Zinedine Zidane has described him as “the greatest footballer of all” and he holds the record as the most capped player in the history of the France national team with 142 appearances between 1994 and 2008… But Lilian Thuram is also an outspoken political commentator, an activist and an intellectual. Achille Mbembe spoke to him in the aftermath of the famous coup de boule (2006).
Of all the line-ups in the World Cup recently held in Germany, the Bleus were undoubtedly the team most brimming with political issues, as well as with cultural ambiguities and possibilities.
The pain that comes from having been a star, beloved of all, and now seeing that fame fade with the onset of age; complex relationships born of the intersection between racial identity, citizenship, and national belonging in the age of globalisation; life lived in a world stamped with the history of slavery and colonisation: the French team was a living expression of multiple dilemmas.
Of all the teams, it was the most post-colonial – the most manifest expression of a Europe pulled hither and yonder by nostalgia for the colonial past, by the gloom of identity politics, border closings, and a forced march towards incipient forms of cultural pluralism, toward a new cosmopolitanism.
Two men emerged as symbols of this state of affairs: Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram.
The former had dreamed of being crowned king of the world but, instead, exited the scene a tragic hero at the end of a luminous career – head first. The other, faithful to himself, kept coming back to Fanon’s prayer, to a prayer his people have been intoning for centuries now: “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” I interviewed Thuram in Johannesburg a few days after the final match in Berlin. He was visiting the country slated to host the World Cup in 2010, meeting with everyone who matters here, among whom, needless to say, Nelson Mandela himself. Previously, he had been in Dakar, in Senegal. I met up with him at the Rosebank Hotel, in the heart of our most Afropolitan of cities. For some time I had been intrigued by this man, whom I was told read widely.
Why football? Because, of all the sports invented by the human spirit, in our day it is the one which most fully exhibits the traits of a cult and a religion – an idolatrous religion. Crowds turn players into divinities, respected and adored. Also because it is the sport which has known most effectively how to reconcile Mammon and God. Not only does it belong to one of the principal cultural industries in this age of globalisation; it has also transformed itself into a shrine, before which the world’s multitudes come to prostrate themselves, some bearing offerings to domestic racial chauvinism, others foreshadowing what could be ideal conditions for the existence of a human (and humane) world.
The transformation of football into a religion and the triumph of a certain spirit of “idolatry” in place of critical thought – all this is not without danger for culture and democracy. In an economy in which the image is made flesh and in which spectacle is the ordinary form of leisure and distraction, a certain caricature of the professional football player has succeeded in imposing itself – a caste of “low-class people”, nouveaux riches inclined towards luxury, slaves to gaudy trash, masters of bling, drawn to games of luck, with a knack for good-time girls, in brief, servants of a hedonistic culture as cynical as it is brutal, but which is the fullest expression of the spiritual vacuum on which violence feeds.
The footballers themselves have become commodities to be bought and sold, and who are dropped at the whim of a fluctuating market. Many resemble robots, mercenaries with neither weapons nor home, who go from one brand to the next, propelled solely by the flow of indecent sums of money. And they say the dumber they are, the more they make.
But Lilian Thuram does not correspond in the least to this caricature. We took a window seat in the hotel lobby. He ordered tea. And we talked. Here are some of his words, the words of a very vibrant and charming man, who knows exactly who is, where he comes from and where he is going. And who speaks straight to the point, yet with humility and compassion.
Oh, football, is just happiness. Football is the language of happiness. No matter where you are. You have a ball, you play. Right away, someone comes to play with you. Later, there is someone else. Two against two. Three on three.
Achille Mbembe: The World Cup has just ended. Instead of taking a well-deserved break, here you are in South Africa, after having been in Dakar, in Senegal. Why are you here?
Lilian Thuram: I am here to talk about a disease that, unfortunately, is not well-known: sickle cell anaemia. This hereditary disease is globally widespread, but remains relatively invisible. I am here to shine a spotlight on this disease and to raise awareness among the people and the authorities, in the hope that mechanisms will be put into place, mechanisms intended to resolve problems that those affected encounter. We still do not know how to cure the disease. Through screening, however, we can improve certain things, sometimes even avoid the disease altogether. Early detection means better care and, as a result, a better quality of life. It is important to know that you can live comfortably with this disease. Still, you have to have access to medications and care, and there needs to be education for those affected by the disease. You can have this illness and not know it. There are behaviours you can learn in order to avoid very painful episodes. Because it is actually a quite painful disease.
AM: This isn’t your first visit to South Africa.
LT: I was here in 2001. We came to play. I believe we won. But the match, for me, was secondary – we had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela. To me, he is more than an idol. He represents an enormous number of things: innumerable struggles for dignity – human dignity in general, not only the dignity of Black people. Often, we confine our fight to the struggle for Black folks. Mandela struggles for the good of all humankind.
AM:We will no doubt return to this question of humanity’s future and present, during the course of this conversation. For now, tell me what, fundamentally, led you to think the way you do, to take the positions for which you are known, and to lead your life in the way you do.
LT: I was born in Guadeloupe, a Caribbean island where something both brutal and extraordinary happened. In Guadeloupe, an encounter occurred between Africa and the enslaving world. At the end of this era of captivity, the Indians came, as a result of which Guadeloupean culture is mixed. I am a product of this mixing and of the culture to which it gave rise. This is perhaps what brings me to reflect on questions of métissage. Cultural mixing is a treasure. But it can also be traumatic, if it is not lived easily or explained well. This is where I come from.
AM: You are a child of a large family.
LT: I come from a single-parent home. My mother had 5 children. She had to “immigrate” to France, or rather to the “Metropolis,” because she wanted to provide something better for her children. This experience enormously affected my thinking and my life. We left in search of something better. If people are happy where they are, they do not leave.
AM: You dreamed, then, of one day becoming a professional football player.
LT: No. When I was little, I dreamed of becoming a priest. At mass, I was always struck by the message of sharing. I listened to the voice of this man who could reconcile people. This same man also had the power to forgive. It is something which is a part of me and lives inside me still.
AM: And so, you settled in France.
LT: I lived for a little while in Bois-Colombes. Then, shortly, we moved to Avon, near Fontainebleau. It’s a banlieue, a low-income community on the outskirts of Paris. I lived in government-funded housing – what the French call a cité.
AM: How was that, the experience of the cités for a young person of your age, during those years?
LT: In the cité, I met all kinds of people from different backgrounds, different countries. I am French Guadeloupean. In the cité, I had friends who were Pakistani, Zairois, Algerian, Moroccan, Portuguese, Spanish. I grew up with all these children, without any barriers of nationality. There was great friendship. We spent all our time together. We were lucky: there was a forest nearby. We learned about each other’s games and customs. The Pakistanis played cricket and we asked about that. The Portuguese had their own game and we wondered about it as well. I often went to my friend Zia’s house. His mother was Pakistani. In this cité, everything was something new to learn about – the games of others, their ways of dressing, their work, their music, their celebrations. We sneaked in and out of parties held by the cité’s adults.
Beer flowed like water. There was traditional music, women dressed in traditional skirts. And so, I was nurtured with all this. I don’t understand, today, why people can’t seem to comprehend one another.
AM: To what do you attribute this lack of understanding that we are witnessing today, this apparent refusal to “live together”, to share differences and, where possible, to forge similarities?
LT: It is fundamental to learn very early to know the other. And you don’t get to know the other if all you’re interested in is getting the other to be like you. Not everyone can resemble you; it’s not possible. We are different, but only culturally so. We must understand that we all aspire to the same thing, happiness. Our religions, for example, can be different. But they teach us all to strive for forms of happiness that take us beyond what is most immediate.
AM: From the cité, you then went to Monaco.
LT: I left for Monaco at the age of 17. I went to play football. There, I was faced with a new reality. I left the cité and found myself in Monaco, in – how can I put it? – in opulence. I was not yet an adult, but I already understood a number of things. For example, I knew instinctively that a person’s value was not connected to money; what mattered was the heart. After Monaco, I left for Parma in Italy. There too, I was a foreigner. What I learned early on, was never to deny who I am. To go towards the other does not mean that one leaves oneself behind, that one betrays oneself.
AM: This concern for the self, this desire not to betray oneself, and this ethic regarding the other, towards whom we move and whom we embrace as we come to know him better – does this stem from the fact that you are Guadeloupean, and, dare I say… Black?
LT: I am from Guadeloupe, [which means I am] from France. Unfortunately, I live in a culture which, historically, has always sought to imprison Black people in a kind of homogeneity. They want you to renounce your culture in order to go unnoticed and assimilate. Yet, assimilation is a very dangerous thing for the self and for the other because in assimilating you bring nothing to the other, and, most importantly, you lose yourself.
AM: Moving on to football. What exactly is football?
LT: Oh, football, is just happiness. Football is the language of happiness. No matter where you are. You have a ball, you play. Right away, someone comes to play with you. Later, there is someone else. Two against two. Three on three. One asks you: “You’re coming back tomorrow for a game?” Give a ball to a little child. You’ll see. Her eyes will light up. For me, football is happiness. It is for this reason that the sport inspires such passion.
AM: When did you begin to experience this kind of happiness?
LT: I have always played football. I played in front of my house in the Antilles, when I was little. In order not to wreck our shoes, we would take them off. We played barefoot, on the tarmac, which today I wouldn’t be able to do anymore. We organised little matches. Like all little boys, I wanted to score goals. They asked me to play defence because they saw I couldn’t score. I was sad, but I had to accept. So it goes.
AM: Football today is also huge sums of money – a business of global scale. Does this mean that football happiness today is all about cash, cash, and more cash?
LT: There is what happens on the field, which is pure happiness, pure joy. And then there is what happens around football. Around football, there is an enormous amount of money. From the moment football began to draw huge numbers of spectators, huge numbers of television viewers, it became a space for selling all kinds of things. That’s the case during the World Cup. Just look at the cost of advertising spots, at the amount of money made in jersey sales: it’s frightening. That said, it is important to differentiate between the game and the money. We, the football players, must keep that spark, the spark we had as children, so we can pass on those emotions to the people who watch us play.
AM: I am not going to ask how much you earn. I assume you are doing well. What is your “philosophy” of money?
LT: I didn’t dream of being a football player. In Guadeloupe, I didn’t even know that you could make a living playing football. So I have never been very money-oriented. As a young trainee, I was not focused on the financial aspect of the game. Today, I make a lot of money – football is big business. But I try not to become a slave to money. I try to steer clear of a system, or a mindset, in which you think that with money you can get anything you want. Some things I just don’t let myself buy because I think it’s indecent to spend that much money. But as a general rule, I try to make my life, and the lives of those close to me, easier. Money helps, but it isn’t a life goal.
AM: They tell me you read a lot.
LT: I try to learn about the topics that interest me. I read books on philosophy because I believe it’s important to ask the question of why we are here, and where we are going as people. As well, I am very interested in Black culture, in the history of Black people. It is something that, unfortunately, we do not learn in French schools. From the way the subject is handled, you’d think that Black history began with slavery. But, of course, this isn’t the case. I strive to educate myself on all these issues, for myself, and in order to teach my children.
AM: Is there, in your eyes, a relationship between football, culture, the arts and literature – between football and, for instance, painting, music, architecture, poetry, cinema, or, let us say in a general way, writing?
LT: We can say that football itself is an art. Just because there is a physical aspect to the sport doesn’t mean it lacks beauty. There is, in football as in other artistic disciplines, an element of transcendence. Beauty is something difficult to explain. It has without a doubt a relationship to sensation. You look at something, a piece, and you find it beautiful. But this is only your view. My beauty could easily be your ugliness. Beauty is something which nourishes your emotions, which plunges you into happiness.
AM: Why, during the World Cup in Germany, did you feel the need to respond to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who observed that France’s national team had too many ‘players of colour’?
LT: When an idiotic statement is repeated many times over, if you don’t show how idiotic it is, and if you don’t contradict it, it becomes a “truth.” I believe that, faced with the repetition of this idiocy, it is important, at a given moment, to respond. It is important to stop and say: “Hey! Wait. It’s not like that.” That way, you get both sides of the story. Then people can compare the two and make a decision as to what they believe is true.
AM: On the racist aspects of his discourse, isn’t the demagogue [that Le Pen is] just saying out loud what many ordinary French people believe, including sometimes those in the most refined milieus?
LT: Le Pen says what many people think the world over: “We are in France. The French team is composed of 80% Black players. This is impossible!” But how can you say “This is impossible!” if you know your history? Those who do not know the history of France see a Black or Muslim player, and say to themselves, “Look at those Africans and those Muslims on France’s team! Where do they come from? What country are we living in?”
AM: You have responded to Le Pen in these words: “I am not Black. I am French.” Why not say, just: “Yes, it’s the good fortune of France, I am Black and French?” The two things are certainly not incompatible.
LT: I meant: “It is not because of my colour that I am on the French team. They did not choose me because I am Black.” They did not choose Barthez because he is white. They chose Barthez and Thuram because it is France’s team and they are French. This is the meaning of my response to Le Pen. It was not about my not being Black. Because, clearly, I am Black and people know very well that I am Black. You see? What is important is a certain political and intellectual sensibility that allows it to be said: “Me, I am not Black. I am French.” Or: “Me, I am not White. I am French.” It is a sensibility that allows us to separate nationality from the tragic history of colour, from the history of racial classification.
AM: You are one of the rare players, if not the only, player, on France’s team to have publicly expressed an opinion on the subject of the banlieues riots in France last year. What prompted you to do so, and how was it that your friends Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele, and the others, who also grew up in the banlieues – how is it that they did not publicly express themselves on this type of issue?
LT: It is a matter of sensibility. Each person has his own sensibility. In a way, to publicly give one’s opinion on a subject of this kind means running the risk of not having unanimity. Myself, I am not after creating unanimity. I simply want there to be a collective reflection.
AM: At the time, you also expressed some anger.
LT: At the time, my tone was angry. This was something that I felt very deeply. I felt injured. I wanted to get people thinking about whether it was just to say what this person [Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s Minister of the Interior] had said: “We will clean up that mess [the cités] with high pressure water hoses!” And what did he mean, calling [the kids in the banlieues] “scum”? When I was young they called me “scum” too, these people who did not know who I was. Why? Because I lived in a cité? And when I had a little money because I was playing in 4th Division games, they said: “Oh, well it’s because he’s pickpocketing people on the metro.” There are always these prejudices. They come from the fact of not knowing others. For example, I would go to eat over at a friend’s house. After a while, the parents would say: “Oh, your friend is great. He is not like the others.” But “the others,” who is that? Do they know the “others?” No.
AM: For your Minister of the Interior and his friends, these “others” are they not, above all, “aliens” – Africans, North Africans, Antillais, Reunionnais, Kanaks, whoever?
LT: It is important to know that a great majority of French people live in banlieues. But, yes, this discourse about cité youth is probably mostly about Blacks and North Africans. And it’s always, over and over, the same thing that gets repeated: “They are dangerous. They make our streets unsafe.” I say “No!” The real problems are racism, economic insecurity, and poverty.
AM: As a matter of fact, the “high pressure water hose” outburst occurred after a tragic accident in which two young “people of colour” were electrocuted.
LT: It’s true, these events took place a few days after the two young boys had died. What worried me is that we did not stop to reflect on the causes of these deaths. These two boys thought that the police were going to ask to see their ID papers, and so they ran. The question is: Why were these youths scared of the police? What relationship is there between the police and young people in the cités? It is disturbing that two people are dead because they were scared and hid inside [what turned out to be an electricity] transformer. How is it that the police left, knowing full well that the boys were in the transformer? And that’s just one part of the story. Buildings were burning in Paris and several families lost their children. This man [Nicholas Sarkozy], whom I have met by the way, had only one worry: he wanted to know if “those people” had papers!
AM: It is for all these reasons that you speak out.
LT: I speak because, on these issues, I know what I am talking about. I grew up in that environment. I know the prejudices. It is true that today they judge me less openly because I am Lilian Thuram, the football player. Apparently, I no longer have a colour. But I have not forgotten. So I ask, simply: “What do we want in a just society?” Let us reflect on this society of justice. Unfortunately, instead of doing so, we manipulate people and play games that turn them against each other.
AM: Even so, I return to the other part of my question. Why did your friends Henry, Zidane, Vieira, Makelele, and the others – why did they keep quiet?
LT: Listen, I don’t know.
AM: You’re not going to tell me to ask them the question directly?
LT: You will have to ask them. I can say, though, that, as a general rule, they think much as I do. How each deals, well…We discuss…
AM: You discuss these things among yourselves?
LT: Yes, yes, of course. They were also wounded.
AM: At the beginning of the competition in Germany, people asked whether the French felt “represented” by what many called “that team.” How did you, inside the team, experience this lack of support?
LT: It was hurtful. Because, what do you mean by asking that question in those terms? It says everything. It means: “Don’t you think there are too many Blacks, and so this is not France’s team?” If the French team had played badly, what would have happened? This is very serious stuff – people don’t realise how serious. It’s for this reason that we must begin to reflect on these matters. Asking this type of question means that the education of the population is not complete. They do not understand that there are French people who are Black. Yet it is history that has brought us here. And since they did not learn history…
AM: How do you explain the extraordinary visibility of French people of (recent or distant) African origin in football and athletics, and their quasi-invisibility in domains such as literature, government, business, politics, academia and media?
LT: For the underprivileged classes, the easiest way out of hardship has often been through sports. Because in sports, there is no place for prejudice. There are your abilities, and that’s all. I mean: we run a 100-metre race. I finish first, I finish first!
AM: While recognizing that fundamental structural problems have not been resolved [in the US], many foreign observers query why it is that, after so many centuries of living together, of shared destiny, France is still not inclined towards the example of the U S. They wonder why France does not have a Colin Powell, a Condoleeza Rice, a Thurgood Marshall, an Oprah Winfrey or a Barak Obama.
LT: What is most important is not to produce a Colin Powell or a Condoleeza Rice à la francaise. That is the kind of ideology that someone like Sarkozy defends. In France, what we need is greater equality. In the United States, it’s true they have Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Oprah Winfrey. But when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, what happened and what did we see? When you visit American prisons, who do you find in the majority? The life expectancy of a young Black American, is it the same as that of a young White American? What does that mean? So tomorrow, there are a few Blacks in power in France; will it better for all the Blacks in France? The core of the issue is greater equality. The heart of the matter is education of a different kind. [As of 2006, for the first time,] the evening news is presented by a Black anchorman. All well and good. But not if it obscures the fact that so many [other Black people] are suffering.
AM: So, as you see it, the fact that France’s football team is composed primarily of Blacks and North Africans, this fact does not have any real cultural or practical implications.
LT: For those Blacks and those North Africans, for the men on the team, there is tolerance. But does this change anything for the ordinary Black or North African who is looking for work or who is trying to rent an apartment? Or for the guy who goes to a nightclub and they don’t let him in the door? We must not mask reality behind pretences.
AM: And it is this type of argument that you put forward on the [French government’s] High Counsel on Integration, of which you are a member?
LT: I speak most of all about my lived experience and about what can be done. On another note, I have to say that the word “integration” bothers me. It is used, typically, to talk about people who have just arrived in France. But people tend to forget that there exist real problems for those who are already here. Concerning these people, those who are already here and have been for a long time, there is a great deal of ambiguity. They are treated as second-class citizens. They are not granted the same rights.
AM: Under such conditions, what can you say to the young people who live in cités? How does one nurture in them a consciousness of full and complete citizenship?
LT: To the young people, I said: “Burning cars gets you nowhere. Go vote! Go vote because in voting you will force them to hear. You will open doors. Stop saying you are not French. That’s what they want to hear – those who want to railroad you.” Me, I am French and proud of it. Because this is so, and because I believe that France, such as it is now, is not playing by the rules it claims to have set for itself – because it is not in accord with itself and with its stated principles. I try to do what I can to change things. Because, if you don’t [speak up], they push you aside and they only take notice of you when they feel you have become a nuisance to them.
AM: We are getting to the end of the interview. Figures such as Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé endeavoured, in their time, to rethink the relationship between the Antilles and Africa. What does Africa signify for you? What remains of this heritage?
LT: Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Maryse Condé and many others accomplished an enormous task. If today, we, young Antillais and French, are conscious of our history, it is thanks to them. Each generation must take up again the work they undertook, take it on as its own responsibility. We must continue to raise the consciousness [of our people]. Today, people of the Antilles know where they come from. But not because they learned that [in school]. Regarding Africa we were taught to forget; we were taught to be ashamed about what was, ashamed of having been slaves, we were educated to negate ourselves. We were told that slavery made Blacks into men. That is exactly what Victor Hugo said. He said that the Black man was a man because the White man made him so. That cannot be allowed to stand.
AM: And you, what about your own relationship to Africa?
LT: My relationship to Africa is very simple. I know that my ancestors came from Africa. Yesterday I was in Senegal, on Gorée Island. It was a powerful time which only reinforced what I already thought. I have two children. One is named Marcus. For Marcus Garvey. The other is named Kephren, in reference to Ancient Egypt. It is absolutely necessary that we accomplish this task which consists in returning dignity to those who have been deprived of it by force of circumstance. Gandhi said: “It is more shameful to have been a slave-owner than a slave.” I am not ashamed of my history. That history is fundamental, if, in France, we want to turn around the situation we are in and get past racism. To eradicate racism, one must get to its root. And slavery, that is the root. An advertisement, an advertising banner, is not sufficient. You engage people, sure. But you must go deeper. You must go back to slavery to understand what happened. People put in place a system of slavery because, there again, there was wealth and profit. And, from the moment you put a system in place, you must defend it. It is like today. You start a war and you must justify it ideologically. So, you claim they are “not like us”. Or you say that “they are animals. We must save them. Making war on them is good for them”. Slavery did not concern only Black people, it concerned all people.
Achille Mbembe has been an Arsenal supporter since Wenger joined the club. He wears the Gunners’ jersey at the weekly training sessions with his neighbourhood team in Johannesburg. He is the author of On the Postcolony. This interview is translated by Cullen Goldblatt (Additional translation by Dominique Malaquais).
This piece orginally appeared in Chimurenga 10: Futbol, Politricks & Ostentatious Cripples (December 2006) in which we scope the stadia, markets, ngandas and banlieues to spotlight narratives of love, hate and the wide and deep spectrum of emotions and affiliations that the game of football generates.