Lilian Thuram’s Autobiography

By | November 2, 2013

Published in 2004 in France — and not yet translated into English — Lilian Thuram’s autobiography 9 Juillet 1998 is a fascinating portrait of contemporary France and of the world of football. In it, he describes his childhood in Guadeloupe and his family migration to the suburbs of Paris, where he grew up in a project outside Fontainebleau. His descriptions of life in the banlieue are particularly striking because of the very positive representation he offers of these spaces that are often seen in a very negative light. He celebrates the diversity and the community he found there. His stories of his early footballing career, notably his mentorship by Arsene Wenger among others, will interest football fans. And his lucid vision — at once celebratory and cautious — of the impact of the 1998 World Cup on France is one of the most interesting parts of the book. In the comments below, students from Duke’s Fall 2013 “Soccer Politics” offer some translations and analysis of particularly interesting passages from this book.

Category: France Thuram

About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2010) and The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (Basic Books, 2018)

8 thoughts on “Lilian Thuram’s Autobiography

  1. Pingback: Soccer Politics / The Politics of Football » Deux Perceptions en concurrence de l’immigration en France

  2. Patricia Spears

    As I think has been sufficiently noted by others, Lilian Thuram has led an admirable career, but on and off the pitch. Throughout the novel, I was struck by his ability to overcome what for some would be insurmountable obstacles, not only with strength, but with an optimism and joie de vivre that shines easily through his writing. But what I love in the novel are these little moments in which Thuram revelas the setbacks, the ways in which it almost didn’t happen. His attitude in times of defeat, to me, reveals more about his character. When born, he was sickly, and his mother remarks “Lilian, on auriait pu le mettre dans une boite a chausseures” (Lilian, we could put him in a shoebox). He goes on to say that his mother has a difficult pregnancy, and worked in a sugar plantation throughout, but never does he blame her.
    When he talks about the failure of the French team to move past the group stage for the 2002 world cup, he draws the blame away from coach who was fired over the incident, instead drawing the blame back to himself, and more experienced players.
    “C’est porquoi, a mes yeux, nous, joeurs, sommes les vrais coupables; en particulier les plus experimentes qui, voyant arriver le “mur,” n’ont rien fait pour l’eviter. Nous n’avons pas ete honnetes.”
    (That’s why, in my eyes, we, the players, are responsible. In particular, the most experienced, who saw the wall and did nothing to avoid it. We haven’t been honest.)

    He also describes his rehabilitation from knee surgery without frustration I would expect. As one who has watched athletes recover from injury, I was amazed by the way that he remained determined to get back to soccer rather than become bogged down by the patience it requires.
    “Chaque etape franchie etait un moment de soulagement. Lorsque j’ai enfin commence a marcher, j’essayai d’accelerer la cadence des pas tout en evitant de boiter.”

    (each step taken was a moment of relaxation. As soon as I started walking, I would try to accelerate the speed of my steps without limping)
    Throughout his whole career, Thuram remained so grouned and appreciative of all that came his way, even though alot of that had to do with his own hard work and dedication. He seems eager to own up to his faults and recover from them, and he does it all without a pompous attitude. This was definitely a worthwhile read, I just wish it were translated to English so more people could read it.

  3. Matthew Schorr

    « Je crois que l’émergence des problèmes dans les banlieues n’est pas tant due à la diversité des communautés ou à la multiplicité des cultures qu’à l’absence fréquente d’espaces de vie indispensables à rencontre avec les autres, ce qui facilite la compréhension mutuelle. La disparition des petits commerces dits de proximité provoque le sentiment d’habiter dans un ghetto. De plus, les habitants de ces banlieues vivent leur environnement comme s’il était délimité par l’existence d’une frontière invisible. […] Le regard méfiant porté de l’extérieur sur ces communautés provoque également des tensions déstabilisatrices. Mes copains qui vivaient en dehors des Fougères affirmaient avec certitude que nous étions pauvres, donc que nous ne payions ni le loyer ni l’électricité… et que la cité était un véritable coupe-gorge. […] Je la ressentais comme une injustice, un rejet, une discrimination. » — p.37

    “I believe that the emergence of problems in the projects is not due to the diversity of the communities or the multiplicity of culture, but rather to the frequent absence of spaces to meet with other people, which facilitate mutual comprehension. The disappearance of little stores provokes the feeling of living in a ghetto. In addition, residents of these projects live as if their neighborhoods were surrounded by an invisible border. […] The suspicion with which outsiders look at the projects also provokes destabilizing tensions. My comrades who lived outside of Fougères affirmed with certainty that we were poor and, thus, that we paid neither the rent nor the electricity bill… and that the projects were a truly dangerous area. I resented this as an injustice, a rejection, an act of discrimination.” — p.37
    In the above passages from his autobiography, 8 juillet 1998, Lilian Thuram attempts to diagnose the problems of the Parisian “banlieue” (effectively projects that exist in the suburbs of Paris) and debunk the notion that the problems are caused by immigration and multiculturalism. Having emigrated from Guadeloupe with his mother and four siblings, Thuram quickly became accustomed to his new home in the Parisian suburb of Fougères and greatly appreciated the diversity of cultures in his neighborhood, which he calls a “kaléidoscope ethnique” (35). Thuram fondly remembers his keen interest in learning about his friends’ cultures, languages, and motherlands. He also recalls frequently play soccer with his classmates in the forest near his home. In the forest and on the soccer pitch, Thuram and his friends developed a close bond, regardless of race, homeland, or socioeconomic status, suggesting that multiculturalism and a peaceful, thriving community are not mutually exclusive.

    Recognizing the benefits of a multicultural society, Thuram argues against those who attribute the violence of the projects, as well as numerous social tensions, to the high concentration of immigrants who live there. Thuram believes that the problems of the projects are caused by a lack of common areas, where residents can get to know each other and develop a mutual understanding, and by the disappearance of small stores, which makes the projects feel like a ghetto. He also laments that residents of the projects often imagine invisible barriers between their neighborhoods and the rest of society, creating an artificial divide that creates mutual suspicion. Thuram also remarks that French people outside of the suburbs often assume that those inside—often immigrants—are impoverished and, as a result, obey neither the law nor the conventions of society. These unjustified prejudices, according to Thuram, lead to tensions that destabilize society, creating undercurrents of racism, xenophobia, and mutual distrust.

    This excerpt is important because Thuram offers a lucid interpretation of the problems facing the projects. Thuram admits that, even as a young child, he recognized his peers’ prejudice as “une injustice, un rejet, une discrimination” (37) (“an injustice, a rejection, an act of discrimination”), foreshadowing that Thuram will ultimately become a vocal critic of racism and a supporter of the great potential that he sees in the projects. Given Thuram’s joyful experience in Fougères, he is an ideal advocate for the projects, and his belief that immigration and multiculturalism contribute to a vibrant society is persuasive. His enriching childhood in Fougères also helps to explain Thuram’s deep love for France, symbolized by his loud rendition of the Marseillaise before his soccer games. While Thuram recognizes France’s imperfections, he realizes all he gained from his life there, particularly during his childhood in Fougères.

  4. Vinay Kumar

    In his autobiography, 8 juillet 1998, Lilian Thuram recounts the incredible story of how he became a world-class football player from his humble beginnings in Guadeloupe. As previously noted, Lilian grew up in the banlieues (the French projects). After spending a semester abroad in Paris and living adjacent to the périphérique (a highway that divides Paris and the banlieues), I was very interested in the author’s thoughts on his life in the area. Thuram’s comments are extremely refreshing, as I would often hear the negative opinions about the banlieues that Professor Dubois alludes to in his post. The support structure and diversity that Thuram talks about is remarkable. Rather than simply capturing the tension that I witnessed between Parisians and the banlieusards (people that live in the banlieues), the book promotes the desire for a better life and ambivalence that many immigrants share. I found the following quote to be a particularly apt description of this complicated feeling:
    « Nous étions arrivés, presque à contrecoeur, à notre lieu de destination, Bois-Colombes. Désormais, tout devenait possible. Mariana était en effet convaincue que nous ne manquerions de rien et que notre avenir était bel et bien en France, quels que puissent être les obstacles. Rien ne pouvait contrarier son optimise ni entamer son énergie. »
    (We arrived, almost reluctantly, to our destination, Bois-Colombes. Now everything became possible. Mariana (Lilian’s mom) was indeed convinced that we would not miss anything and that our future was indeed in France, no matter what the obstacles are. Nothing could upset or dent her optimistic energy.)
    This energy, drive, and excitement clearly had an impact on Thuram’s development into an amazing athlete and accomplished individual off the pitch. As Becca mentioned, it is truly remarkable to see how far he has come and what he has contributed to France. Furthermore, Lilian Thuram showed me an entirely new side of the banlieues that you simply cannot understand from the other side of the périphérique.

  5. June Zhang

    One of Lilian Thuram’s most powerful anecdotes throughout his autobiography was his ideas about race. His believes that although history deeply engrained racism into our culture, history also has the power to dissolve it. His views on race relations serve as a unique and poignant factor to his experiences as a world renowned soccer player. In the following quotes from his book, he describes his feelings before playing against South Africa in the first round of the 1998 World Cup.

    « Jouer contre l’Afrique du Sud est un symbole fort. Un pays qui, il y a encore moins de dix ans, ne pouvait participer a la Coupe du monde en raison de l’apartheid ; un pays qui représente l’Afrique avec tout son malheur et toute sa richesse…Tout s’entrechoque. Je pense aussi à mes lointaines origines, a l’esclavage, a la traite des Noirs. Je suis avec l’équipe de France, mais j’aurais pu tout aussi bien me trouver à cet instant dans l’autre vestiaire.

    L’équipe de L’Afrique du sud chante et je trouve que c’est une belle chose. Ce chant correspond tout a fait a l’idée que je me fais du sport : on va se confronter aux autres, mais avec joie. On se prépare, on se motive, on se regarde dans les yeux. Je ne peux, des années après, évoquer cet instant précis de la Coupe du monde sans en avoir des frissons. Nous sommes alignes pour les hymnes nationaux. Mon seul regret est l’absence de Nelson Mandela. » (p. 136)

    (Playing against South Africa is a strong symbol. A country who, there is still less than ten years, couldn’t participate in the World Cup because of apartheid; a country who represents Africa with all of it’s misery and it’s richness…Everything clashes. I also think of my distant origins, slavery, and the slave trade. I am with the French team, but I could just as well find myself a this moment in the other locker room.

    The South African team sings and I find this to be a beautiful thing. This song corresponds to the idea why I play sports: we will confront others, but with joy. We prepare, we motivate, we look into our eyes. I cannot, in the years ahead, recall that exact moment of the World Cup with having chills. We lined up for the National Anthem. My only regret is the absence of Nelson Mandela)

    He ability to relate to and empathize with his opponent during such a pivotal tournament is inspiring. Although he has never lived in Africa, he feels a close connection to his ancestry. He recognizes their struggle and sees it as a reflection of his own in some ways. He is appreciative that Nelson Mandela was able to lift apartheid and allow the country the opportunity to play soccer, just as he can.e highlights the notion that soccer can foster a feeling of togetherness and unity despite national ties. He sees the opposing team as not his enemy, but as his comrades.

  6. Becca Fisher

    Before I explain the quotes I chose, I would first like to note how impressed I with Thuram and his career. As noted by both Professor Dubois and Elena Kim, Lilian Thuram grew up in a banlieue (a project). Aside from all of the hardships that come with the territory, Thuram overcame one of the largest barriers, language. I was incredibly impressed with his extensive vocabulary and grammar skills. Perhaps it is just a stereotype, but usually people who grow up in the projects speak slang. One particular French type being Verlan, constructed similarly to our “pig latin.” Although I am aware he wouldn’t use this in his book, he has an incredible knowledge and constant awareness of his surroundings.

    All of the quotes I chose demonstrate Thuram’s modesty. I found his reflection on his role in the World Cup particular interesting. I believe he was truly baffled by his situation. He is very clear about his emotions and is very self-aware. His modesty and complete humbleness whenever asked about his goals in the world cup is incredible.

    « Il n’y a pas des mots pour exprimer ce que j’ai ressenti ce jour-là. J’allais, moi, Lilian, le petit garçon d’Anse Bertrand, le jouer des Portugais de Fontainebleau, participer à la Coup du monde ! Je n’arrivais pas à croire que cette Coupe du monde était la même compétition à laquelle avaient participé ces grands joueurs que sont Platini, Kempes, Maradona, Pelé…Je ne sais pas pourquoi, ce ne pouvait pas être la même chose. Un jour, avec du recul, j’arriverai peut-être à me convaincre que c’était bien la même épreuve. »

    (There are no words to express what I felt that day. I was, myself, Lilian, the little boy from Anse Bertrand, the player from the Portuguese of Fontainebleau, participating in the World Cup! I still can’t believe that this World Cup was the same competition that great players like Platini, Kempes, Maradona, Pele participated in … I don’t know why, it could not be the same. One day, in retrospect, maybe I will convince myself that it was the same event.)

    « Il n’y a aucune raison logique pour que je décide de tirer à ce moment, de cet endroit. »

    (There is no logical reason that I decided to kick at that moment, in that place.)

    When asked: « Comment as-tu fait pour marquer ces buts ? »
    He responds : « Ce n’en sais rien. »

    (“How did you score these goals?”
    “I do not know. “)

    It is nice to know that these incredible icons and role models sometimes feel like we do. His story of he got to where he is now is empowering and inspiring

  7. Rosa Toledo

    In 8 juillet 1998 (July 8, 1998), Lilian Thuram describes his journey from his humble but picturesque childhood in Guadeloupe to his stardom as a world-class football player. What struck me most about Thuram’s biography was the way in which he used his own personal experiences to offer the reader advice that is not only applicable to the world of football but also to every day life.

    Unpresuming and insightful, Thuram shares the life lessons that he has accumulated throughout his career. It was surprising to read about a man that has had such a brilliant career and have him take a step back and acknowledge the mistakes he has made along the way. One of the anecdotes that really grabbed my attention was the fist time Thuram’s family saw him play in a televised match. He made several mistakes that he viewed as unforgivable.

    He writes: “Sur un corner, je récupère le ballon, puis je remonte vers le milieu du terrain… Je suis le ballon des yeux pour découvrir que ce satané objet est récupéré par un adversaire… le but est marqué, Metz mène 1 à 0. Je réalisé l’ampleur de la catastrophe; une extrême faiblesse m’envahit.”

    (In a corner, I recover the ball, then I go back to the middle of the field … I follow the ball with my eyes to discover that the damn object is retrieved by an opponent … the goal is scored, Metz leads 1-0. I realized the magnitude of the disaster; weakness invaded me)

    He then observes that: “Ce qui fait la force d’un joueur, c’est sa capacité à repartir de l’avant, y compris dans les pires moments… C’était une entrée cathodique du monde du football… Quand vous êtes jeune, il faut assimiler rapidement toutes vos erreurs … c’est une bataille solitaire que vous devez mener pour accepter l’évènement”

    (The strength of a player resides in his capacity to move forward, event in the worst of times… It was a cathodic entrance to the world of football… When you’re young, you have to quickly assimilate all of your mistakes … it is a lonely battle that you must accept the event.)

    I found this particular passage worth highlighting because even though he found these mistakes to be catastrophic, his teammates as well as the team manager comforted him and let him know that it was normal for a young player to makes those kinds of mistakes and that they believed in his talent and capabilities as a football player. Nevertheless, he took a step back, accepted his mistakes and then analyzed them.

  8. Elena Kim

    What struck me as particularly interesting in Lilian Thuram’s autobiography was the way in which he described his time spent in “les banlieues” (low-income housing neighborhoods). After having studied and talked about the “banlieues” many times during past French classes, I was surprised to see Thuram evoke such a positive depiction of them. While reading this passage, I was reminded of a book I read last year called “La Papillon dans la Cité.” It was interesting to observe the contrast between these two books because “La Papillon dans la Cité” emphasizes the alienation and isolation that immigrant families experience in the banlieues, while in “8 Juillet 1998”, Thuram depicts these neighborhoods as unifying and multicultural (in a positive way). He writes:

    « Vivre à neuf ans dans cet environnement multiculturel a été une chance. Des voisins évoquaient leurs pays et leurs récits me semblaient à la longue familiers. Là aussi, j’apprenais quelques mots étrangers. C’était comme un jeu. Aucun d’entre nous n’éprouvait un sentiment d’enfermement. Et lorsque nous nous retrouvions pour nos parties de football, toutes les différences s’estompaient. »

    (Living at nine years old in this environment was luck. The neighbors evoked their countries and their stories, which seemed familiar to me over time. There, also, I learned several foreign words. It was like a game. None of us felt a sense of entrapment. And as soon as we met to play football, all of our differences faded.)

    Usually the banlieues are portrayed as areas that tend to have high unemployment rates and high crime where many immigrant families live, unintegrated into French culture. These neighborhoods are seen as having much racial and ethnic conflict. While this tends to be true, the way in which Thuram depicts his neighborhood is rather a place of acceptance, community, and an appreciation of diversity. It is also important to note that Thuram doesn’t simply ignore the realities of the banlieues, but rather explains why these problems emerge. He states that the problem is not the banlieues themselves, but the way in which they are seen from the outside. He writes:

    « Le regard méfiant porte de l’extérieur sur ces communautés provoque également des tensions déstabilisatrices. Mes copains qui vivaient en dehors des Fougères affirmaient avec certitude que nous étions pauvres, donc que nous ne payions ni le loyer ni l’électricité… et que la cité était un véritable coupe-gorge. »

    (The wary look outside of these communities also causes destabilizing tensions. My friends who live outside of Fougères claim with certainty that we are poor, so we don’t pay rent or electricity… and that the projects are truly cut-throat.)

    I found this particular passage compelling because I had always thought of these neighborhoods having internal problems, and didn’t quite think of them having these problems as a result of the external.


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