“I used to take a stand and rage against injustice all the time. Now I know how things will turn out and that has taken the fun out of losing my temper.”
Cantona: truth is not everything
Time, the enemy of man. Its abrasive nature ravages like nothing else, and few are strong enough to achieve greatness beyond it. One such archetype is Eric Cantona, a man whose infinite creativity, fortitude and unflinching pride sparked the modern day renaissance of English football.
But Eric, King Eric, of Marseille, France, is much more: he’s a philosopher, a provocateur, a paragon of anti-systemic conduct and, when all the adjectival debris has fallen prey to the hollow trappings of language, an Artist - one whose beautifully arrogant flair lives far beyond the confines of time.
Eric Cantona told me to be in his home city of Marseille “on Monday or Tuesday,” so I drove the 500 kilometres from Barcelona where I live in five hours, arriving exhausted but also wired, apprehensive. Cantona is a hero of mine and conventional wisdom has it that you should never meet your heroes. Like many, I was smitten from the moment he first strutted onto Manchester United’s football pitch, collar turned up, chest puffed out, holding himself ramrod straight, turning slowly from side to side to survey imperiously the thousands watching. New players were supposed to prove themselves, win our respect. The Frenchman instantly demanded our homage – and we gave it freely.
I bring news of the death of an old colleague and mutual friend. “No, no, no, no,” is all he can say. For 10 minutes, Cantona is guarded, wary, cold. He is checking me out and makes no secret of it. Then he relaxes, although some questions unpredictably create palpable tension. And there is, even in the carnival mood of Marseille’s Vieux Port on Bastille Day and in a Cantona who professes himself more mellow than in the days when he walked out of Old Trafford in 1997 never to play professional football again, a current of suppressed anger that flashes intermittently. He is still an imposing and potentially frightening figure.
Cantona has, in the past, professed himself often stimulated by interviews. I hope one question will intrigue him.
“Camus or Sartre? Who would have won in a verbal joust?”
“What!?” he bellows, exasperated. “A verbal joust.”
He looks momentarily perplexed.
“The philosophers.” I explain.
“Ah, Camus,” he replies, saying it correctly (I speak Spanish, but not French). “Or Sartre,” rolling the rs and giving a deep belly laugh at my precarious pronunciation. “I didn’t understand. I thought you meant a camel or a sauterelle - a grasshopper. I liked this comparison. But the philosophers? There would be no winner. They were open people with their own ideas, but they would listen to the ideas of others. Truth was not everything. You argue to improve your point of view. If you think you know everything then you stay in your own world and go crazy. And then kill yourself.
“It is important to be open and to have your own point of view, but be open – always be open to change.”
But what has defined Cantona, in terms of his football career, has not been debate, but rage, beautiful, theatrical, inspiring rage. An incandescent anger that has burst into life and risked his continuation in the sport he loved. When Cantona came to England in 1991, it was confidently predicted that he would be on his way within a few months. He was, so his critics said, uncontrollable. In France, he burnt every bridge from Martigues to the Seine. In 1988, aged 22, when the French national coach Henri Michel failed to select him, he called him “Un sac de merde” [a shitbag] live on television. Eric later described himself as “like a fuse wire”, waiting to explode. He earned a 10-month ban, but refused to repent. Such behaviour he claimed as his due. “A young man,” he argued, “has a right to rebel.” He was further disciplined for the minor infringement of hurling a ‘sacred’ Marseille shirt to the floor after being substituted in a friendly game.
Following a move to Montpellier, he fought with a teammate whom he believed had criticised him, flinging his boots into his face. Sent off for throwing a ball at a referee, he was summoned before a disciplinary committee, one of whom commented beforehand, “Behind you is the trail of sulphur.”
On receiving their verdict, Cantona walked the length of the table behind which his four judges sat, stared each in the eye and addressed them individually with a single word: “Idiot.”
In the petty authoritarianism of football, these were heinous crimes which effectively threatened his career.
“If I don’t feel the environment is good, I didn’t want to be there,” Cantona tells me. “I need to feel good. Maybe that is why before I had problems. Maybe the atmosphere in a club wasn’t how I dreamed it would be. I needed time or I gave up or I tried to find words to explain what I wanted. It is like with a woman. Sometimes you can’t find love. Sometimes you can, but it is still not right. It’s good to be in love, but you want more, you want to give, you want to receive. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. I’m not sure that I would like to be with a woman who is like some of the chairmen I met. They didn’t deserve to be loved.”
When he finally ended up in Manchester, he came to a club where in the past the Celtic geniuses George Best and Denis Law had similarly staged their own personal rebellions against the injustices of the sport. It is no surprise then that the north of England became the perfect theatre for Cantona to continue his hyper-revolt to right the wrongs of the pitch.
I witnessed the apogee of this campaign in January 1995 at Selhurst Park in South London, the home of Crystal Palace. Cantona had been the victim of provocation from several opposition players. As the game went on, I couldn’t take my eyes from him. He seemed to be seething inside, resentment visibly building within him. He was waiting for an opportunity for revenge, or, as he saw it, justice. When it came, he was sent off, escorted to the dressing room by the kit man who placed his arms around him, trying to calm him. Then as a Palace-supporting hooligan, Matthew Simmons, ran to the front to abuse him, Cantona launched himself feet first into the crowd. The pictures of this ‘kung-fu kick’ were broadcast around the world and international condemnation followed. In England, the response was one of disbelief. Eric’s action was unprecedented. He had crossed the liminal boundary between supporter and player, smashed all conventions of acceptable behaviour, in one moment of transcendent fury.
Asked later for his greatest moment in football, Cantona declared unrepentantly: “My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.” The authorities and the media demanded the heaviest punishments. His supporters defended him in a kind of delirium. His action had, in their eyes, propelled him to that of a deity. Cantona escaped imprisonment on appeal. It is tempting to imagine that, had he been incarcerated, he would have been as celebrated a prisoner as Oscar Wilde, the dank stones of Strangeways (Manchester’s prison, should he have served his sentence there) a place of pilgrimage. As he faced the media, he would utter merely a single sentence: “When the seagulls follow the trawler,” he paused to take a sip of water, “it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” With that, he left, to audible gasps from the audience.
Cantona’s sense of theatre, his timing, was anything but impeccable. “Yeah, I played that moment,” he admitted later. “It was a drama and I was an actor. I do things seriously, without taking myself seriously. I think Nike [long-time Cantona sponsors] found that side of my character and used it very well. Even when I kicked the fan it is because I don’t take myself seriously. I didn’t think because of who I was I had a responsibility not to do it. No, I was just a footballer and a man. I don’t care about being some sort of superior person. I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do.
“If I want to kick a fan, I do it. I am not a role model. I am not a superior teacher telling you how to behave. I think the more you see, the more life is a circus.”
This statement warrants careful consideration, because it holds the key to Cantona’s personal philosophies. He has always understood his football as a performance. He has a passionate interest in art, instilled in him by his Spanish grandfather Pedro who was an accomplished abstract painter. Among others, Cantona admires the art of the short-lived Cobra school, which, in the late 40s and early 50s, argued that artists should paint like children, expressively and spontaneously, aiming at a form of art without restraint. What few Cantona paintings have been seen show the Cobra influence, brightly coloured, swirling patterns, thrown onto the canvas with freedom. But Cantona paints for personal enjoyment, the canvas yet another stage at the service of his reverent foolery.
Similarly, Cantona’s heroes are drawn from the performative spheres. They are not Camus and Sartre, but men who have broken with convention and railed against authority, usually through self-destructive acts. He uses the term ‘fragile’ to describe Jim Morrison, Arthur Rimbaud, Marlon Brando, Maradona and Mickey Rourke. They are all intensely physical. Morrison and Rimbaud, the Lizard king and the poète maudit, beautiful androgynous figures in their pomp, both ‘mad poets’, excessive drug users, searching always for the release and knowledge which comes during Dionysian ecstasy, in Rimbaud’s case, ‘une saison en enfer’. Brando represents the archetypal screen rebel, Maradona the troubled, cocaine-addicted genius of modern football and Rourke an actor much admired by the French as an incarnation of existentialism’s classic outsider. There exists almost the suspicion that Cantona’s explosion at Selhurst Park may have, in one sense, been a deliberate act. That although Cantona surrendered to his anger, allowing it to carry him over the fence, he knowingly did so, to see where it would take him, as an act of anarchy, pushing his discourse of rebellion to the very edge of public acceptability.
“There was a time”, mused Cantona, “when I would lose my temper regularly, when I felt that I had to stand up and say something about the things that made me angry. I used to take a stand and rage against injustice all the time. Now I know how things will turn out and that has taken the fun out of losing my temper.”
“There was a time when I could derive a certain pleasure from trying to work out what to say and do next. But not anymore.”
Although Cantona writes poetry for his personal pleasure and has acted in films, his greatest performances and most lasting achievements have been those on the football pitch. From the age of four he recognised that he could express himself with a ball, and find a joy in his talent that he could rarely glimpse elsewhere. Manchester and English football were unprepared for what Cantona brought to the game. There have been few footballers who have his sheer presence. When Brando is on the screen, you watch no one else. When Cantona played, he commanded attention. At his best, the ball seemed magnetically drawn to him, the game flowed through him. When he could not find his rhythm, he fumed and fretted, the Demon King of Old Trafford, a brooding manifestation which could not be ignored.
Although a physically dominating figure, not unlike a young Brando, tall and muscular, with incredible strength, Cantona constantly confounded expectations with his grace and deftness of touch. How could such a big man, commentators wondered, move with such delicacy? A signature goal was the audacious one he scored against Liverpool to win the 1996 FA Cup. He receives the ball and appears to be cramped for space. There is no way he can get a shot on target without changing his position. But Eric leans backwards, arching his body while remaining perfectly balanced, impossibly striking the ball into the net. He worked hard to maintain his fitness. Although admiring those who sacrificed their health in search of enlightment, to excel at football he trained harder and longer than anyone else. His peers began to stay behind and work with him, to see if they could emulate his abilities by matching his commitment.
An act of bravery
Cantona also showed immense personal courage. In 1993, he faced up to Turkish riot police in the tunnel after a Champions League fixture and received a battering for his pains, an incident which was hushed up by the authorities, but passed into Manchester United folklore. Nowhere was his sang froid demonstrated so well than in his skill at penalty taking. Some players refuse ever to take spot kicks, but Eric enjoyed nothing more than this test of his nerve. As he stepped up to take a penalty against Chelsea in the 1994 FA Cup, the opposition captain attempted to psyche him out by offering him a bet on the outcome. ‘OK, a hundred pounds,’ smiled Eric, before burying the ball in the net. It all added to the spice.
Cantona’s sense of destiny permeated Manchester United, infecting colleagues and supporters alike. When he arrived from archrivals Leeds in the autumn of 1993 in a surprise transfer move, United had not won the championship in 26 years. When he left, retiring at his peak, before hint of physical deterioration could diminish the legend, the Old Trafford trophy room had needed major extension work to accommodate the trophies he had inspired the team to win.
“I imagine the ball to be alive, sensitive, responding to the touch of my foot, to my caresses, like a woman with the man she loves.”
Although women swooned when he said:
They were, and many remain, utterly besotted. He was dubbed ‘Le Roi’ by some, ‘Dieu’ by his most perfervid acolytes. Hundreds will take his image tattooed on their bodies to their graves in memory of this divine love.
Living in Manchester
Supremely arrogant on the pitch, Cantona won further admiration for his general humility and common touch. Home in Manchester was modest, a rented semi-detached with three small bedrooms in the unpretentious suburb of Boothstown, a world away from the expensive faux Georgian mansions of his peers. The media struggled to decipher him, not least because Cantona would claim that his English was too poor to do an interview - yet would stand at the bar in working men’s pubs like Manchester’s Peveril of the Peak, speaking perfectly structured, if heavily accented, English and playing table football with locals. He watched films at the Cornerhouse, an art house cinema beneath the railway arches by Oxford Road station and discussed the cotton industry which fired Manchester’s industrial revolution with friends.
The top Gallic publications dispatched correspondents to Manchester. Why was the connection so strong between the people of this northern English city exiting the throes of post-industrial decline and a haughty Frenchman who grew up in the fierce heat of the southern Mediterranean and played football with his collar turned up?
My phone rang many times for opinions. L’Equipe came to my student house, their photographer fascinated by the standard Anglais brick fireplace, the kettle and tea bags in the kitchen. The Le Monde writer was equally taken by the terraced houses and small neat gardens of the northern English proletariat, drenched by the continual drizzle.
Unlike other continental footballers who complain about the rain and can only settle in London, Cantona relished the working-class energy of industrial Manchester, feeding off its vibrancy and admiring the febrile restlessness of its youth. “I value truth, honesty, respect for one another, compassion and understanding,” he said. “I have found these qualities at Manchester United. In Manchester the public is faithful, married for eternity to its players.”
Time for a change
Like all love affairs, Cantona’s came to an end, although he has never lost his feeling for the club and its supporters. “I leave when I need to change,” he said. “It’s like being with a woman. If you get to the point when you’ve got nothing to say to her, you leave. Or else you stop being good.” He walked out of Manchester United in May 1997 after announcing his retirement from football, aged 31. His justification? That his passion for football had died when he felt he could improve no more. United fans were devastated. There was a period of prolonged mourning. His name is still sung on the terraces, 11 years after he last wore the red shirt. Other big names have played more games or scored more goals, yet it’s Eric’s name which is sung most often by United fans.
Cantona sought other types of performance on his retirement. “Often there are players who have only football as a way of expressing themselves and never develop other interests,” he said. “And when they no longer play football, they no longer do anything; they no longer exist, or rather they have the sensation of no longer existing.” He had developed a taste for the camera during a series of adverts he did for Nike while still a player. He first came to the notice of English-speaking audiences playing a heavyset, glowering French ambassador in Shashi Kapoor’s 1998 film, Elizabeth, alongside two keen United followers, Angus Deayton and Christopher Eccleston. Since then he has made 15 films, all but one in French, developing a growing reputation as a comic actor. For one, L’Outremanger or The Overeater, he was required, in Robert de Niro fashion, to pile on excess weight. And it seemed, watching a bunch of commercials for Nike that he filmed for the 2006 World Cup, that he had embraced the added bulk, sinking into comfortable middle age, sporting several extra chins, with a thick beard peppered with grey.
In 2007, he performed a spoken-word role on the album La mécanique du cœur, by French rock band Dionysos. It’s variety and possibly vanity, but not money, which drives Cantona.
Nothing better exemplifies Eric’s love of performance than his attitude towards a photoshoot for the Manchester United Opus, an opulent, mammoth history of the club. Cantona’s brother Joel, who acts as an agent, told organisers: “The thing with Eric is, he’ll either stay three minutes or three hours, depending on how he feels, that’s just the way he is.”
"It is up to those watching to decide if you are successful at your art. But it is all art. "
The pictures ended up taking 12 hours. They started with Cantona without a shirt to show the tattoo of an Indian chief on his heart. Then the photos became more intense. Cantona in make-up. Cantona facing a skeleton wearing a Manchester United shirt with his name on. Cantona volleying a football from the crypt of a Parisian church. Cantona’s head and face covered in blood and white feathers… For Eric, it was not a case of just turning up and posing for a few snaps, flicking impatient glances at his watch as he did so. No, he had ideas, he had a concept, for him the photo shoot was to be a work of art.
The art of football
Cantona also considered football an art, though he warned: “Not every picture is a good one. All art is about trying to explain yourself. Everyone can do that, the man behind the bar, the man sweeping the streets. It is up to those watching to decide if you are successful at your art. But it is all art. You are an artist if you explain yourself with beauty, with particularity. It is about giving something for people to think about, not to provide answers. It is why I don’t want to talk about the photo shoot. Me, I like artists who make me think. I don’t want to be told what I should be thinking. I like to have my own interpretation. If you say to me: ‘Look, this piano is black’, then for me the conversation is over.”
A return to football has often been suggested, but Cantona has given contrary answers, some suggesting that he would like to manage Manchester United some day. Of this, he has said: “I will return to 11-a-side football just to become the best manager in the world - and that's exactly what I'll become. I will do the job as a creator and an artist. I want to give football something new.” Other interviews suggest that he doesn’t follow football anymore, that he’s disdainful of the commercialism and foreign owners buying clubs like Manchester United. For the moment his involvement is limited to the hedonistic beach soccer league he runs with his brother. Eric manages the French national team with mixed results as they perform in temporary 7,000-capacity stadiums from Marseille to Rio, Mexico to Kazakhstan.
If Cantona espouses any political theory, it is anarchism. Conventional politics, he says, leaves him cold. Another hero is the anarchist singer Léo Ferré, whose songs taught him “the taste of rebellion”.
“There’s a fine line between freedom and chaos. To some extent I espouse the idea of anarchy. What I am really after is an anarchy of thought, a liberation of the mind from all convention.”