Lilian Thuram - Yesterday's 'Rotten Black', Today's 'French Hero'

Lilian Thuram - Yesterday's 'Rotten Black', Today's 'French Hero'

Post by Barry S. Marjanovic » Sat, 11 Jul 1998 04:00:00

   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.