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
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
'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.'
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
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." '
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.'
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
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
second film behind the camera. It will be 'about paranoia',
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
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.
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
When he was banned for a month, Cantona told every member of
the disciplinary committee that they were fools. The ban was
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.
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.'
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.'
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
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.'
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.'
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.
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 !'
Tulett is a presenter with Canal Plus. Additional reporting by Jamie
The Kick That Changed Football