Lilian Thuram, rainbow warrior of 1998, fights new battle to beat racism with education
France World Cup winner tells Pete Jenson he backs the PFA's action plan and wants Serbia to face a tournament ban
Friday 26 October 2012
When Jason Roberts spoke this week about the problems of racism not having disappeared just because bananas are not thrown at players any more, it struck a chord with Lilian Thuram.
He was part of France's ethnically diverse "rainbow team" that won the World Cup in 1998. Last year a leaked recording from a French Football Federartion meeting revealed discussions to limit the number of Franco-African kids going into France's national coaching academies – hardly the legacy Guadeloupe-born Thuram and his team-mate Zinedine Zidane (of Algerian descent) had hoped for.
In Barcelona to promote the work of his own Education against Racism foundation, he talked about the false dawn of '98; about the final warning that Fifa should issue Serbia; and the effect a "Rooney rule" might have.
"It could be a positive change" he says of the Professional Footballers' Association's proposed version of the NFL's rule that would ensure a minimum proportion of black candidates on the list of interviewees for management jobs. "The most dangerous situation you can have is when before any process of selection starts there are certain people who are already ruled out. A black man can be a player because that is something that everyone expects and accepts; but the idea of a black man as the coach creates a doubt in people's mind.
"If you create a situation where black people have to be considered, then you are putting the question in people's heads: why? Why is there an intellectual doubt over a black man being a manager? If it takes people beyond this subconscious conditioning to not see black people in charge of a team then it can only be positive."
In England the debate has turned to black representation in management; elsewhere the eradication of moronic chanting towards black players is still an issue.
Thuram supports the idea of a suspended ban for Serbia after the abuse of England Under-21 players last week. "It would take courage from Fifa," he says. "For them to say 'that's enough, no more – the next time you offend you are banned from the next tournament'. It's a hard decision to take because it's not the majority who are making the monkey noises. But there has to be a punishment. You have to force the relevant football association to carry out a far-reaching programme of education."
It is the mantra that echoes through his message – you also have to educate. He has just published a book My Black Stars that is already being used in schools in France to open minds to the fact that "Black history didn't start with slavery".
"Human history for centuries has presented us with a hierarchy with white people at the top and black people as the link between men and monkeys. While the law has to protect those who are being discriminated against, it also has to educate."
What does he say to the argument that abuse over colour should not be taken any more seriously than, say, abuse over weight. "The overweight have never been denied the vote, enslaved or segregated. The historical baggage that comes with the abuse is important. You need to be able to say to the perpetrators – 'you can't do this,' but you also need to say why."
His foundation organises talks throughout Europe but he wants Fifa to ensure the message goes to the heart of football. "What you can do without hesitation is to make the history of racism part of the Fifa coaching badges. Teach the teachers.
"No one should get their badges without the story of racism having been part of their formation. A course on prejudice should form an obligatory part of the Fifa system."
Language is also a vital part of bringing about real change. In the Rio Ferdinand statement issued this week, he spoke of a co-operation between "professionals of all races". But the idea the human race is divided up into various races is the very misconception that underpins all racism.
Spanish media still constantly refer to "the black race" something which makes Thuram despair. "I found it incredible when I came to Barça when people spoke about the black race. Do people not realise that there is no such thing. This is a dangerous idea because it says that you and I are not from the same group.
"I would hear things like 'the blacks are just too strong for everybody else in the marathon'. People think these athletes are good long-distance runners because of their black skin. No one stops to ask why there are no marathon runners from Senegal or Congo. A Kenyan or an Ethiopian who lives at altitude finds it easy to run these distances but it has nothing to do with them being from another race."
A less volatile debate would also encourage change. "People are ashamed of their prejudices but they shouldn't be," he says. "It's part of our recent history. There was still apartheid on this planet in the nineties; there was segregation in the US until the sixties so of course people will still have prejudices. If someone has the courage to stand up and say 'what I did or said was wrong' then you can start to work from that point with some sort of intelligence."
Thuram knows his book of black heroes, taken from the fields of politics, science and philosophy; as well as sport, will make an impact. There are hopes for an English translation soon. But he is also aware of the resistance to meaningful change.
He remains optimistic though that things can change. And he stresses again the importance of education: "Better to have a society that does the right thing because it believes in it, than one that does so just to avoid being punished."
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