Fight racism with pride and belief - Thuram

AFP| Last Updated: May 03, 2014, 11:30 AM IST

When Lilian Thuram first went to Benin in 2006, he made an emotional pilgrimage to the coastal town of Ouidah, where black African slaves were forced onto ships, shackled and bound for a life of misery and servitude.

France`s most-capped footballer recently returned to the tiny west African nation, bringing with him a message of hope and inspiration, not against slavery but the modern-day scourge of racism, in a new book championing black role models.

Last week`s visit by Thuram was timely: during his trip, a global storm of protest blew up when a Villareal fan threw a banana at Barcelona`s Brazilian defender Dani Alves during a La Liga match.

For Thuram, who ended his career in 2008 at the Camp Nou, Alves` reaction -- to pick up the banana and take a bite -- was the best response to the bigotry that still exists on the terraces as well as on the pitch.

"Everyone has to have the capacity to defuse things. The most important thing is not to be violent," he told an event organised by the Zinsou cultural, educational and artistic foundation in Benin`s commercial capital, Cotonou.

"That`s why I`ve done this book: when you understand the mechanisms of racism, you don`t suffer from it. You know that it`s the people throwing bananas who`ve got a problem!"Racism in football has a long history but has most recently come to the fore in a number of high-profile incidents that have sparked debate about how best to eradicate discrimination from the "Beautiful Game".

In January last year, Ghana striker Kevin-Prince Boateng led his AC Milan team-mates off the pitch when he was the subject of racist chanting during a friendly match.

Boateng`s actions found widespread support while the sport`s European body UEFA and its world counterpart FIFA were accused of paying only lip service to claims that they were tough on racism.

UEFA recently announced tougher sentences for clubs found guilty of racist incidents involving their fans but for Thuram, a person`s pride in his or heritage is also key.

The theme forms the basis for Thuram`s "Mes Etoiles Noires: De Lucy to Barack Obama" (My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barack Obama), featuring the black men and women who have made history and inspired him.

The book, backed by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, is now being sold in 11 Francophone African countries and in Haiti for less than five euros ($7).

Benin`s government has bought about 100 copies for schools and libraries. According to Beatrice Lalinon Gbado, Thuram`s Benin publisher, inspiring young readers to take charge of their lives is at the heart of the book.

Thuram himself says in it that the people featured "have allowed me to avoid victimisation, to be able to believe in mankind and above all have confidence in myself".

During the footballer`s talk in Cotonou, he said of a five-year-old boy whom he invited onto the stage: "For centuries, this child has been told he`s inferior because of the colour of his skin.

"What I hope is that this young boy will grow up with good self-esteem and he`ll look up to anyone regardless of colour," said Thuram, a World cup winner in 1998 and European champion in 2000.

To a Congolese student, who said he was proud to be black, Thuram responded: "Why say `proud to be black?` You should just say proud of what you are."

Although Thuram was born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Benin retains a special place in his heart.

During his visit, Benin`s President Thomas Boni Yayi awarded him the country`s order or merit but he feels that his links go deeper and beyond accolades.

On his first visit to Ouidah, he recalled: "When I went under the Gate of No Return, I looked at the sea and said to myself: `My ancestors maybe left from here`.

"Then I went through it and I thought, `It`s me who`s coming back`. "It`s a trip that marked my life. In Benin, I feel like I`ve got family around me."