Lilian Thuram needs little introduction. He is the most capped player in French football history, representing Les Bleus 142 times. He is also one of the most decorated: he helped France to win the 1998 World Cup with his only two international goals, in the 2-1 win over Croatia in the semi-final, and was part of the side that won the European Championship two years later. He was voted into Fifa’s World Cup All-Star XI in 1998 and 2006 and also won the Confederations Cup in 2003.

At club level, Thuram also had considerable success, winning the Coupe de France at Monaco in 1991, the Coppa Italia and the Uefa Cup with Parma in 1999 and Serie A with Juventus in 2002 and 2003. Only defeats in the Champions League final with Juventus in 2003 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup final with Monaco in 1992 prevented him from securing every major international honour available to both club and country. After the Calciopoli scandal and Juve’s demotion to Serie B in 2006, Thuram joined Barcelona, where he played for two years before a heart condition forced his retirement, aged 36.

His post-football trajectory has been similarly distinctive. More vocal than most players about politics during his career, Thuram spoke out against the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, who called residents of the Parisian banlieues “scum” after the riots of autumn 2005. One year later, he and Patrick Vieira invited 70 black African sans-papiers refugees, expelled from their squat in Cachan (one of Paris’s poorest suburbs), to France’s European Championship qualifier against Italy. This sparked intense debate, as the Conservative politician Philippe de Villiers called Thuram “a millionaire giving us a lecture on the Rights of Man” but led to President Chirac promising to reform the laws relating to undocumented migrants without papers.

Thuram’s involvement with politics has not been through conventional party structures but through engagement with Non-Governmental Organisations. He became a board member of the Haut Conseil d’Integration, a think tank reporting to the French parliament on race, and has worked on Uefa anti-racism projects and with an independent organisation, Licra (Ligue International Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme).

Thuram’s activism has also taken creative forms. In 2006, he wrote the introduction to Thomté Ryan’s novel Banlieue noire. In 2011, he curated an exhibition at the Musée de quai Branly about the history of people from colonies (such as the grandparents of his 1998 World Cup teammate Christian Karembeu, who came from New Caledonia) being exhibited in Europe, up to 1958 when Congolese villagers were displayed at the World’s Fair in Brussels. His first book, Mes étoiles noirs, released in France in 2010, aimed to provide young people of colour with a history besides slavery and was soon used in schools; the Soccer Empire author Laurent Dubois has translated it into English and Thuram is seeking a publisher. His second, Notre Histoire (2014), was a graphic novel, co-written with Jean-Christophe Camus and illustrated by Sam García, following Thuram’s mother, Mariana, from the sugar cane fields of Guadeloupe to Paris.

The British launch of Notre Histoire was held at the Institut Français on 6 June 2016 as part of their Art & Football: A Perfect Match series. Thuram’s audience were mostly teenagers from London schools, clearly excited to meet a World Cup winner even if few recalled his playing career. After Thuram had discussed his youth and his experiences of racism in football – particularly in Italy, where supporters made monkey noises and threw bananas at him and other black players – he invited questions. When asked about the row about the non-selection of Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa for France’s Euro 2016 squad, and Éric Cantona’s suggestion that his old nemesis Didier Deschamps had excluded them because of their Arabic origins, Thuram explained that in football, “your first duty is to protect your teammate,” and that Benzema had neglected this with regard to Mathieu Valbuena. Ben Arfa, he said, had been left out for football reasons: there were others who better suited the manager’s plans, “so there is no racism”. Asked who were the best players he played with, Thuram named Messi first, and then several of France’s World Cup-winning squad – Henry, Pirès, Vieira and Zidane – but reserved special praise for Pavel Nedvěd’s skill and vision, assuming (correctly) that most of the room would not be familiar with the Czech midfielder.

After the event, I spoke to Thuram about his career in football and his involvement in politics.

You were born in Anse-Bertrand in Guadeloupe and raised by your mother, who brought you and the rest of the family to Paris in 1981, when you were nine. How did that upbringing shape your politics?

When I arrived in France, I was confronted with a different notion of family and I was forced to question myself. I grew up with a single mother and five children from five different fathers. To ask myself questions about my family led me to ask about the history of Guadeloupe and shaped my way of thinking.

Who were your inspirations, in football or elsewhere, when you were growing up?

Jean Tigana. When I watched him, I dreamt of becoming as good as he was. But the person who inspired me most was my mother, because she taught me that you can choose the life that you want. When I was young, she would tell me in Creole to be brave and confront things.

What was your route into professional football?

When I was a kid, I wasn’t even aware that it was a job. In Guadeloupe, I didn’t have a TV at home, so I wasn’t watching games – I played with my friends because I loved it. I carried on when I was in France and it was only when I was 15 that someone said that OGC Nice wanted me for a trial. Then I arrived at Monaco when I was 17 and injured myself. The doctor said I would never be able to play again. I did everything to recover and when I signed my first professional contract, I dedicated myself to football. Before that, I was aware that football could stop at any moment.

When you were at Monaco, the France defender Luc Sonor (also born in Guadeloupe) took you under his wing. What did he teach you?

Nobody makes it on their own. Sonor gave me a lot of love, protected me and also taught me the attitude that I should have within a group. He encouraged me, telling me that if I worked very hard, I would succeed. I was often with him at training or at his home.

When you joined the French national team, you took the right-back position from another player from Guadeloupe – Jocelyn Angloma. What did you learn from him?

In 1996, I was in England for the European Championships, and that’s when the coach [Aimé Jacquet] put me in Angloma’s position. The first person to encourage me to believe in myself was Angloma. I think the fact that I was a young person from Guadeloupe helped a lot. I kept his image in my head and when young players came up throughout my career, I always tried to show a positive attitude towards them.

Who are the young players that you particularly remember?

Someone I appreciated, as he was so determined, was Giorgio Chiellini at Juventus. When you’re young and forceful, adults sometimes get annoyed, but he didn’t let anyone stop him.

As more players with backgrounds outside the Métropole became prominent members of the French national side, Jean-Marie Le Pen tried to capitalise by accusing the team of not being genuinely French. How did this affect the 1998 World Cup squad?

When you are a footballer, you are brought up to surpass these sorts of problems. Anything that lands in front of you has to make you a better person. When I heard Le Pen’s words, it doubled my desire to win the Cup for France, because the fact of winning would legitimise lots of other people – above all, the people that one is not allowed to mention.

When the Olympic Games were held in London in 2012, there was lots of talk about its ‘legacy’, but this was framed largely in economic terms. The legacy of France’s victory in 1998 is usually discussed in terms of social cohesion. Do you think that win has had a lasting impact?

Yes, but it was not something that we could have foreseen. What was interesting was that it legitimised questions with regard to French society. If you can be proud of a team that has different colours and faiths within football, why can’t we do the same in other spheres?

Every year, there was a survey about racist attitudes in France. In 2000, 36% said that there were too many players of ‘foreign origin’ in the national team. In October 2001, the friendly between France and Algeria was abandoned due to a pitch invasion, after some abuse was chanted at Zinedine Zidane and chants were heard in support of Osama Bin Laden. How did this affect you and the other players?

I was sad because it was supposed to be a reconciliation after 9/11. It was important to me because I was worried that Muslim tourists would be restrained and of course the history between France and Algeria is very violent and still alive within the collective consciousness. The point of this match was to open people up to intelligent questions and it didn’t go well, because young French fans interrupted it.

Marcel Desailly spoke out against racism (and so, against Le Pen) behalf of the French team in May 2002. How much did the French national team talk about the need to make this sort of statement?

I spoke with the others about racism, but we never talked about doing something as a team.

After the 2002 World Cup and the European Championship two years later, was there a sense that Les Bleus had something to prove? Was this intensified by Le Pen’s comments before France’s second-round match against Spain at the 2006 World Cup?

We had lacked a certain humility, which affected us in 2002 and 2004. There was so much doubt around the French team, but there were also the returns of Zidane, Makélélé and myself. Very often, it is the doubt that makes people move forward.

That was what I loved about the 2006 team – many of the players had been very successful but it was still a surprise to see France do so well. How much did that run to the final owe to Raymond Domenech’s coaching and how much to the senior players (such as those mentioned above as well as Thierry Henry, Fabien Barthez and David Trézéguet)?

There is no great team without a meeting of great players and a coach who knows how to manage them. At national level, the coach chooses the players, and I’m astonished that there may be people who can’t recognise Domenech’s qualities. After 2010, he never found another club – but how many coaches have taken their country to the World Cup final, only losing on penalties? And we were better than the Italians in that match.

What did you say to Zidane after the final?

I was in the anti-doping area, so I didn’t speak to him straight away, but later I said that we are all capable of making mistakes. When someone does, you have to be able to say so. In France, after the World Cup, even the President implied that Zidane was in the right. I think that it’s important to say that he made a mistake but above all, it’s good to use it to educate children.

Did you understand his gesture?

I don’t know why he did it. He shouldn’t have done it!

Several players, including Marcel Desailly and Zinedine Zidane, had spoken out against Le Pen, but you went further, standing up to Nicolas Sarkozy after the riots of autumn 2005, saying that “If [the rioters] are scum, then so am I”. You later went to meet Sarkozy – what happened?

I told him that when you are a Minister, you are an educator and that you cannot despise certain members of the population. Again, it is contempt thrown on poor people.

How did he respond?  

He tried to soften me – butter me up, whatever the term is. It didn’t work because I don’t forget the world I come from. I find that when politicians don’t have a solution, they tend to direct the problems onto the poorest, especially if they have foreign origins.

The following year, you invited 70 sans-papiers migrants to the France-Italy game. What was the reaction to that like?

Patrick Vieira and I got tickets for them and I learned that some politicians found it scandalous for us to do this. I said to myself: “These people are mad.” When I go to a match with my kids, it’s to have fun. If you’re homeless, do you not have to right to spend an afternoon enjoying the football? Politicians try to lead us to believe that some people are not human like us.

How much do you think football can be useful as a tool for social change?

Football has an important power to transmit emotions. You can identify with some of these emotions and they can bring us closer. These transcend colour of skin, faith, sexuality etc. So that’s positive. But football is also an extraordinary tool to sell capitalism and to sell us the image that the little people can beat the powerful, but it’s a lie. In the end, it’s always the richest who win. And it’s a way to sell products. What I find interesting is that today, there is a far greater difference between the richest clubs and the others than when I began my career. The same is true of wider society, so football tells the story of social change very clearly – it is a metaphor for life. I think that’s why people love it.

With thanks to Juliet Dante for help with translation