By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - France's two World Cup wins in 1998 and 2018, which were characterised by the diversity of the players' backgrounds, have helped to ease racial tensions in the country and changed attitudes to immigrants, former defender Lilian Thuram has said.
Thuram, who is France's most capped player, propelled them to their first ever World Cup final 20 years ago with two goals in a semi-final against Croatia, which set his side on their way to a triumph on home soil.
Yet the former Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona defender is also renowned for his political views, famously speaking up for citizens in the marginalized Paris suburbs during riots in 2005 and fiercely criticising then French president Nicolas Sarkozy for labelling the rioters as "scum".
Thuram says that the fight against prejudice is far from over, least of all in his own country, but he believes the success of his team and the recapturing of football's biggest prize in Russia by the likes of Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe have contributed to a more fluid conversation on race relations.
"The success has been very useful, because when France wins and people examine the make-up of the team it goes against what people are told about immigration," Thuram told Reuters in an interview at Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium.
"Through football people can see that many of the very best players began their lives as poor children, in many cases from immigrant families. So when France win matches it's very important for the country's image and for the image of immigrants.
"When the team wins, discussions about immigration are easier."
Yet the success of the so-called 'Rainbow Team', Thuram's World Cup winning side that also featured Zinedine Zidane, of Algerian descent and Patrick Vieira, who was born in Senegal, did not heal racial tensions in France for long.
The far-right National Front political party rose to greater prominence in the years following the 3-0 win over Brazil in the World Cup final, with then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen coming second in the presidential election in 2002.
Those fractures have far from disappeared two decades on, and a year before France won the World Cup again, Le Pen's daughter Marine repeated her father's success, gaining 10 million votes in the 2017 presidential election, before losing a run-off to Emmanuel Macron.
"Of course, one victory for the team does not change everything and mean these issues no longer exist," said Thuram.
"But 1998 was a very important moment, it helped to legitimise immigrants. It's now far easier to speak about these issues than before then.
"Football gives people a space to grow and become stronger, but racism continues to exist in society. Winning the World Cup was an important development to fight racism but football alone cannot eliminate it. Football cannot change everything, but it does have an impact."
Thuram, 46, has spent his post-playing days campaigning against racism through his eponymous foundation and is working with Barca's foundation, supporting refugees who have fled war-torn Syria in camps in Greece, Italy and Lebanon.
"People think refugees are not on the same level as us, that they are not legitimate. I work with refugees to get rid of this idea, to make people realise no-one is more legitimate than anyone else," he said.
"We have made advances with race relations and with sexism, but we need to keep working to change people's understanding," he said.
"I'm sure that in 50 years' time people will ask how it was possible that people were left to die in the Mediterranean Sea just because they were refugees."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)