FRANCE defender Lilian Thuram is on top of the world – everywhere except at his own club, Parma.

Thuram remains, for many observers of the international game, the finest and most versatile defender in the world. That has also proved a problem, with his form suffering in recent months because Parma have used him to shore up so many different gaps in midfield and defence.

Milan, Juventus and old suitors Internazionale would all like to take Thuram away from all that. Parma are reported to be ready to unload at least one of their star names – Thuram, Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon or defender Fabio Cannavaro – to finance team rebuilding in the summer.

Thuram stays diplomatic amid the fuss, saying: “I have ears and eyes. I know what is going on. Football has always been a rumour factory. But it’s too soon to decide anything.

“People say I am like Gabriel Batistuta. That even he moved from Fiorentina in the end because the pressure for change became too great. But Iam not Batistuta, even if I still have ambitions I have been unable to fulfil with Parma.”

One of those is to win the Italian championship. The Parmalat-backed club have been considered on the verge of the title breakthrough for years but their time may have passed. The Parmalat group, which financed Parma’s risefrom Serie C to Serie A and on to UEFA Cup glory, may be stepping back from a role in the club’s operations.

Many fans felt the chill in the wind when the club accepted Lazio’s œ36million bid for Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo last summer. They complained it betrayed a lack of ambition and fear Thuram will be next to join the exodus.

Thuram says: “My intention when I came to Parma five years ago was to bea winner with the club, but the Italian League title remains the ultimate target for us. People have started to criticise the directors and the (club owning) Tanzi family but they could not have doneany more. Sometimes, things just do not quite work out the way you want, however hard you try.”

Parma made a disappointing start to the season when they were eliminated from the Champions League preliminary round by Rangers. Then came the exit from the UEFA Cup, the departure of coach Alberto Malesani, and the disastrous, short-lived gamble on Arrigo Sacchi. Renzo Ulivieri has had the job of pulling the squad back together.

Thuram concedes: “Team spirit here could have been better. The best was the season when we won both the UEFA Cup and the Italian Cup [1998-99]. But the best team spirit I have known has been with the French national team over the past few years. It’s hard to get it right at a club: too many egos, too many individual interests.”

Thuram was, for many, the outstanding player at the 1998 World Cup – contributing more to France’s ultimate triumph than even Zinedine Zidane. Born in Guadeloupe on New Year’s Day 1972, Thuram knows all about travelling the world and had dreamed of doing just that through football ever since he was 12 years old.

By then, living with his family in Fontainbleau, near Paris, he was captivated by television images of the outstanding French side who won the European Championship on home territory in 1984. It was as a promising midfielder that he was discovered at 18 by Monaco, but coach Arsene Wenger had reservations about throwing him straight into first-team battle in either French League or Cup-winners Cup. Thus Thuram sat out Monaco’s 2-0 defeat by Werder Bremen in the now-defunct competition’s 1992 Final. A year later, however, he had forced his way into the national squad and was a regular by the time France qualified for Euro 96 in England. Parma signed him immediately and two years later Thuram was hailed as the best in the world.

Parma have always believed Thuram is at his best in the centre of defence but he has generally been displaced to right-back by successive France coaches Aime Jacquet and Roger Lemerre. That dangerous versatility again!

Thuram says: “I prefer playing 4-4-2, that’s why I was happy when Sacchi came to Parma because he is the master of the system. Maybe he gave up too soon but we had to respect his decision. Will I do the same? Well, we have a lot of work to get through in the League before I worry about that.”