Lilian Thuram: World Cup winner urges players to leave the pitch if they are racially abused

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“The day when the white players realize that they are part of the solution and that they know that they cannot be neutral, things will move forward,” said the French football legend, who played for Monaco, the Juventus and Barcelona during a brilliant career. Darren Lewis of CNN Sport.

“We need to invite the players to dig deeper into the subject of racism so that they can understand that they can make a difference.

“When they find out and subsequently 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 first and foremost a business.

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

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From Guadeloupe to France

Thuram, 49, was born in Guadeloupe but moved to France at the age of nine before representing the France team 142 times, winning the World Cup in 1998.

He says moving to France and being racially abused by children in school was the first time he realized he was considered a black person in society.

Thuram says he was the victim of racist abuse, such as monkey chants, throughout his playing career, especially after signing for Italian club Parma in 1996.

He recently wrote a book called White Thought: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity which deals with how societal norms still work to divide people and fuel systemic racism.

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

There have been numerous incidents of racism in world football this season, with players having been abused both on the pitch and on social media.
Recently, the German Olympic football team left the field in a friendly against Honduras after one of the German players suffered racist abuse, according to the German Football Association (DFB).

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

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

“This is why we must educate everyone to understand that we have a role to play, and we must have the courage to speak out against injustices.

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

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Thuram (left) playing for Parma in 1997.
Following a number of high-profile incidents in 2019, European football’s governing body UEFA introduced a three-step protocol for referees when tackling racism in the stadium.

He gave officials the option to drop the game “as a last resort” if racism persisted after restarting the game for the second time.

Meanwhile, the governing body of world football, FIFA, has said it is continuously working with the European Commission to eradicate discrimination in football.

“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 around the world, FIFA recognizes and accepts its responsibility to lead the fight against discrimination.”

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

Now playing in Germany for Borussia Mönchengladbach, Marcus was one of many to kneel in a game after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

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

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

“This is something very important and it shows why we have to educate the youngest in society because, as a rule, they are the ones who impose change.”

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Push for a better future

Thuram praised white players such as Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson for bringing up the subject of racial injustice, but is aware that athletes, especially black athletes, could be criticized for speaking 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 said was police brutality ongoing in the United States.

He drew sharp criticism from some for kneeling down and has not been signed to a squad since.

Thuram says he’s not surprised the young black people speaking out elicited such a response, but says the story will be kind to those who do.

“Things haven’t changed,” he said. “You should know that historically, people who denounce the racism of a political system, of institutions, are generally always sidelined.

“It could mean physically eliminated: there was a time [that] people have been killed for speaking out against racism.

“Today we are presenting Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela as great people. But you have to remember that while they were alive they were put in jail.

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

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Thuram is aware that the problem of racism is rife in many other sports and says it is important that sponsors and clubs do not abandon those who oppose it.

In terms of long-term resolution of these issues, Thuram reiterates that education and understanding of the history of racism is vital.

“We must dialogue with the players, educate the players so that they know that they have real power over the decisions that institutions can take to fight racism,” he added.

“Because a lot of times, regardless of skin color, players don’t understand the strategies that can be put in place to improve the tie.”


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