I played with Lionel Messi as a child but being Lilian Thuram’s son makes me proud
Khéphren Thuram explains how he became a midfielder. As with most children, it started in the family garden. “My dad was a defender so my [older] brother would be an attacker,” he explains. “Then I had to be in the middle, in the midfield. So maybe that’s how me and my brother got our positions and it was really, really competitive. But they were nice moments, the three of us playing even if I finished a lot of times crying because I lost against my brother! Not that my dad ever let us win either. If he was going to win he was going to win.”
Thuram’s father was, indeed, a “defender”. He was also one of the greatest ever: Lilian Thuram, the World Cup winner who played 142 times for France, and Khéphren’s brother is Marcus, the 25-year-old French international who is out-of-contract at Borussia Mönchengladbach this summer and is wanted by many of Europe’s biggest clubs.
That is some sporting pedigree with Khéphren the latest exciting edition to make headlines having also now received his first call-up to the national team for the forthcoming European Championship qualifiers against the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland alongside his brother. The 21-year-old is 6ft 4in and has it all: technique, athleticism and an eye for goal. He also has a remarkable background – born in Italy; lived in Spain; plays in France and speaks perfect English having been sent to an American school in Paris.
“They [the school] always taught us to be confident. They told us that we were good and not to be scared of being good,” Thuram explains.
It is an interesting phrase – “not to be scared of being good” – and Thuram’s confidence is clear as he discusses his ambitions, his hunger for self-improvement and how he used to pick his team-mate at Nice, Aaron Ramsey, for his team when he played the video game Fifa as a child – “I haven’t told him that,” he says, before adding “but maybe he will see this interview!” – and a passion for music (an eclectic fan whose tastes include Celine Dion as well as rap), photography and reading.
The last book he read is instructive. “It was Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach,” Thuram says. “It’s about a bird that doesn’t really know how to fly and it has to work out how to fly and fly in different ways. It’s working and working and people say: ‘You’re crazy, you’ll never achieve what you are trying to do’. But he’s working and working and he achieves his goal.”
The metaphor, for a professional footballer, is obvious. Thuram is working and working and has already drawn the attention of other clubs having joined Nice from Monaco, where he made his Champions League debut aged 17.
Google his name and he is linked to Liverpool, Newcastle United, Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Milan, Juventus. The list goes on. “I hear, but I don’t concentrate on it,” Thuram says. “I am with Nice. I am very happy where I am. I am trying to get bigger with the club. I am trying to grow up with the club. So, yeah, obviously I hear it but it’s not the most important. The most important is to do good with the team and be happy where I am.”
There is a lot of noise, also, around Nice – with the owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who made his billions through Ineos, bidding to buy Manchester United. Nice are convinced, though, that Ratcliffe remains fully committed to the French club.
“The Ineos owners often come to see us at the training ground and at the matches. They are very much involved in the life of the team,” Thuram says. “They want to build a strong team in a strong club. I am convinced that OGC Nice will be a club that counts in Europe in the years to come.”
'I didn't see Henry and Messi as players, they were colleagues of my dad'
No interview with Thuram can take place without asking him about his first name – Khéphren. “Named after a pharoah,” he says. “But my parents told me that in French it means ‘le soleil se leve’ – the sun is rising. So I think it’s a pretty nice name and it’s not really common. I like my name.”
Khéphren was a black pharoah, believed to be the inspiration for the features of the Great Sphinx of Giza, and Thuram’s brother Marcus was named after the black Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. Their father has his own foundation which aims to educate people out of racism and since retiring Lilian has also campaigned against sexism and homophobia, and advised the French government.
“I am prouder of what he is doing now than what he did on the soccer pitch because I think it’s more important to defend your values,” Thuram says. “He is fighting for what he thinks is right. He uses that platform. He works; he travels a lot to speak. I share the same values. He gave me those values. I am not him but I have the same beliefs. My name is Thuram and it makes me proud.”
Lilian Thuram’s playing career was extraordinary – winning trophies at Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona as well as with France. There is a famous photograph of Khéphren running around among some of the stars his father played with – and not least Thierry Henry.
“It was great being around him; he was a really fun guy and then I had him as a coach at Monaco and he taught me a lot and he is still teaching me now,” Thuram says. “I was around Messi, Ronaldinho, Patrick Vieira, players like that. When I was younger I didn’t see them as players. I was just around the colleagues of my dad. Now when I see the photos, I am like, ‘Oh yeah, I was next to Messi!’”
Thuram never really thought of his father as a footballer, and there was no pressure to follow in his footsteps as a professional. “He was just my dad. He helped me learn to read. He helped me do my homework and when I didn’t do it he told me off. He did dad stuff,” Thuram says.
“Most important was to be good at school, to be polite, to become a good man. Once I got a bad grade, like two out of 10 at school, and I didn’t tell him. I hid the paper under the bed and he found out and I wasn’t allowed to play soccer. I never hid it from him again.”
Still Khéphren and Marcus both showed they had the talent and with the latter having played for France at the recent World Cup the Thurams are now on the verge of a unique hat-trick. “It’s the aim of every soccer player to play for their national team and it would be even bigger, even greater to do that with my brother,” he says.
He accepts he is far from the finished article and studies clips, compiled by Nice’s analysts, of great midfielders – Paul Pogba, Yaya Touré and Vieira – although he regards Kevin de Bruyne as “the best in his position. He is incredible; intelligent and technical also”.
There is a huge regard for Ramsey who, at 32, is now playing in a deeper midfield role.
“At first it was a bit strange because I had watched his games and I played him on my PlayStation. On Fifa. I had him in my team. So that was kind of weird!” Thuram says. “But he’s really nice. I can ask him questions and he talks to everyone. It’s great to have that experience in our team – he played for Wales, for Arsenal, for Juventus and he’s really professional. In fact, I don’t even have to ask him questions. I just look to see what he is doing and try and do the same.
“What do I want to achieve? For me the most important thing is to be the best version of myself. As a man, as a football player. I don’t know exactly where that is going to take me but I want to be the best version of myself. If that is to play somewhere my whole life then fine. If it is to play at one of the top clubs then I want to achieve that.”