Friday, July 10, 1998
France's hero recalls racial taunts
By Christopher Clarey
St. Denis, July 9.
There were moments after Lilian Thuram arrived in mainland France at
the age of nine from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe that he did
not always feel welcome.
He can remember children yelling at him, ``Go back to your own
country, rotten black.'' He can remember responding: ``But I am
Guadeloupe, like its neighbouring island Martinique, is a French
`overseas department,' legally as much a part of France as Paris or
its suburbs, and on Wednesday night in one of those suburbs Thuram
sent his fellow citizens streaming joyously into the streets by
scoring both the goals in France's 2-1 victory over Croatia.
If a striker had scored two goals in a World Cup semifinal, it would
have been considered exceptional. For Thuram, a right fullback, to
score twice was simply improbable. ``Usually, I don't even score in
practice,'' he said.
Thuram, a 26-year-old who plays for Parma in the Italian first
division, is one of the world's finest defenders. He was voted the
best foreign player in Italy after the 1996-1997 season - no small
accomplishment - and the 1997 French Player of the year by the
nation's leading soccer magazine. But in 37 previous appearances for
France, he had never scored a goal.
For an outside fullback to score is not unusual in this era, because t
hey often play the role that wings once played, sprinting deep into
the opposing half when opportunities arise.
But Thuram is the least offensive-minded of France's two outside
fullbacks. Bixente Lizarazu, who plays on the left side, is more at
ease as an attacking player, in part because Thuram does not even play
outside fullback for his club.
For years, he has been a central defender, but because France has
great strength at his favorite position, Thuram acceded to coach Aime
Jacquet's request that he move outside for the good of the team.
``Lilian's two goals were a great reward for us and especially for
him; he is having a great World Cup,'' Jacquet said.
The irony on Wednesday night was that Thuram was uncharacteristically
out of position on the Croatian goal scored by Davor Suker in the
opening minute of the second half. If he had been in line with his
fellow fullbacks, Suker probably would have been ruled offside, but
Thuram had drifted further back when Aljosa Asanovic's chip floated
over the French defense. Suker pounced, but less than a minute later,
Thuram made his teammates forget about that miscommunication by
scoring himself with a right-footed shot in front of the Croatian
His one-on-one defensive skills helped create that opportunity,
because he started the sequence that led to the goal by stripping the
ball from Croatian captain Zvonimir Boban. In the 70th minute, Thuram
would score with his left foot from longer range after winning a
scramble for the ball with Croatian Robert Jarni.
When the game ended, Thuram had tears in his eyes as teammate Bernard
Lama, a reserve goalkeeper, hoisted him high in the air. ``Usually
when I get in front of the goal, I see red and panic,'' he said.
``Tonight, I didn't have time to think. But until it's proved
otherwise, soccer is a game with 11 players on a team. The most
important thing is not that I scored two goals. It's that we made it
to the final.''
Thuram made it to mainland France one year after his mother, who left
Thuram and his four siblings behind in Guadeloupe so she could make
enough money as a cleaning lady in Paris to support them.
His first dream was to be a priest, not a soccer player, but his
talents took him in a different direction, and at age 17, he joined
the club in Monaco, which competes in the French league. From a very
modest background, Thuram remembers thinking at first that the luxury
cars he saw parked in Monte Carlo's streets were part of some sort of
exhibition. ``I couldn't imagine that individuals could own such
things,'' he once said.
Thuram can now afford fancy transportation of his own, but though he
earns his good living in Italy, he is playing for his own country this
summer. On Wednesday night, his fellow Francais looked and sounded
very grateful as they celebrated on the Champs-Elysees.