Lilian Thuram: The Heart-warming and the Heartbreaking


This article originally featured on Tale of Two Halves back in July 2018.

Whenever a child is born there is really only one thing the mother wishes for. Not money, nor stardom. All they wish for is that their child lives a happy, healthy life. When Mariana Thuram gave birth to Ruddy Lilian Thuram-Ulien on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, nobody could have predicted the remarkable life that he would go on to lead. Lilian dreamed of becoming a professional football as a youngster and began his journey when he was moved from Guadeloupe to Paris shortly before his tenth birthday. His career saw him play for four massive clubs, winning titles wherever he went, representing France along the way. Representing France is an understatement, however. He became their all time appearance record holder. He captained them at Euro 2008 and he won a World Cup and a European Championship with Les Bleus. To all intents and purposes, he lived a healthy happy life, just as his mother would have hoped when he was brought in to the world. But the tale of Lilian Thuram is not entirely joyful. There is heart break in his life. He barely picked up an injury throughout his career, and yet it was a health scare, entwined with a
word of warning from his caring mother, that drew a close to his glittering career.

This conversation with his mother convinced Thuram to throw in the towel on professional football, but his pro career began in France 17 years earlier. He spent his youth plying his trade on the Parisian streets, eventually moving south to Monaco to kick-start his profession. His physical stature evidently stood out for the coaches who saw him as a natural defender, but at that level sheer size is only one of many traits needed to succeed. It was Thuram’s intelligence that shone through. He was a titan in the air and the timing of his tackling was often nothing short of perfect, but it was his reading of the game that saw him earn his debut in 1991. To quote Paolo Maldini “if I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” This was a lesson that Thuram evidently lived by, making a career of nipping in front of the attacker to collect the ball before his opponent could touch it.

He only made one appearance for Monaco in 1990/1991, but by the second half of the next season he had played his way into a starting spot. His only trophy for Monaco came in the 1990/1991 season as Monaco beat Marseille in the Coup de France thanks to a 90th minute Gerald Passi winner. While silverware alluded Lilian during his spell in France, he developed well. He made over 150 appearances for Monaco, scoring eleven goals in his five full seasons – not a bad haul for a young right back, especially in an era where the job of the full back was primarily to defend.

At this time, French football was in a slump on the international stage. They had failed to qualify for both the 1990 and 1994 World Cup, they hadn’t qualified for Euro ’88 and crashed out of Euro ’92 in the groups without a win. In a period of transition, Les Bleus employed Aimé Jacquet as national team coach. The experimental genius handed a debut to Thuram in 1994, along with Zinedine Zidane and Fabian Barthez. Jacquet was merely trialling some options; little did he know that he was collating a group of players who would form the spine of the national team for the next decade, a team that would use the failures of the past as a burning fire to spur them on to be European and world champions.

In 1996 Lilian Thuram left his homeland to make the move south to Italy. Despite intense interest from Juventus, the defender chose Parma, a club undergoing new management under Carlo Ancelotti. Thuram stated years later that he chose Parma because he met with the Juventus hierarchy and thought they were wrong to want him, as Juventus were too big a club for someone like him. It was a calculated move that paid off well. Under Ancelotti, Parma began to create a dynasty, amassing players such as Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro and Hernan Crespo. The team enjoyed a wonderful 1999, winning the Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italia and the much coveted UEFA Cup, beating Marseille 3-0 in the final.

Racism, sadly, is an issue that has always plighted football and was rife in the height of Thuram’s career. It is hard to say what the correct response to the bile unfurled by racists is, but Thuram had his own strategy. Win. He was questioned in an interview about his time in Italy, a country where racism in football stadiums is a recurring problem. His response was that he did not like the idea that this was the image of Italian football. He commented on how it was from a minority in the stadiums, and that the real issued stemmed from it being the norm in society, and how not enough was being done to quash this. He said that it isn’t just footballers that suffer, that people who do more meaningful jobs that his, that earn a fraction of his wage, suffer in silence, and that a change needs to be made. He also said that while Italian football did have this issue, it should also be remembered that the overriding feeling from his time in Italy is one of love and friendship.

One of the worst acts of racism suffered by Thuram was on the eve of the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Infamous right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen criticised the French team, saying that he didn’t recognise the team as French due to the fact that it had “too many black players.” The outcry from the media, the public and the world quite rightly ridiculed this imbecile. The team remained focused during the tournament. They went on the defy the odds and win the FIFA World Cup on home turf. Prior to the tournament, the motivation was to do well for those fans that had suffered the past decade of failure. They now had a new motivation – to prove Le Pen wrong. On July 12th 1998, France won the World Cup to the rejoice of the entire country. Le Pen may have denounced the team, but the rest of the nation had fallen in love with Les Bleus all over again. For the first time since the height of the Michel Platini days, the nation had something to shout about.

Thuram’s career saw him play for some iconic clubs, yet it is with France that many remember him most fondly. Thuram was more than just a member of the French side at
the ’98 World Cup – he was an integral part of the system. If it wasn’t for his contribution in the semi final against Croatia, a game that is arguably the best game of his career, then France would have crashed out in the semi’s. It is particularly impressive as in one half he turned from zero to hero. Croatia scored one minute into the second half, Davor Šuker scored due to Thuram playing him onside. What happened next was truly unbelievable. Thuram was not known for his goal scoring, yet just a minute after costing France a goal, he had equalised! He marauded up the field, dispossessed Zvonomir Boban and played a neat one-two with Youri Djorkaeff, breaking into the box between the Croatian defence and stabbing the ball past the stranded goalkeeper. With 20 minutes left on the clock, Thuram doubled his international goal tally, sending the Saint-Denis crowd into rapturous noise. Thuram again found himself far up the pitch, taking advantage of another defensive
blunder from Boban who failed to deal with a Thierry Henry pass. Thuram grabbed possession of the ball on the right corner of the 18 yard box, judged the bounce of the
ball and struck it with his left foot, curling the ball beyond the stranded goalkeeper. The strike seemed to take a lifetime to find the net, but the impact that his goal had was crucial.

His celebration is iconic. He fell to the ground in shock and awe. As he picks himself up, he sits on his knees, folded his arms and acted like he was the coolest man in the world. Scoring his first (and second) ever international goal in such an important match, at such a crucial time, after making such an obvious error, it was heart-warming. It is a story made even better once he had retired. Why? Because he retired in 2008, having won the World Cup and the European Championship, having made another World Cup final during this period. He is their all time record appearance holder with 142 appearances. All these honours and personal accolades and he has only ever scored two goals for his nation. The two that helped him win the FIFA World Cup 1998.

A year after winning the 2000 European Championship against Italy, Lilian Thuram knew the time was right to make a career move at club level. He had grown a taste for winning trophies with France and he knew that if he was to create the sort of legacy that his play deserved, he would have to add more trophies to his cabinet. He joined Juventus, five years after he had rejected The Old Lady, along with highly rated goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. Trophies were what Thuram came to Juventus for, and trophies are what he won. He won Serie A in his first two seasons (2001-02 and 2002-03), as well as the Supercoppa Italia in 2002 and 2003.

While the late 90’s and early 2000s were magnificent for Thuram, the mid 2000s were a more frustrating time for him. After France bombed out of the 2002 World Cup in the group stage Thuram made it to the 2003 Champions League final with Juventus. He kept a clean sheet, but lost to Serie A rivals AC Milan in the final. Ancelotti, who brought him to Parma, was in the opposition dugout, while David Trezequet, who scored the goal that won France the 2000 European Championship, missed a crucial penalty in the shoot out. It was one of the biggest games in Thuram’s career, and despite doing all he good, barely putting a foot wrong in 120 minutes, he walked away empty handed. He won the Serie A title again in 2005 and 2006, but infuriatingly for the defender, both titles were stripped due to the Calciopoli match fixing scandal. Juventus players argued that any wrongdoing was done in the boardroom, that they had no knowledge of the situation and that they had won the titles on the pitch. While understandably frustrating, the governing body of Italian football had no choice but to strip the titles. As if this weren’t bad enough for Juventus, the club were demoted. In the space of a couple of weeks, Thuram had gone from league champion to Serie B.

It was not just domestically that had Thuram struggling. The mid 2000s brought about great frustration for him on the international stage. After plummeting out of the 2002 World Cup, and under-performing at Euro 2004, Lilian retired from the international scene, disillusioned at the decline of his beloved nation. He was convinced to reconsider by Raymond Domenech, who sought to get the old guard of Thuram, Zidane and Makélélé to make a comeback for the World Cup in Germany. All three agreed to play, though must have regretted their decision as they laboured through an easy group of South Korea, Switzerland and Togo. The next few games saw France build and build. Zidane saw off Spain and Portugal while Henry felled the mighty Brazil. After a poor start, France were in a World Cup final and Thuram, playing alongside William Gallas at centre back, had kept four clean sheets in six games, earning a man of the match award in a World Cup semi final for the second time in his career. Just like the 2003 Champions League final though, a penalty shoot out saw Thuram leave the tournament empty handed. A place in the official Team of the Tournament is a neat accolade to have, but when paired with a runners up medal it must have felt worthless.

After the World Cup, Thuram wasted no sign in giving up life in the second tier of Italian football, signing for super-team Barcelona. While his time here was hardly trophy-laden, he enjoyed a solid couple of years. Age got the better of Thuram and in 2008 he found himself down the pecking order. After a woeful Euro 2008 campaign, he agreed a deal with French side PSG. Regrettably though, this move never got finalised.

Thuram was a rarity. He played so many games for club and country, barely picking up an injury that would keep him out for more than a few games. Tragically, it was discovered that he had a heart defect during his PSG medical. He said in many an interview that he wanted to play on. He felt fit and he felt it was too soon to retire, that he wanted to continue, but perhaps with a closer bond with the PSG medical department. He discussed this decision with his mother at great length, and decided afterwards that it would be foolish to continue. Lilian Thuram had lost a brother to the same condition in the past. He knew the pain of losing a loved one and decided that it was unfair to subject his family to this pain. It was a shame that his last ever career game was a 4-1 loss to the Netherlands, though on the flip side, he got to captain France on his last ever game. If he had been offered that deal as a child, he would almost certainly had taken that.

Whenever a child is born, there is only one thing the mother wishes for. Not money, nor stardom. All they wish for is that their child lives a happy, healthy life. Lilian Thuram grew up to have it all. He earned the money and the stardom. He was happy, and for the bulk of his life, he was healthy. It wasn’t perfect. He had suffered defeats in finals and had titles stripped. Off the field he went through a divorce, had an awkward encounter with his estranged father, who abandoned him as a child, and learned of his brother’s death. His health let him down in the end, though this was into his mid-late 30s. He was able to partake in a glittering career; winning trophies for four teams in three countries; captaining France and winning both the European Championship in 2000 and the World Cup in 1998. He will go down in history for his pivotal performance in the Croatia comeback. The boy from Guadeloupe is a French icon. He battled racism from the stands and from his country’s own politicians. He spoke out against social injustices throughout and after his playing career and is now a UNICEF ambassador. Thuram was an articulate player who used his head, but it was the passion in his heart which saw him become a beloved character wherever he played. For a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, it is a tragedy
that his career was ended, ironically, by a cardiac malformation – an enlarged heart. The heart condition may have ended Lilian Thuram’s career, but it could never end the immortal legacy of one of the bravest men to have ever played football. Merci, Lilian.