The Assailant

What on earth made him do it? Eric Cantona tells Darren Tulett just what he was thinking, how he would have reacted completely differently on any other day - and why movies are exactly like football

Sunday October 31, 2004
The Observer

Barefoot and bearded, his long hair swept back, Eric Cantona strides towards me in a red beach-football kit, his imposing physique seeming to fill the corridor of the Paris arena where soon he will receive the biggest ovation of this star-filled night. Seven years after abruptly ending his playing career at the age of 31, he has lost nothing of the brooding presence that helped make him such an unpredictable success in England with football fans and marketing men alike. The Frenchman, still wearing the No 7 from his Manchester United heyday, has charisma but also an edge of menace.

'How are you?' he says, in English, and offers me his hand. He knows I speak French but continues in English for a few more minutes, his eyes flickering nervously around the enclosed space of the corridor.

He still doesn't like to talk about what happened at Selhurst Park. When pushed, he rejects the term 'karate kick' as a description for his attack on Matthew Simmons. 'There was a barrier between us so I had to jump over it,' he says now. 'That's all, otherwise I might have just steamed in with my fists. You know, you meet thousands of people like him [Simmons]. And how things turn out can hinge on the precise moment you run into them. If I'd met that guy on another day, things may have happened very differently even if he had said exactly the same things. Life is weird like that. You're on a tightrope every day.

'The most important thing for me is that I was who I was. I was myself! I don't think you can plan on when you're going to lose it, or anything like that. What matters when you do lose it, for a good or bad reason, is to try to understand why you do things. But life can be so complicated. Even if you understood why you did something, it doesn't mean you won't go and do the same thing again tomorrow. The best thing you can do is to take a step back and laugh at yourself. A bit of self-derision.'

Cantona was intent on 'being myself, who I was' at the court case that followed the kick, on 23 March, too. Cantona and Paul Ince, the United captain at Selhurst Park that night who had been involved in a melee with supporters in the seconds following Cantona's kick, were both charged with assault.

Download Eric Cantona's attack on Matthew Simmons.  

'We stayed at the Croydon Park hotel,' Ince remembers. 'So we got up in the morning and I've got me suit on - the nuts, know what I mean? I knock on Eric's door and he's standing in jacket, white shirt, long collars like that [he gestures to describe long, pointed collars], unbuttoned so you can see his chest. "Eric, you can't go to court like that", I told him and he says, "I am Cantona, I can go as I want". So he got in the dock and he got 14 days in prison. I thought, "Oh my god, it must be that shirt. It has to be the shirt, Eric." '

Ince pleaded not guilty and was later cleared. But Cantona, who was convicted there and then, was taken to the cells where he was held for three hours until he was released on bail pending appeal. 'There was always going to be massive [media] coverage because it was Eric Cantona,' Ince continues. 'I mean, you've seen things - clips in Brazil and Argentina when players have got sticks and they're whacking people, bang! But people don't know them so it doesn't go worldwide. But because it was Eric Cantona it was the biggest thing ever. It's a shame because people forget what a great player he was and what a great ambassador he was.'

Cantona's sentence was reduced to 120 hours' community service on appeal. He was also banned by the Football Association for nine months and stripped of the France captaincy. It was at this point that he uttered his now infamous statement that 'when the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea'. This 'cryptic' comment was plainly a reference to the constant media harassment.

What might have led to the end of one career actually opened the door to another. Film director Etienne Chatillez cast him and brother Joël in Le Bonheur est dans le Pré. Cantona was once mocked for daring to admit to a fondness for poetry and painting - not considered normal behaviour for a footballer - but the cinema is now his passion. After acting in five feature films and making his directorial debut with a short film based on a Charles Bukowski story, he is now preparing
his second film behind the camera. It will be 'about paranoia', he says.

He likens directing to being a football coach. 'It's exactly the same thing. There is a way of instilling confidence in people. There is a story: knowing what we're going to do together, what our goal is. Directors and coaches both have to get the best out of different personalities, make sure everyone gives of his best for the team. For the same objective, the same goal. Yes, it's exactly the same job.'

One man who has worked with Cantona believes he will go on to direct a feature film. Tom Carty, a United fan who was at the Palace match, has written and directed popular screen ads - Guinness, Pepsi Max, Nike - and has been on set with Cantona twice. 'All he wanted to talk about was film,' says Carty. 'I'm sure he has the talent. He is multifaceted: the artist, poet ... he's creative, unlike your average one-dimensional English footballer. A normal player, an English player, if they had crossed the line like that, attacked a fan, they would have just punched him. Not Eric. There was elegance in what he did. Because of the way people behaved at the time, Matthew Simmons knew he would get away with it. But, with his reaction, Cantona showed him: "You know what? Hang on a minute, you can't do that. I'm changing the rules".'

Eric Cantona was born in Paris in 1966. Thirty years later, United's merchandise department would turn in a tidy profit selling T-shirts emblazoned with the words: '66 was a great year for English football. Eric was born'. His father, a psychiatric nurse, was the son of a Sardinian immigrant and the family soon moved south to Marseille. By all accounts, the Cantona home here was simple and modest. Growing up, Eric became a regular visitor to Olympique Marseille's Stade Vélodrome.

He made his professional debut at 16 with Auxerre, the club in the small Burgundy town. It was also while with Auxerre that he met his future wife, Isabelle, sister of a team-mate, Bernard Ferrer.

His turbulent playing career was marred by clashes with authority, his erratic behaviour and candour quickly marking him out as a 'bad boy'. As an Auxerre player he was banned from international football after calling the then France coach, Henri Michel, 'un sac à merde' . Not long after that, he was sacked by Marseille when he threw his shirt to the ground in protest at being substituted in a friendly. He was suspended for fighting a team-mate at Montpellier. He quit football for a first time in 1991 after a two-month ban from the French league. His crime? As captain of Nîmes, he had thrown the ball at a
referee. When he was banned for a month, Cantona told every member of the disciplinary committee that they were fools. The ban was doubled.

He didn't stay away from the game long. Tempted to England for a trial at Sheffield Wednesday, he was signed by Leeds United in February 1992 and in little more than a dozen games catapulted them to league champions - and himself to star status. But only nine months after arriving at Elland Road, he went to Old Trafford in a £1.2m transfer. In his first season there - the inaugural Premiership season - he ended up as a champion again.

Franck Sauzée, who played alongside him at Marseille and for France, says Cantona was an easy target for the authorities. 'Eric always had character and principles and stood up for himself and for others. Most players will tell you he was an adorable guy to have in your team and, unlike many forwards, selfless. The football world doesn't like players who speak out, though.'

Rebellious, maybe, but 'he was a lovely, lovely man', says Ince. 'We were probably closer than most people, me, Eric and Giggsy [Ryan Giggs]. We used to spend a lot of time together, go out for a few drinks together. It was always all about him, the way he walked in, his charisma.

'He was one of the best, perhaps the best, I've played with. It was his awareness. He seemed to know where anyone was on the pitch at any given time when he had the ball. He used to say to me, "Treat a ball like you treat a woman. Caress it". I'd say, "I'd kick the ball over the fucking bar! I couldn't kick my wife over the bar". He just loved the ball, didn't he? His little touches, flicks... he was just unbelievable. A fantastic player and a lovely, lovely person, the most gentle gentleman.'

"Eric, you can't go to court like that", I told him and he says, "I am Cantona, I can go as I want"

An hour after our first meeting, his team having been soundly beaten by the beach-football world champions from Brazil, Cantona re-emerges from the shower. It is soon apparent that defeat still hurts and he needs to put it into context. 'The European season finished a month ago, while the Brazilians are in full swing,' he explains. 'And then these gala games are fine to help promote beach football, but it's not the same as a competitive match. There's something false about it. The difference is like that between an actor playing out a scene and someone living it in real life. Real things are always better.'

Cantona and his brother, Joël, promote beach football. 'I do it because I enjoy it,' he says. 'For fun. We're at the beginning of this sport and it's exciting to be involved. If I can help through my name, all the better. People often come along to see the oldies, but they leave talking about the young talent. That's fine by me, I'm not jealous.'

He has no reason to be. Though his United days are long gone and his cinematic efforts have divided critics, the 7,000 crowd in the French capital rose as one to acclaim him when he ran out for the game.

'I'm happy when I see people who are happy to see me,' he says. 'But just as many people dislike me, I'm sure. The thing is, those who like me are the ones who bought tickets and they wanted to show their affection, perhaps. The important thing is to be yourself. It's important not to seek to please people for the sake of it, to play to the crowd. People know if you are trying too hard to please, or faking it.'

Cantona is at his most animated when I mention Alex Ferguson, even though he concedes he is not up to date with all the latest news from the world of football. 'I don't exactly steer clear of football these days, but I only watch a match on TV if I stumble upon it,' he says almost apologetically. 'But when I think football, I think Manchester United. I go over to see a game at Old Trafford from time to time. Talk of their decline just makes me laugh. Manchester United are still Manchester United. A truly exceptional club. They may be the richest in the world and of course they can and do buy star players from time to time, but the emphasis is still on training kids. In today's world, where we manufacture stars in five minutes on reality TV shows, that commitment takes on more meaning for me. Educating youngsters, putting in the time, remains the priority at United, and even today Alex Ferguson knows the names of all the trainees. That's what makes me believe there is a belle philosophie at the club.'

What of the rumours suggesting Cantona is preparing to return to the club in some sort of coaching capacity? He wouldn't rule it out, but it's not going to happen tomorrow. 'I know lots of people at the club - Alex, Carlos [Queiroz, the assistant manager] and some of the players, of course. They don't need any help. I think they have the people they need right now.'

Cantona has little time to spare anyway, what with beach football and the movies. He has a new film coming out next year, and is already working on his 'paranoia' short.

As he prepares to depart, Cantona pauses and says: 'In football I went as high as I could, then I stopped. As far as acting is concerned, I'm still at the start of my career. I have always had a thirst for learning, and I know that as an actor I have progress to make. I know that I have a face, a look, people aren't used to seeing. A presence. That's what's saved me and is why people are still prepared to offer me roles. I'm lucky. Without it I may never have been given a chance. I have had to accept that and try to acquire a little bit of confidence.

'I am shy. Sometimes it's tough being shy and I feel a bit paranoid. I need to feel the support of my director, otherwise I can feel like an idiot.'

Cantona has had to build a relationship with the camera. Tempted to overact at first, he says he now blocks out all other thoughts in an attempt to connect with the lens, be it cinematic or photographic. Being subjugated to the camera can make a man reveal his 'most vulnerable side', he says.

This thought brings to mind our first encounter of the evening, when he walked almost menacingly along the corridor only to announce himself with a timid, softly spoken greeting. The image of a strutting, aloof, barrel-chested Cantona, upturned collar and all, that pertains from his remarkable time at United, represents only one side of this strange and mysterious man.

'You can often overdo it, overact, when you lack confidence,' he confides. 'When I have a camera pointing at me, I try to empty my head, drift off into surrealist thoughts. Then the camera can pick up something that is closer to instinct. More natural. Subconscious even. I try to get into that almost unconscious state where you are no longer trying to prove something, to show something. That's not what the camera likes. The camera needs to penetrate. It's better when your regard [expression] is more of a breath, your respiration. You open up and can see and be seen. I believe the camera penetrates you. Penetrates your very soul. I have learnt that over time. You have to be penetrated. Voilà !'

· Darren Tulett is a presenter with Canal Plus. Additional reporting by Jamie Jackson

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