How a humble Lilian Thuram rose from nothing to become the world’s best right-back

How a humble Lilian Thuram rose from nothing to become the world’s best right-back

Footballers are used to hearing that they’ve forgotten where they’re from as a form of abuse, but Lilian Thuram is not. You may find other reasons to criticise him, but Thuram has never forgotten where he’s from. Born in the beautiful French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, but a proud Parisian since moving to the capital aged nine, Thuram would grow up to become a pivotal figure not just in French sporting history but French history overall. This is the story of a boy from the streets who wanted the world and everything in it – and duly got it.

He was born in Guadeloupe in 1972. The tiny French region can lay claim to the heritage of many of France’s greatest players, including the nation’s highest appearance maker – which is Thuram – and the top goal scorer in Les Bleus history, the mercurial Thierry Henry. Not bad when you consider it has a population smaller than that of Bristol.

Like many before her, Thuram’s single mother, Mariana, left the island to move to France and become an economic migrant. Regretfully, her search for work meant she had to leave her five-year-old son behind to be cared for by relatives. Although it was without question the toughest decision of her life, as Lilian would later proclaim, she knew that to have any chance of a better upbringing for her young family she would have to make the move sooner or later.

It was four years before she would see her youngest son again, after his mother called for him to be sent from Guadeloupe to Paris. She hoped bringing him to France would give her son a better chance at making something of himself and she was prepared to sacrifice whatever she could to facilitate it. While her son had absolute respect and admiration for his mother, he didn’t have the same relationship with his father.

Thuram’s father left when he was still an infant. As an adult he has met his father once, but largely derides him and thinks of him as “insignificant” in his life.

Largely because of the hard work of his mother, he found himself playing football on the streets of Fontainebleau, a difficult suburb in the neglected south-east of the capital. He played happily with friends that were the children of migrants from all over the world and, although his surroundings were not the nicest that Paris has to offer, he was happy.

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By 1991 he had traded the streets of Paris for the grandeur of Monaco, where he started his professional career. It was here that he first caught the eye of onlookers around the country. His solid defensive displays were a product of fantastic athleticism and an innate ability to read the game.

Around this time France was going through a disappointing time on the international stage, one that would eventually lead to them failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Thuram was one of a number of young French players that had long been earmarked as ones for the future and, in the aftermath of such a disappointment, the time was right to give the new generation a chance. And so, in only Aimé Jacquet’s fourth game in charge, he gave Thuram and a certain Zinedine Zidane their debuts. Although he had no idea at the time, Jacquet had given debuts to two players that would form the spine of one of football’s all-time best international teams.

Back on the club scene, Thuram’s assured performances had the caught the eye of many, but ultimately it was Parma who won the race for his signature. Led by Carlo Ancelotti, the club was building something special and Thuram was added to a talented group that already consisted of the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon and Hernán Crespo.

Buffon, Cannavarro and Thuram would all win the World Cup in their careers, while Crespo would overtake Diego Maradona to become Argentina’s all-time top scorer. Parma finished second in the league in 1997 – Thuram’s first at the club – and would carry on competing for major honours during the Frenchman’s tenure in northern Italy.

He was still a Parma player when he walked into Clairefontaine to start training with the French team ahead of the 1998 World Cup, which was to be played on home soil. Amidst the team’s preparations for the tournament, French right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen’s controversial comments had managed to make headlines. He had said he didn’t recognise the French team because it had “too many black players”. Thuram was one of many to speak up against him in the aftermath. “They did not choose Barthez because he is white, they did not choose Thuram because he is black. They chose Barthez and Thuram because they are French.”

Despite a shaky opening game, losing Zidane to a red card and winning a nervy penalty shootout in the quarters, the French team marched into the semis where they would face Croatia, who had beaten Germany 3-0 in their quarter-final. Led by Davor Šuker, the Croatians had been the surprise package of the tournament and they knew that, in front of a home crowd, the French team would be prone to nerves.

This is where the greatest moment of Thuram’s career was played out. However, like all great stories, the main character dug himself into a ditch before he could become a hero. After a smart ball played over the top found Šuker in acres of space, the Croatian coolly slid the ball past the onrushing Fabien Barthez to give them the lead. In the replays, it was clear that Thuram had clumsily played Šuker onside. Suker was the tournament’s top scorer and he was never going to miss such a gilt-edged chance.

As the Croatians celebrated wildly, Thuram stood watching, his eyes narrowed in determination to get his country out of a mess he played the starring role in creating.

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Just a minute later he robbed the ball off Zvonomir Boban on the edge of Croatia’s box, prodding it into the path of Youri Djorkaeff in the process. Djorkaeff didn’t take a touch as the ball rolled to him; instead he just stabbed it back into the path of Thuram, who had made a run most strikers would be proud of. The ball bounced once before he struck it cleanly with his right foot. France were level, and Thuram had redeemed himself.

The game then went back to the original script – hard fought and gritty with few chances. Enter Thuram. In the 69th minute he capitalised on a weak clearance, again by Boban. Thuram found himself on the edge of the opposition box, but this time he didn’t think to pass. With his left foot, he struck the ball first time and watched as it found its way into the corner, giving France the lead. Never has the phrase ‘from zero to hero’ been apter.

In moments like these, of overwhelming joy, you rarely know what to do. There are goals that are significant enough for the player to peel away and run off in a frenzied celebration. But then there are goals that are so significant you just have no idea. This was one of them. Thuram simply sat on his knees looking confused as to what he had just done as his team-mates swamped him and every French citizen hailed him.

“I didn’t know who I was or where I was, it was like a trance,” is how he would later describe his emotions at that moment. After the game had finished and France had confirmed their place in the final, the French players carried him off the pitch on their shoulders. “Thuram for president” they bellowed. If he had gone out to celebrate with a few drinks that night it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have had to pay for a single one.

After the game, Joseph Lother, who had never been in touch with his son, came forward and announced himself as Thuram’s father. “I cheered on Lilian, who is a very talented boy.” Thuram was having none of it. “I’m surprised by the behaviour of Joseph Lother, who is my genitor but cannot declare himself my father. My conception of fatherhood is different from his. A father has to raise his son. A father has to give him advice. A father clears a path for him. My mother did all of that for me.” And with that, Joseph Lother was banished to the shadows, in which he had spent most of Thuram’s life anyway.

A few nights later Thuram became an immortal of French history. A world champion; one of only 23 French men that can proclaim so. He had played a starring role in France’s greatest triumph and, along with his teammates, had made Jean-Marie La Pen eat his words. Maybe it was not as politically significant as South Africa’s rugby World Cup win in 1995, but the team had overcome huge odds and negative statements to triumph. “As I stood on the pitch afterwards I couldn’t believe it. Me? A world champion? Born in Guadeloupe, a poor kid from Paris, a world champion? No, I still do not believe it.”

Once everything had settled down, Thuram made his way back to Parma for the 1998-99 season. The season would be a memorable one for everybody involved as the club managed to win the treble, bringing home the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana and the UEFA Cup.

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At the end of the following season he linked up with the French team again. As world champions, France had the opportunity to add the Euros to their collection and become the first European team to win two international tournaments back to back. At this tournament, Thuram chose to remain quiet but efficient, rather than loud and heroic as he had done two years previously. He played his part in what was a well-oiled machine and, after beating Italy in a fraught final in Rotterdam, became a European champion. He played his way into the team of the tournament and added to his already huge reputation as one of France’s greatest players.

Now, as a world and European champion, Thuram had bigger ambitions than what was on offer at Parma. He loved the Gialloblu but he knew he wanted to play for another club, a bigger club. He gave them one more season before he decided the time was right to move on. At the end of the 2000/01 season, Juventus offered £25m for his services. Parma accepted and Thuram became the most expensive defender in history, overtaking the previous record of the £18m that Leeds had paid to West Ham for Rio Ferdinand.

With Marcello Lippi at the helm, Juventus already had a defence that was notoriously stingy. Add to the fact that not only had Thuram joined the club that summer, but Buffon as well, and you get a sense of how strong Juve were at the back. Thuram made 41 appearances during the 2001/02 season and helped them to win the Scudetto.

Once again, at the end of the season he reported for duty with France. The 2002 World Cup would see them try to defend the trophy they had won in France four years earlier. The tournament was to be played out in a new frontier as Japan and South Korea shared hosting responsibilities. No team had successfully defended the trophy since Brazil had followed up their victory in 1958 with another in Chile in 1962. But something just was not right in the French camp.

Zidane, their talisman, was racing to be fit for the tournament after picking up an injury in a needless friendly the week before kick off. Without him, the team looked lost. When Zidane was forced to miss a game at the 1998 finals because of suspension the team bonded even more, determined to win in his absence so he could return and lead them to victory.

This time that was not the case as they crumbled and exited the tournament without a win – or even a goal – to their name. Thuram admitted that it was the players as a collective that were at fault, rather than blaming their early exit on Zidane’s absence. It did nothing to tame the disgust of the French people, however, who treated their players to a harsh welcome when they returned from Asia.

At club level, Thuram returned to Juve for the 2002/03 season with a point to prove. The World Cup debacle had seen the stock of some French players drop around the continent. Thuram, ever determined to bounce back from adversity, helped the club to the Serie A title and the Champions League final – the missing piece in his trophy collection.

Suffering from the loss of Pavel Nedvěd, who was suspended from the final, Juve lacked any sort of spark in a dull game. Facing AC Milan, the two Italian teams did nothing to dispel the stereotypical view of Italian football as defensive, and played out a goalless game that Milan eventually won on penalties.

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After a trophyless season with Juventus the next time around and a disappointing Euro 2004, which saw the team lose to eventual champions Greece, Thuram retired from international football. He would be tempted out a year later in 2005, but it was around this time that Thuram made headlines on the front pages rather than the back.

Thuram never forgot that he was a kid from the streets who had achieved a dream that so many have. He was always ready to defend the people who come from the same circumstances that he did. And so, when riots broke out in France in November 2005, Thuram took a stance that many criticised him for. He took the side of the young people that were rioting, rather than the politicians.

When Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister for the interior, described the rioters as “scum”, Thuram was furious. The legendary defender remarked: “If they are scum, then so am I. It is true that I have achieved success as a footballer, but this is exceptional and very rare. Most of the kids in the suburbs have no way out and that is why they are violent. I do not excuse violence, but I understand it.”

Many in France were divided over his statements. This was perhaps the most high profile of Thuram’s political statements, but it is not the only one. Less than a year later he was at loggerheads with Sarkozy again. This time it was because he had invited 80 people that Sarkozy had expelled from a flat in which they lived illegally to watch a French national team game.

This was in September 2006, a few months after Thuram had come close to doing what only a handful of players in history have done before. After being tempted out of international retirement in 2005, Thuram helped France to qualify for the World Cup after a shaky period in which their appearance in Germany looked far from certain.

When the tournament came around, France started off slowly. One win and two draws meant they finished second to Switzerland in their group. This led to a showdown with Spain in the last-16. Spain had been in fine form during the tournament and were building a team that would go on and dominate in years to come, but France were too much for them. With Zidane on fire, France came from behind to win 3-1. It was a sparkling performance that gave the nation hope.

Brazil, the heavy pre-tournament favourites and holders, were up next. France were perfect in every sense against the Seleção. Thuram used his experience to lead and shield his defence from the threat of Brazil’s fearsome attacking options, while Zidane put in another magnificent performance. An Henry goal gave France a famous win and they marched on to the semis.

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With momentum on their side and a balanced mix of young and old, France were suddenly looking like they could win the whole thing. Like 1998, they had shaken off whatever doubts they had to put in some great performances. Standing in their way of a second final in three tournaments were Portugal. Again, Thuram marshalled his defence perfectly from the threat of a young Cristiano Ronaldo, while Zidane provided the sparkle up front. It was Zizou who scored the winning goal, a first-half penalty. Despite several waves of Portuguese attacks, France held on to reach the final.

The 2006 final will always be known for the antics of Zidane, and another defender. Marco Materazzi, not Thuram, made a name for himself by playing his part in Zidane’s sending off. Although the exact details are still unknown, it didn’t help the French cause when the game went to penalties. Italy would emerge victorious but France would still return home to a hero’s welcome.

In the midst of that World Cup, the Calciopoli scandal was making waves in Italian football. For their role, Juventus were demoted to Serie B. While some chose to stay and help Juve get back to Serie A, Thuram was one of many who decided he would leave. When Barcelona put an offer in front of him, Thuram was off. Here he was, in the twilight of his career, getting the chance to play for one of the world’s biggest teams.

Unfortunately, despite being European champions, Barcelona were falling apart. Frank Rijkaard had lost the dressing room and players were regularly arguing with one another in training. This led to Thuram playing in the worst period of the club’s recent times for the two seasons he was there.

At the end of his contract with Barcelona in 2008, he would join up with France to play at Euro 2008. A disappointing tournament meant they were eliminated in the group stage and, after 141 appearances for his country, Thuram retired from internationals once and for all. In all his appearances, his only goals were the two against Croatia a decade earlier.

Cruelly, his career did not end on his terms. After leaving Barça, Thuram had lined up a one year deal with a pre-Qatari financed Paris Saint-Germain. It would have been perfect for him to end his career with the club of his beloved hometown, but it was not to be. During the medical, a previously unknown and dangerous heart defect was brought to his attention. Not long after he decided to end his career rather than play on and risk any sort of damage to his health.

Since retiring he’s remained in the limelight in France for his views on many issues. He has joined demonstrations in favour of same-sex marriage and regularly speaks out on issues of racism. He has started a foundation, the Lilian Thuram Foundation, which tackles racism through education.

Lilian Thuram is a man from the streets who never forgot where he was from. A great character, not only on the football pitch, but off of it as well. They certainly don’t make them like Thuram anymore.

By James Bhamra @JamesBhamra

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