Paris, Nov 21: For a deeper perspective about the week Sepp Blatter will want to forget, Lilian Thuram was the obvious person to call.
France's most capped footballer has experienced racism both on and off the pitch. Now retired, the 1998 World Cup winner speaks about the problem and how to tackle it with the same mix of intelligence, authority, determination and broad vision he used to deploy when defending his country's goal.
Thuram has long been known as the thoughtful type, famously cupping his chin in his hand after he scored twice to put France into the 1998 World Cup final, in a pose not unlike Auguste Rodin's sculpture, “The Thinker.”
We met at Paris' Quai Branly museum, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Thuram is working on a new exhibition there, “Human Zoos; The invention of the savage,” that opens Nov. 29.
It tells the centuries-long history of the men, women and children scooped up from villages in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas to be paraded in the West as “exotic” and “freaks,” incredibly into the mid-20th century.
Among them were the great-grandparents of Christian Karembeu, Thuram's 1998 World Cup teammate who, he explained, were shipped over to Paris from the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia and exhibited as “cannibals.”
“Our societies were built on a racist culture,” said Thuram, who is the exhibition's general curator. “Let's be honest with ourselves, we all have such prejudices. We should try to think why.”
Blatter, Steve Williams and John Terry in recent weeks all inadvertently drove home the need for such contemplation and introspection, and not just in sport.
FIFA's boss, whose world view should be as global and as inclusive as the game he rules over, is not a racist. That comes on excellent authority—from Thuram and former anti-apartheid activist Tokyo Sexwale, a South African government minister.
And yet Blatter still managed to offend many people both in and outside of football by suggesting that racist abuse on a pitch should be forgiven and forgotten with a simple handshake, seemingly minimizing the seriousness of such behavior.
Williams also is “certainly not a racist.” So said Tiger Woods. And yet his ex-caddie still disparaged Woods with a racial slur at an awards' party, setting tongues wagging in golf.
Nor is Terry a racist. Former England international Paul Ince is among those who say that. And yet police and football authorities in England have for nearly a month been investigating whether a racially charged insult the Chelsea and England captain is alleged to have used in an exchange with Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand was a deliberate, targeted slur or, as Terry claims, a misunderstanding with words that were taken out of context.
Clearly, despite all the progress it has made, sport has not conquered racism and cannot afford to be complacent about it.
Another lesson from these events is that racism isn't simply a problem that involves or can be blamed solely on racists.
Blatter took the World Cup to South Africa. Under his leadership, FIFA has made racial equality and fighting “racism in any form” a written requirement for everyone in football and it stiffened punishments for players who racially insult.
“I know that he is revolted by racist acts,” said Thuram. He spoke to Blatter by phone on Friday and said the FIFA president invited him previously several times to the organization's headquarters to brief football officials about racism.
Yet, while Blatter clearly understands the big picture about discrimination, his remarks suggested a lack of empathy for its victims, Thuram acknowledged. Thuram recalled that he was racially abused by an opponent when he played for Parma in Italy but could not simply shake hands afterward “because it's true that when someone insults you like that you don't want to shake their hand.”
“The fact that it's Mr. Blatter saying such things shows that there's real work to do,” Thuram said. “I honestly think he must have said what he said because often, when you aren't a victim of racist acts, you don't understand their impact.”
Blatter was caught off guard by the storm his comments generated, concentrated in Britain, where the sports minister called for his resignation. It took him a couple of days for the penny to drop. Clunk. And when he eventually apologized to those he offended, Blatter still seemed shaken that anyone could have thought badly of him.
“I found myself pushed into a corner over very, I would say, unfortunate words I have used and this I deeply, deeply regret,” Blatter told the BBC. “It hurts and I'm still hurting because I couldn't expect or just envisage such a reaction.”
John Barnes, like Thuram, also took a broader view of Blatter's comments. As a player, the former star for Liverpool and England had bananas and monkey chants thrown at him. Opponents called him the N-word to his face. Barnes said Blatter's remarks were “wrong,” but he suggested they were symptomatic, too.
“We are all racist to a certain extent. We all make presumptions about other people based on their color, culture or ethnicity in variable degrees,” Barnes told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. “Football can do nothing about getting rid of racism. Society has to—through education and people understanding why they feel the way they do.”
Thuram said people must unlearn their prejudices. That requires education, talking. His Quai Branly show is designed to show how such prejudices were built up bit-by-bit over the centuries, he explained.
“The majority of people don't understand the impact of racism because they don't live it themselves, which is why racism continues to exist in our societies because only a minority of people suffer it,” he said. Of Blatter, he added: “After this polemic, I think he'll be a lot more sensitive to all this.”