In the latest edition of FOOTBALL NOW, Euronews speaks exclusively to France’s most capped player of all-time. The French legend has regularly spoken out against abuse and prejudice against players. It is a subject that is personal to Lilian as he experienced it himself during his professional career.
“I arrived in Italy in 1996 and even then, unfortunately, there were fans who made the monkey noise. I was already lucky enough to understand the mechanism of racism so I didn’t suffer from that.”
Since hanging up his boots, Thuram has been attempting to contribute to social alter and discharged a book, ‘White Thinking’, drawing on individual involvement and extremist writing. He accepts it’s vital to teach society almost the beginnings of prejudice and to energize individuals, especially white individuals, into considering almost societal structures and race.
“White people think that they are neutral in the history of racism. That is to say because they don’t experience racism they think that in fact, they have nothing to do with it. And that’s why, again, I’m trying to say that there is no neutrality.”
There is no denying that football has been rocked by racism on many occasions, including in 1988 when John Barnes famously backheeled a banana thrown onto the pitch in a match between Liverpool and Everton. Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o said “No mas” [No more] and left the pitch, along with his teammates before returning after facing abuse against Real Zaragoza in 2006. Fast forward to 2011, one of the most controversial moments in the Premier League was when Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra during Liverpool’s match against Manchester United.
More recently, England players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho were subjected to racist abuse on social media after missing penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
These are only a handful of examples of the discrimination experienced by footballers while doing their job.
“Racism has been on the rise over the last seven to eight years in football, in society, in the UK and across Europe,” explained Sanjay Bhandari, chair of football’s equality and inclusion organisation, Kick It Out, “It travels along with other forms of hate based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability and so on.”
A YouGov poll earlier this year showed that fans also believe that there is a racism issue in Europe. Less than one-fifth of supporters in each of the nine countries polled think that fans are doing enough to tackle racism. The figure is lowest among ethnic minority fans in Britain and Italy, of whom only one in ten think fans are doing enough to kick racism out of football.
How has football responded to racism? Fifa and the European Union Commission have propelled the EU Activity Arrange For Prejudice, running until 2025, to address this issue. It sets out a arrangement of measures to step up activity as well as guaranteeing full social consideration for individuals from racial minorities or ethnic groups.
Fifa has taken the steps to lead the global fight against racism. It fined Hungary €180,000 and banned fans from attending their country’s next game after they were found guilty of racist chanting at a World Cup qualifier. Additionally, they are strengthening their comprehensive anti-discrimination program, adding it is “a cornerstone in the governing body’s foundation of proactive measures to promote equality in football.”
Lilian highlights that what players do and say matters:
“We need more and more white players to make the decision to say openly that they are against racism and to leave the field.”
His message is clear, there is no place for discrimination in society, let alone on a football pitch.
For Lilian Thuram, the World Cup has never been enough. Even before ending a playing career in which he won trophies at Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona as well as the highest honours with France, for whom he holds the record for number of appearances (142), he has been trying to contribute to profound social change.
The foundation he set up in 2008 aims to educate people out of racism. Since hanging up his boots that year he has also, among many other things, campaigned against sexism and homophobia, advised the French government on social integration, served as a Unicef ambassador and, for his efforts to counter discrimination, been awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Stirling and Stockholm. He has written several books. The English version of his latest one, entitled White Thinking: Behind the Mask of Racial Identity, is published on Friday. In it he calls for “race suicide”. He aims to liberate people from “identity prisons”.
He knows these are jolting terms. Thuram believes it is important to prod people, particularly white people, into thinking more deeply about societal structures and race.
Thuram believes it is also important that white players are proactive in challenging racial inequality rather than leaving it to players of colour to lead the way. “Very often players who are targets of racism are asked: ‘What should we do about it?’ That is very hypocritical because it suggests it is up to them to find solutions as if they are the problem. It is up to white players, who are usually in the majority, to refuse to play on. Then the powers-that-be will be forced to take action. Because otherwise their business will suffer.”
Thuram does not expect governing bodies to take strong steps to engender change unless pressured into doing so. “Change never comes at first from the authorities. If you want to bring about change, you have to do things so that the authorities are compelled to change. For example, I am talking to you from Italy, where people often ask me: ‘Are the authorities doing enough to tackle racism?’ And I say: ‘No. I arrived in Italy in 1997 and there were racist chants in stadiums. Now it’s 2021 and there are still racist chants in stadiums. That means the authorities have not done their job.’