No thrills, No attitude, Just Thuram
We all have that one player we always wanted to be, the one player we always followed, the one player who made us fall in love with football, in my case, French football. For me, that player was the great Lilian Thuram.
His CV speaks for itself. His career spanned over 15 years and took him from France, to Italy, and to Spain. He has France’s record for international caps. He is a World Cup and European Championships winner. He has played for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona and has won the Coupe de France, the UEFA Cup, Serie A and the Coppa Italia.
This glittering career is in stark contrast to his humble upbringing in Guadeloupe where he played football in the streets and on the beaches. He moved to France in 1981 and soon joined the local club in Fontainebleu where he started out as an attacking midfielder before moving to his usual defensive position.
He soon caught the eye of professional scouts and joined Monaco in 1990, making his debut under Arsene Wenger in 1991. He would stay with the Monegasques for 6 seasons, winning the Coupe de France in 1991, although he didn’t play in the Final.
In 1996, Thuram joined Italian side Parma, a move which would ultimately make him a household name. The Parma team at that time had a plethora of world class talent including Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Juan Sebastien Veron and Hernan Crespo. It was at Parma he earned the nickname the “Gigante di Guadalupa” – the Giant of Guadeloupe. He formed a defensive rock along with Cannavaro and Buffon that would help Parma achieve their highest Serie A finish of 2nd place in 1996-97 and go on to win the 1998-99 Coppa Italia and Uefa Cup.
After making over 200 appearances for Parma, his club career took another upward turn when in 2001 he and Buffon joined Italian giants Juventus for a fee of over €40,000,000. During his time with “The Old Lady”, Thuram would add to his trophy cabinet with the Serie A titles in 2001-02 and 2002-03 (Juventus were stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles due to the Calciopoli scandal). He formed a defensive line-up feared across the country and throughout Europe with Buffon, Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Zebina. He was a Champions League runner-up in 2003.
Following Juventus’ demotion to Serie B, the now 34-year-old Thuram managed to secure a move to Barcelona, and while his playing time was limited due to presence of Carles Puyol and Rafael Marquez, he still managed to turn out 41 appearances for the Catalan giants.
While his club career alone could stand the test of time, his international record is one that many could only dream of. Called up to the national team for the first time in 1994, Thuram soon established himself as first choice right back, in a defensive line that would go down in history. With Thuram on the right, Bizente Lizarazu on the left, and Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc in the centre, this defence would become one of the most feared in the World Cup.
Thuram’s arrival on the world stage arguably came in the World Cup of 1998. Played in France, the hosts made it to the semi-finals where they faced a surprise package in Croatia. After going a goal down, Thuram chose the perfect time to score his only international goals as his double sent “les Bleus” into the final which they would go on to win, beating Brazil 3-0. Two years later, Thuram would again line up for France as they secured the World Cup and European Championship double with a 2-1 win over Italy.
He was tempted out of international retirement in 2006 and again produced the goods, helping France to a slightly surprising run to the final of the 2006 World Cup. Unfortunately this would end in defeat for the French, in a penalty shoot-out against Italy. Thuram would captain the national side into Euro 2008, however a fairytale ending to his national career would not happen as they crashed out in the group stages. By this time however he had amassed a French record 142 caps.
His appearance in this tournament would be his last games as a professional as he was diagnosed with a rare heart defect, one which had taken the life of his brother, and was forced to call time on his illustrious career.
Since retiring from football, Thuram has looked to take a stance on a number of political and social issues. He has brought the plight of child soldiers in Africa to the public’s eye. He has been a huge figure in the anti-racism and anti-homophobia movement both in France and across Europe. He has been on marches in support of same-sex marriage and spoken out against the Sarkozy government for its attitude to the youth population following the Paris riots.
Throughout his career I found it impossible not to love his style of play. Plain, simple, calm, solid defending which really came to my attention during the 1998 World Cup. As part of that great defence, he made the game seem so easy and while all the talk was of Zidane, I was happy to admire the graceful way Thuram played the game.
While all my friends were in their Manchester-United-supporting phase in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and pretending to be Giggs, Shearer, Bergkamp etc on the playground, I was channeling the spirit of Thuram by trying to emulate my defensive hero. Trying to calmly play the ball out of defence – of course I failed time and time again, much to the consternation of my team mates. Hey, what can I say, I’m no Thuram!
Yes, there may have been flashier defenders, ones who bombed forward and scored plenty of goals, but for me Thuram was and still is the blueprint for a modern defender. By watching his style of play during that World Cup, I developed a fondness for the French team, a fondness which grew to cheering them on in the final and eventually to deciding to see where these superstars had originated – Ligue 1. A love affair had well and truly begun!
As I said at the start of the piece, we all have that one player we admired and wanted to be, and I genuinely can’t think of anyone who fits that description, for me, more than Thuram. As a French football fan, I will always remember his hand on chin celebration after his goals against Croatia – a real French football hero!