thuram says he’s not surprised that young black people who speak out have provoked such a reaction, but says history will be kind to those who do.

“Things have not changed,” he said. “You have to know that historically the people who expose the racism of a political system, of institutions, are usually always sidelined.

“This can mean being physically eliminated: there was a time [that] people were killed for denouncing racism.

“Today we present Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as wonderful people. But you have to remember that they were in prison during their lifetime.

“They were also attacked for exposing institutional racism, so the fact that Colin Kaepernick can’t find a team actually makes sense.”

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Thuram is aware that racism is common in many other sports and says it is important that sponsors and clubs do not abandon those who speak out against it.

In terms of a long-term solution to such problems, Thuram reiterates that education and understanding of the history of racism is vital.

“We need to talk to the players, educate the players so that they know they have real power over the decisions that institutions can make to fight racism,” he added.

“Because very often, regardless of their skin color, players do not understand the strategies that can be put in place to improve equality.”

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