Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. Idiot. Every single one of them, idiots. After receiving his one-month suspension for throwing the ball at a referee as a display of his disagreement with a decision, Eric Cantona also disagreed with the punishment. One-month for throwing a ball at a referee who was clearly in the wrong? Idiots.
It was this word that he used to address each and every single member of the committee that made the decision. The suspension promptly was extended to two months and Cantona, who had won the Ligue 1 title with Marseille the previous season, and aged only 25, announced his retirement from football: a personal protest.
Coaxed backed after the storm had cleared, although recommended by his psychoanalyst to do so away from France, the “King” made his royal voyage to pull on his first shirt from a side on foreign soil. Sheffield Wednesday’s manager Trevor Francis brought the volatile footballing Voltaire to the capital of steel. In amongst the billowing clouds of post-industrial England, momentarily engulfed in snow during his visit, Cantona arrived with entourage in tow.
A favour for French coach Michel Platini who had, alongside the rest of France, hoped their exciting striker, yet to reach his peak, would come out of retirement, Francis had him join in training. For all the poor weather in England, snow is hardly a common occurrence. Unsurprisingly, Wednesday were without the provisions to provide Cantona with a pitch to play on in the frosty conditions. Instead, playing indoor for two days was all he got. Francis suggested an extension for another day, hoping the weather would subside, a move interpreted by Cantona and his crew as an affront.
It was time to move on. Didn’t they know who he was? Shortly after, for the conservative and preemptively cautious fee of £900,000, he switched to Leeds United. Although only making a handful of starts for the Whites, Cantona found the net three times, all in one emphatic display against Liverpool, where his side left 4-3 victors. Goals might have been limited, but his influence couldn’t be overlooked.
Finishing four points above Manchester United, Leeds won the final First Division title before a new era of football was ushered in – the Premier League. Not his first choice, Alex Ferguson was searching for a striker and Cantona met the criteria. As English football was about to undergo an avalanche of investment, celebrity and global presence, Cantona going to United would be the first crowd-puller.
Cantona’s influence wasn’t just on the league and its image, but on how United were formulated and how we view United’s brand of football still today. It wasn’t a process either, but an instantaneous moment of epiphany in the Old Trafford dressing room. Cantona’s magnetic presence consumed his teammates with a sense of optimism and his kinetic sparkle jittered through Old Trafford. Paul Ince recalled the overwhelming feeling of this paradigm shift being as if the Frenchman announced, “I’m Eric, and I’m here to win the title for you.”
United were struggling to string together victories, or even find the back of the net. Cantona hit the ground running – his trademark flair and confidence spearheading United’s mid-season revival and, contributing valuable goals and assists, United romped home to finish as the inaugural champions of the Premier League in the 1992/93 season. At the same time, Cantona the United hero was already becoming Cantona the Premier League villain.
In a precursor to a more famous incident, incited by a member of the Leeds United crowd, Cantona overreacted. He spat on the fan, earning himself a £1,000 fine and the invaluable reputation of being a rough diamond – a true enigma, the type of which had yet to be seen on English soil.
Back-to-back title wins with different English sides in the top flight was a first for Cantona, or anyone else. He’d already begun to develop his trademark silhouette – turned-up collar, rolled back shoulders with puffed out chest and an overall gliding movement around the field, as aggressive as it was balletic, somewhere between a dark Wagnerian opera and the swan-like dancers interpreting it. Nike made an iconic advert in his honour that read: ‘1966 was a great year for English football. Eric was born.’ His face, blasé and with 5 o’clock shadow, was festooned across an English flag. The country had caught his fever and adopted him as their son.
A quiet following season, certainly by Cantona’s standards, had United adding another league win with the Frenchman top scorer, finding the net 26 times in all competitions. It seemed as though he was content with football; both as he played and as it unfolded around him. Manifesting as a mesmeric presence on the field, cocksure and full of bravado, well aware of his place amongst football’s pantheon of greatness, Cantona clearly had an elite insight into playing the game.
Self-awareness unlocks an individual’s potential. Ralph Ellison, in his ode to identity, Invisible Man, wrote: “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Cantona, knowing himself intimately, played the kind of football that had no precursor and still carries no predecessor. His form continued into the 1994/95 season when he completely deconstructed the idea of a football player, transcending acceptable boundaries and codes of behaviour. If he wasn’t just an average player, why should their rules apply to him?
It was, of course, the kick. Cantona had been sent off for lashing out at Crystal Palace’s Richard Shaw. The two had been in close proximity all match, niggling kicks and trips eventually boiled over and Cantona saw red. Stewing and making his way towards the tunnel a fan, having run down 11 rows of seats to reach an audible distance from the player, shouted: “Fuck off back to France, you French bastard!” Cantona snapped. He flew into the fan, a man Cantona sees as nothing but a hooligan, with a ‘kung-fu’ kick. Typical of Cantona, the form was exquisite.
Still, the act itself sent shockwaves through football. A flurry of punches afterwards highlighted just how severe the attack was. Racial overtones were largely overlooked and Cantona was publically hung, drawn and quartered. A criminal conviction of assault hung in the air alongside a lengthy, if not permanent ban from the game. Then came the press conference.
On philosophical form, Cantona was stubborn in his insistence of taking a sort of moral high ground. He had only one thing to say to the baying mob of media whose lolling tongues were soggy with back-page potential. “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” Whoosh! Straight over their heads, the press looked around helplessly trying to figure out his ‘cryptic’ words. The incident wasn’t the subject, they were. Such is the ego involved (on both sides) that neither could really come to terms with what was said.
Another great French mind, Guy Debord, wrote about the notion of the spectacle in society, particularly tied to media and capitalism. Spectacle is the way social relations are intricately woven together by portrayals of power structures; namely politics and media. Cantona’s kick shattered the spectacle. They had expectations of him and he, although sticking vaguely to their narrative, allowed the media’s disciplinary doubts play out in a hyperreal manner. It was almost performative, maybe not at the moment it happened, but certainly in his post-rationalisation.
Becoming ever more ‘professionalised’, Cantona’s kick rubbed the gloss off of the Premier League’s facade. Part barbaric and part intellectual, the incident was like a glitch in the matrix, triggering a perceived disconnect between the brand and the reality, hitherto unseen. In true Debordian fashion, Cantona woke up the masses who had been duped, drugged, sold spectacular images of football. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord wrote, “The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation amongst people, mediated by images.”
When we see the kick, the crowd, the football kit and the subsequent brief conference with the player, our idea of football, the media, and the football player all become challenged. This effect went well beyond the field of play. Nevertheless, returning to the fold the following season in October, nine months after the incident, Cantona set up a goal in his first match back. In the return match back at Selhurst Park since the kick, the host of the kick, he found the net twice. To affirm his status amongst the pantheon of greats, United finished the season winning the league and FA Cup double again. Cantona donned the captain’s armband in the final against rivals Liverpool. He also scored the match’s only goal.
Captain for the next season, Cantona helped guide his side to the league again and dramatically, aged only 30, announced his retirement from football seemingly out of the blue. With United, he had won four league titles in five years, but perhaps more significantly, shattered the idea of what a football player actually was and how the media would re-evaluate their methods of understanding them.
Where his manager and friend Alex Ferguson chose not to speak to the media, Cantona turned their behaviour and questions back onto themselves, leaving a remark that was at once odd and incisive. Beyond that, they’re somewhat eternal. Cantona; the collar, the kicker, the captain, and the trawler, epitomised the purgatory of ‘90s football. Not quite the frontier days of the ‘80s, yet a far cry from what was to arrive in the 2000s, one must wonder how he’d fit in transplanted to one of these eras. It seems that he was an undoubted product of his time.
He might have thought he refused to leave any sardines behind, but every chipped goal, carefree celebration, and seismic incident was enough to keep us coming, turning us all into seagulls in his wake, hoping that he’d throw out just one more. Occasionally, in his post-playing years, he has. In doing so, Cantona has become a quintessential icon for France, United, and all of football: a legend and a man whose genius, as both footballer and public philosopher, remain unquestioned.
By Edd Norval @EddNorval