- Associated Press - Sunday, November 20, 2011

PARIS (AP) - For a deeper perspective about the week Sepp Blatter will want to forget, Lilian Thuram was the obvious person to call.

France’s most capped soccer star has experienced racism on and off the pitch. Now retired, the 1998 World Cup winner speaks about the problem and how to tackle it with the same mix of intelligence, authority, determination and broad vision he used to deploy when defending his country’s goal. Thuram has long been known as the thoughtful type, famously cupping his chin in his hand after he scored twice to put France into the 1998 World Cup final, in a pose not unlike Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “The Thinker.”

We met at Paris’ Quai Branly museum, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Thuram is working on a new exhibition there, “Human Zoos; The invention of the savage,” that opens Nov. 29. It tells the centuries-long history of the men, women and children scooped up from villages in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas to be paraded in the West as “exotic” and “freaks,” incredibly into the mid-20th century.

Among them were the great-grandparents of Christian Karembeu, Thuram’s 1998 World Cup teammate who, he explained, were shipped over to Paris from the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia and exhibited as “cannibals.”

“Our societies were built on a racist culture,” said Thuram, who is the exhibition’s general curator. “Let’s be honest with ourselves, we all have such prejudices. We should try to think why.”

Blatter, Steve Williams and John Terry in recent weeks all inadvertently drove home the need for such contemplation and introspection, and not just in sport.

FIFA’s boss, whose world view should be as global and as inclusive as the game he rules over, is not a racist. That comes on excellent authority _ from Thuram and former anti-apartheid activist Tokyo Sexwale, a South African government minister.

And yet Blatter still managed to offend many people both in and outside of soccer by suggesting that racist abuse on a pitch should be forgiven and forgotten with a simple handshake, seemingly minimizing the seriousness of such behavior.

Williams also is “certainly not a racist.” So said Tiger Woods. And yet his ex-caddie still disparaged Woods with a racial slur at an awards’ party, setting tongues wagging in golf.

Nor is Terry a racist. Former England international Paul Ince is among those who say that. And yet police and soccer authorities in England have been investigating whether a racially charged insult the Chelsea and England captain is alleged to have used in an exchange with Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand was a deliberate, targeted slur or, as Terry claims, a misunderstanding with words that were taken out of context.

Clearly, despite all the progress it has made, sport has not conquered racism and cannot afford to be complacent about it.

Another lesson from these events is racism isn’t simply a problem that involves or can be blamed solely on racists.

Blatter took the World Cup to South Africa. Under his leadership, FIFA has made racial equality and fighting “racism in any form” a written requirement for everyone in soccer and it stiffened punishments for players who racially insult.

“I know that he is revolted by racist acts,” said Thuram. He spoke to Blatter by phone on Friday and said the FIFA president invited him previously several times to the organization’s headquarters to brief soccer officials about racism.

Yet, while Blatter clearly understands the big picture about discrimination, his remarks suggested a lack of empathy for its victims, Thuram acknowledged. Thuram recalled he was racially abused by an opponent when he played for Parma in Italy but could not simply shake hands afterward “because it’s true that when someone insults you like that you don’t want to shake their hand.”

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