He may have reached the age of 35, but Lilian Thuram remains as driven as ever. Bristling with energy and conviction, he swept into FIFA headquarters recently to discuss two subjects close to his heart: the chronic, hereditary disease sickle-cell anaemia and the ongoing fight against racism. Barcelona's veteran defender is one of football's genuine crusaders, having lent his voice to several worthy causes away from the pitch, where that same passion and ability have earned him 130 international caps and a lengthy list of honours encompassing all but a UEFA Champions League title.
A keen student of history, 'Tutu' is a man full of ideas and deeply-held beliefs, one of which is that education can solve many ills. He spoke to FIFA.com about his current concerns and the race for the Spanish crown, which will be decided this Saturday, as well as the state of the France team he is captaining in Patrick Vieira's absence. As for the secret of his youthful vigour, according to the Frenchman, it all comes down to desire.
FIFA.com: Lilian, could you tell us what brings you to
Lilian Thuram: I'm visiting FIFA to discuss a subject I care a lot about: sickle-cell anaemia. It's a very common hereditary disease, particularly in Africa, and is characterised by poor circulation of red blood cells, which become stuck. The symptoms are recurrent pains and bone tissue degradation, which particularly affects the joints. The disease requires operations or blood transfusions but in Africa there's a lack of resources. As a result, life expectancy for children with the disease there is very limited. It can be treated but it can't be cured.
Why choose this disease rather than another? You must be
asked to champion all sorts of causes.
It came down to chance encounters and context. I had the disease explained to me by Mrs Edwige Ebakisse-Badassou, President of the Sickle Cell Disease International Organisation (SCDIO). It's not very well-known and difficult to diagnose. In Africa, there's a certain stigma attached to it as well. It's the most widespread hereditary disease in the world, but it's still little-known. You can find it everywhere: around the Mediterranean, in North and South America, in Africa etc. That's why I wanted to see if, together with FIFA, we can do something to help the sufferers. The first thing is to get the disease out in the open, talk about it, release funds to help with research and set up free health centres wherever necessary. I hope we'll be able to find areas where we can work together.
You are also very involved in the fight against
Yes, because it's a crucial struggle. On that subject, I'm also here to show the FIFA President plans for an anti-racism foundation I'm currently setting up. We tend to paint racists as monsters, especially when you see what goes on in stadiums. True, we need to denounce, criticise and penalise racists, but above all we have to explain the phenomenon and educate people. I'm convinced that, in the long term, education will pay off. We can't simply limit ourselves to saying "being a racist is bad" - we have to go further. Racism is not an innate condition: we created it by distinguishing between races even though there's only one human race. The job education can do is fundamental, and that's where the idea for the foundation came from.
You are very involved in these issues. Is that a direction
you might follow more after your football career?
Being active is very important to me. It's not linked to the end of my career; it's something I've always felt. It's true that if I can help out with a certain cause after football, I'll be naturally willing to do it. As a footballer, I have a very high profile and I want to use that. I hope to raise the awareness of a certain number of issues and move them forward in a positive way.
For the moment, of course, your career is far from over. Tell
us a little about your season with Barcelona.
It's been a great year. First of all, at the age of 34 I was welcomed into this very prestigious club in a very positive way. That proves the faith they had in me. I didn't play a lot at the start, but that seemed normal to me: I'd just arrived at a club that had won two consecutive championships and one Champions League title, so the team was already working well. Little by little, I got some more playing time and that was good because it's what every player wants, at the end of the day. I never had any doubts and I never felt as if I'd kept going for a year too long. Now, the end of the season is really exciting and everything will come down to the last match.
Lionel Messi said there was a fair amount of dejection in the
changing-room last Saturday (when Barcelona conceded a late
equaliser against Espanyol to leave Real Madrid in control of their
own destiny at the top of the table). How did you feel?
Of course we felt dejected. It would have been a surprise had we reacted any other way. We had a chance to go top and then, two minutes before the end, we let in a goal. That said, we're obviously determined to seize our last remaining chance. Real Madrid have a psychological advantage, there's no doubt about it, but it's just psychological.
For France, you have been extremely sharp in recent games.
What keeps you going?
I still feel fresh because I enjoy it, it's as simple as that. I never lose sight of the fact that I'm incredibly lucky to be doing a job that's not really a job. I take pleasure from being out there, from playing. As long as I remain physically capable, I'll always give my best, and the day I can no longer keep up, I'll retire. Because of that, my goal with Les Bleus is very straightforward: to enjoy myself in every game and maintain the same level of performances. I know it's going to get harder and harder because I am 35, after all.
Do you have a target? UEFA Euro 2008, for example?
I'm not going to start setting goals I might not be able to achieve. I don't know if I'll be going to Euro 2008. I just hope that when the moment's right, someone will come up to me and say: "Thank you Lilian, now it's time to leave your place in the team to somebody else." I'll walk away with a smile. It's a natural cycle: I replaced older players when I first joined Les Bleus and the youngsters will nudge me towards the exit.
What have you made of the younger players taking their place
in the side?
It's a good thing that these younger talents are joining the France team. Having said that, I'm not surprised. I've seen other generations arrive in the past: players like Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Nicolas Anelka and so on. There's an very healthy desire on their part to match the senior players and it proves that France still has a large talent pool. I wish these kids a long spell in the France team and a great career because it's certainly worth it!
Do you feel these players have the same desire, given that
they have become stars so young?
The old always question the attitude of the young, it's always the same story (laughs)! In every generation, there are those who are really hungry and then there's the rest. Of the youngsters Raymond Domenech has brought in recently, it looks to me as if the desire is there; Lassana Diarra, Abou Diaby, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema being good examples. In any case, if they're in the France team at such a young age, it's because they have the talent and also the hunger. The most important thing for them is to know how long it will last.
And can we hope to see Lilian Thuram in a blue shirt at the
2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™?
It's unrealistic, but I often think about that competition as I have a strong link with Africa. I tell myself I won't be able to play because physically I won't be up to it. That's obvious but it's a shame, so I hope to be able to take part in some other capacity. We'll just have to wait and see what.
In your opinion, what will holding the premier tournament of
the world's favourite game in Africa do for the
Awarding such a major competition to Africa is crucial for a continent that has always suffered from an image problem. Around the world, there's been a tendency over the centuries to think that Africa lacks history, culture, civilisation and richness. That false image has contributed to racism, which is why it's important to change this mindset. I truly hope the World Cup will allow everyone to discover Africa in general and South Africa in particular. It's time to put an end to prejudice.