The divide between footballers and their fans has never been greater. There is a malaise about the game’s modern heroes; overpaid, self-indulgent mercenaries who don’t love their sport or even their clubs and then sit at home playing Fortnite awaiting a bigger paycheque elsewhere. When Eric Cantona tells an assembled audience in Dublin, “I would die for Manchester United,” you genuinely believe him. You hang on his every word. There is still something intensely charismatic about Eric Cantona. Even at fifty-two, Cantona is still a warrior, a renegade and a man worthy of the myth-like status he has cultivated.
That Tom Petty line, “I will stand my ground at the gates of hell and I won’t back down” epitomises Eric Cantona. He has lived his life by its credo and remains authentic to his core. The Frenchman now speaks dismissively about serious issues that once threatened to derail his career and presumably had his family concerned for their future. He speaks of appearing before Disciplinary Committees in France in 1992, being banned for two months and calling the Committee “a bunch of idiots.” They were the words of a passionate man, but one then without a job. He had a wife and a young family. He was not seen by millions as a King then. But he was a man with belief in himself.
Cantona speaks of that night in Selhurst Park where he famously kicked a fan. “I don’t know what happened, but I really enjoyed it, I loved it, I really loved it.”
It should come as no surprise that Cantona would double-down on the greatest indignities of his life. That un-shame-able, untameable, larger-than-life force was evident for the fans in the Olympia Theatre on Tuesday night. Cantona was being interviewed as part of an A1 Sporting Speakers tour of Ireland and the UK. The interview itself was skin-deep, rarely thought provoking and largely playing to the interviewee’s greatest strength – his personality. Few in attendance were expecting a Frost-Nixon affair and the crowd appeared perfectly happy to merely see their idol in the flesh.
The answers were well rehearsed and many have been heard before. When asked about his greatest teammate, Cantona told the audience that in Scotland he had responded with Brian McClair, before deciding that in Ireland his greatest teammate was Roy Keane, “...a wonderful player and a wonderful man.” When asked about his best goal, Cantona repeated that well-trodden line, “my best goal was a pass…to Denis Irwin” in reference to Irwin’s goal in Manchester United’s 4-1 demolition of Tottenham in January 1993.
The self-professed art fan declared himself a lover of Banksy. Cantona spoke admiringly of the artist’s work, the secrecy regarding his true identity and the recent stunt in London in which a painting self-destructed upon purchase. That would indeed appeal to a rebel, a man who once called the French FA “a bunch of idiots;” as did Banksy’s 31-day ‘residency’ in New York whereby 31 different art works appeared around the city without the artist ever being discovered or identified.
Banksy’s true identity remains a mystery though Cantona conceded, “maybe it’s me. Maybe I am Banksy…or maybe Banksy thinks he’s Eric Cantona.”
Cantona’s warrior credentials are augmented by his Spanish Civil War fighting grandfather, who had insisted his eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Cantona’s grandmother, leave Spain with him at the war’s conclusion. From there they went to the South of France, spending two years in camps. The story adds to the folklore of Cantona, that would-have-been-fighting-in-Dunkirk spirit that the man still exudes even at fifty-two.
The Frenchman speaks in absolute terms at every juncture. He praised Alex Ferguson for allowing him to play with freedom at Manchester United. In Cantona’s words, Ferguson was a manager that invoked both love and respect in equal measure and the Scot was the type of man deserving of not only your life’s work but indeed your life.
True renegades never express remorse or shame, and it would not be fitting for Cantona to do so now. His life ‘mistakes’ now merely fill the catalogue mythology. There will be no apologies for kicking the fan, stamping on John Moncur or even that near leg breaking tackle on Jeremy Goss. Apologies are never necessary.
You can judge Eric Cantona on many counts, but those leaving the Olympia Theatre were in no doubt of his authenticity. Twenty years later, it is obvious that ‘Cantona’ was no act. The most famous literary retelling of the Spanish Civil War occurs in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which ends with the main character Robert Jordan, perched on a hillside wounded and preparing to tackle an entire cavalry solo. Cantona’s grandfather fought in that war and while few would undertake the mission detailed in the novel, Eric Cantona gives you the impression that he just might.
In a night of sheer idolatry, one of the more poignant moments occurred before the Frenchman had even walked on stage. As the waiting crowd serenaded their absent hero to the choruses of ‘Ooh Aah Cantona,’ Cantona’s brother Joel, wife Rachida and children Emir and Selma watched on from a gallery box. Five-year-old Selma sat in bemusement as the crowd chanted for her soon-to-be-on-stage father. She even sang along, to the obvious joy of her mother. Selma never saw her father play for Manchester United. Her father had retired fifteen years before she was even born but she will have left the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in no doubt about his everlasting mythic status.