By royal appointment
Eric Cantona was crowned the King of Old Trafford during the 90s by United fans for his attitude, flair and vision. A decade on, he applied his genius to art directing a mindblowing set of photos for the Opus…
The following article on Manchester United legend Eric Cantona was originally exclusively featured in United.
It is the hottest July day in Paris for over a century. In the swankiest part of town, the boulevards are melting, sticking to the heels of expensive shoes. Even the French, the chicest nation on earth, are not looking too cheerful. Smartly dressed ladies fan themselves with newspapers as they window shop, pools of sweat spoil the cut of the priciest suits, small children are, at any moment, in danger of spontaneously barbecuing on the pavement. There is no point seeking solace underground either: stepping onto the metro is like diving into a tumble-drier on full blast. Everywhere, everyone is suffering.
Everyone, that is, except Eric Cantona. He arrives at his appointment with the Opus riding a venerable old Triumph motorbike looking as though he is wearing a refrigerated suit. Relaxed, unflustered and the epitome of cool, he removes his helmet, takes the rucksack from his back and strolls into the air-conditioned sanctuary of a swish bar. For anyone watching that walk – head held high, shoulders back, chest out – the memories come flooding back in an instant. That was the walk of the man who, for five glorious years in the mid 1990s, defined Manchester United. He was the player who made the difference, not just a performer of skill, strength, courage and vision, but a man whose attitude permeated the club, infecting colleagues and supporters alike with a sense of shared destiny. When Cantona arrived from Leeds in the autumn of 1993, 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 two Doubles and two other championships. In only one year of his Mancunian odyssey did the Reds not win something, and that was the season during which he was largely absent after taking a detour to the dressing room at Selhurst Park via the chest of a mouthy Crystal Palace supporter. What’s more, as club captain he helped develop the careers of the finest crop of homegrown talent since the Busby Babes. Ask any of the class of ’92 and they will all agree that his attitude, his professionalism, his leadership were inspirational.
The thing about Eric Cantona during his time at United was this: you couldn’t keep your eyes off him. From the moment he strolled onto the pitch, collar up, chest out, to the moment he left (sometimes long before the 90 minutes were up) not to look at him was to miss the centre of the drama. The goals, the passes, the assists, the entanglements: Cantona was incapable of doing anything mundane. For the English press, too, he was a godsend. He was, as Alex Ferguson once put it, like Christmas every day, a gift to write about. Loathed or loved, admired or reviled, he sold papers. And when he left Old Trafford, walking out without ceremony or fuss after lifting the Premiership trophy one last time in the spring of 1997, things would never be quite the same again.
Cantona, though, was never a man likely to disappear from public view. Eschewing the footballer’s standard second careers of management or punditry, he took himself off to become a film actor. He had got a taste for the camera during a series of adverts he did for his sponsor, Nike, while still a player. He first came to the notice of English-speaking audiences playing the French ambassador in Shashi Kapoor’s 1998 film, Elizabeth, alongside two keen United followers, Angus Deayton and Christopher Eccleston. Since then he has made 13 films, all in French, developing a growing reputation as an actor. For one, L’Outremangeur (The Overeater), he was required, in Robert de Niro fashion, to pile on the 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 weight, sinking into comfortable middle age. Sporting several extra chins and a thick beard peppered with grey, he looked in those ads like no-one more than Hagrid of Harry Potter fame. That, though, was misleading. The commercials were shot as he prepared for another screen role, requiring the whiskers and the weight. With that part finished back in the spring, by the time he meets up with the Opus, the beard is trimmed and the body taut. He is no heavier than he was in his playing days and looks lean, balanced, athletic. He wears a beautifully cut linen shirt, open at the neck to reveal a scrum of hippyish necklaces. His hair is trim, short, with not a hint of grey. And his manners are exquisite. He arrives bang on time, is patient with a couple of autograph hunters, polite to the bar staff and insists on settling up the bar bill at the end of the conversation. “You only have sterlings,” he says, by way of explanation.
The previous day, he finished the photo shoot for this book. For Cantona, 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 spent days coming up with a concept, for him the photo shoot was to be a work of art. Thus, as the conversation starts – in English to spare everyone in earshot the Opus’s embarrassingly impoverished schoolboy French – the first question is about the pictures.
Where did your ideas come from?
I proposed to do it myself, art direct it, and I think it’s a good idea. After that, I started to think about how I could do things. But I don’t want to speak too much about it. It’s important to let the people think about it, have their own interpretation.
Is your time at United something you look back at often?
No, no, not at all. It is in my memories, of course. But I am lucky, I have many things to do, I don’t have time to think, to look back. Besides, I don’t like it when I don’t look forward. I’m afraid of emptiness. Very afraid. I need things in my life, new goals. It was the same when I was a player, I needed goals. Except when you are a player, much is planned for you. You wake up, you go to training. You go to training why? So you can play better. You play better why? So you can have more chances to win trophies. After a career when everything is planned for you, it can be difficult for some players, all that plan is gone. It is difficult if you wake up in the morning wondering what it is you might do. That thought terrifies me.
With a footballer you face that change early in your life. It is all over at 35, all those certainties are in the past. You are on your own…?
Yes, and with me even younger. I gave up early because I don’t want to do anything without passion. For me, that is part of the emptiness. I know some players can play without passion because there is a lot of importance, money for example. But for me, I couldn’t do it without passion. When I felt I had lost the passion, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to stop.
“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”
How hard was it to make the transition to a new career?
I started from zero. But that I enjoyed. It is not easy, because the image of a footballer is so strong it is difficult to get past it. So you have to find a way to get accepted. It isn’t easy at all.
Yes, but being you must open doors. I think if you rang me up and said: ‘Hello it’s Eric Cantona,’ I’d take the call.
Yeah, maybe there is some advantage of coming from a strong past…. But when you do things people can only look at you as you were, the shadow of your past is always there. ‘Ah, you are a footballer’, they think. So it takes a long time to be accepted as something else. But I knew that, I was patient. And now I think I am accepted for what I do now. That is very important for me. I never want to trade on my past.
People would say there can be nothing more passionate than scoring a goal and having the adulation of the crowd. It must be very difficult to replicate that?
It is physical. It is not just about the mind, the memories. Adrenalin is like a drug. It is possible to be addicted. When you don’t have it after having it for 15 years, you miss that adrenalin, like a strong drug. So you have to fight like somebody stopping from taking heroin. I guess. I dunno, I never took heroin, so I only guess. But it is strong. To be famous can be important to some players as well. It is maybe why some former footballers need to be all the time on TV. Maybe they need money, but they are also afraid to be forgotten. Saying that, it’s always better to listen to some ex-footballers speaking about football than to listen to some journalists. Personally, I prefer to do something with passion. I am not afraid to be forgotten.
That’s because you won’t be. It’s easy for you to say that.
No, being popular is not what it is about. Since I was five years old, I really wanted to do things that I am very passionate about. It’s true it was football, which is in front of a lot of people, and now it’s cinema, which is also in front of a lot of people. But it is not only about the ego, I don’t want to be watched for its own sake. I want to be watched only because I am doing something strong. Of course I do not act in my living room, with my family. I want to be watched, but only because I am doing something of value. Being on TV talking about football so that people watch me: that has no interest for me.
When you played football, you were dramatic in everything you did, with the collar up, chest out, the goal celebrations. Were you already an actor?
Yes, yes. I think we are all actors. Going on a pitch in front of people, we act yes. We train to play tactics like people in the theatre rehearse a text. And we perform for an audience. We have to be ready to improvise from the tactics, like actors improvise from a script. People come to judge us on our performance, there are critics. You have a director, you have a manager. Football and theatre, it is a lot the same. But it is about more than this [he gestures putting his collar up].
You were good at it, though. You seemed to command the eye more than anyone else. You demanded we look at you.
Some actors have more presence than others. But we all act.
For you, was football an art?
Yes, of course. You don’t think so?
It can be.
That’s right, it can be. 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.
My response to, say, Estaban Cambiasso’s goal for Argentina in the 2006 World Cup was very similar to my response to a great painting. It cheered me up.
That’s it exactly. Not all football does that. But then not all painting does that either. Take this painting on the wall of the bar here. No, actually that’s not fair, I don’t want to give a judgment on this painting. But you know what I mean: a truly great goal can be compared with a great painting. So it is an art.
The problem with that is football is competitive. Winning ugly can be a virtue, as the Italians would argue. So when you walked on to that football pitch at Old Trafford, were you trying to create art, or were you just trying to win, whatever the cost?
The difficulty is to find the balance. Winning without pleasure I wasn’t interested in. But then you can’t enjoy football if you lose every game. Winning with enjoyment, I love that. It’s very difficult to find that balance, but we found it I think with Manchester. Some clubs they have it in the philosophy. At Manchester it has always been like this. At Madrid the same. But some teams, like Juventus, I don’t think so.
Is that philosophy there in the air? Could you sense it the moment you walked into Old Trafford?
Yeah, for sure. And Alex Ferguson, every time he gave a speech before we played, he would always finish by saying: ‘Enjoy the game’. Just a few words, maybe. But it means a lot.
Is that why it only worked for you at Manchester United?
I was always professional. I don’t think you become a professional footballer without working hard when you are ten years old. I always trained hard. I played my first game for France when I was 21 and I continued to play for my country until I was banned after Crystal Palace. Six or seven years. So I think some people recognised that I had something. No, it didn’t just work for me only at Manchester United – I won things elsewhere. But remember this: the best years for a footballer are between 26 and 30. You are a better footballer then than you were at 18, 21, 24. That was the time I spent at Manchester United. If you start to think a bit, that’s part of the reason.
Do you think that some coaches were afraid of you?
Me, if I don’t feel the environment is good, I didn’t want to be there. I need to feel good. Maybe that is why I had problems before. 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.
Your relationship with the fans at United was unique. When did you realise there was something special going on?
I cannot say there was one moment. For most of the players it began when we won that first championship. Maybe I was the lucky charm, the man who takes the joker in the card game. I won with Leeds before, I come to Manchester and we win.
I think there is something more, but I cannot explain it. And I don’t want to explain it. It’s like love. You know when you are in love, you don’t need to explain how you feel or why you feel like that. I think if you want to explain what was going on between me and the United fans,
it would take a few years. Sometimes it’s better not to explain.
They still sing your name at Old Trafford eight years after you left.
I am afraid about two things: emptiness and the day the fans stop singing my name. Because when you are on the pitch it is great, but when you leave and they still sing your name it is even better. They remember you. One day it will stop. One fan after another, until there’s the last one left who remembers me and sings the song. And his neighbour looks at him as if he is mad and wants him to stop. It will end. But I don’t want it to.
You once said you had to play with a fire in your soul. Yet when you came back after the Palace ban, you were never booked, you never had any problems, you seemed to be able to control that side of your character that had got you into trouble in the past. You played without the fire and yet you were better than ever. How did you do it?
I had time to concentrate, I had nine months to work out how to deal with the provocation that I knew would come. But I only played one and a half years, maybe a bit more, after I came back. With still the same passion, I’m sure if I’d played more, I would have been booked, red carded. I worked hard to be like that for one and a half years. But I hadn’t changed. No, I hadn’t changed. Something would have happened. Nine months without football, you prepare yourself, you tell yourself when you come back, people will provoke you because they know you have a short fuse, so ignore it. But you know, when you say play without fire, I wasn’t as passionate in the last season I played. When you are not passionate, you don’t get so, you know, wound up. You don’t respond to the provocation.
You always seemed to be not so much aloof from what was going on around you as amused. Did you find the hysteria around you ridiculous?
For instance, when you gave the seagulls and trawlers speech, you had to take a sip of water in the middle, and I always thought that was to stop yourself laughing because it was all so ridiculous.
Yeah, I played that moment. It was a drama and I was an actor. I do things seriously without taking myself seriously. I think Nike 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 you realise that life is a circus.
The time you came back, you won 13 games by scoring the winning goal. Did you feel at that time you could achieve anything?
It’s just my position on the pitch. I don’t think I wanted to win any more than Roy Keane or Peter Schmeichel. Strikers score more than the other ones.
But did you always think you could win a game? That you personally could make that difference?
I think it can be an advantage psychologically if you convince yourself before you go out on the pitch that you can win it on your own, yes. I told myself this because I wanted to be confident. But then, the problem is, when you lose, you tell yourself it is your fault. You have told yourself: ‘I am strong enough to win it on my own’. But when you lose, that must prove you are not strong enough. You become frustrated. That’s maybe why sometimes I lost my temper during a game.
We don’t win, it’s hard, you’re mentally tired, in your subconscious maybe you are telling yourself: ‘You’re not good enough. Hey, you told me you could win this and you’re not’. So in frustration, maybe you kick someone. That is the bad thing. But for your confidence you have to believe in yourself. It is all about that balance I was talking about before.
After you came back, did your opponents try to provoke you?
Provocation we always had. Millions of times people say these things, and then one day you don’t accept it. Why? It’s not about words. It’s about how you feel at that moment. One day you react, but the words are exactly the same as those you have heard a million times, so it would take years to say why you react.
So you think that is what happened with Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final?
I think so. He has heard these things thousands of times, but one day it is different. Why? Maybe he is tired, maybe it’s the last day of his career, so he is feeling different. Maybe other things. Or maybe a bit of all those things.
Were you surprised by the reaction to some of the things you did?
I didn’t want to say to myself I am an example. I am not an example. I never felt more important than the people you can meet in the street. Maybe if we analyse it, journalists don’t understand the reaction and so they just say, he shouldn’t do that. He is a bad man. But some journalists can be the ones who make players think they are more important than other people. We are not. We are like in the playground at school.
I respect anyone who deserves respect. But I will not respect someone simply because they represent something. I respect more sometimes the people on the street than the chairman of a club. A man is a man.
Did you ever feel there’s no point carrying on in England, I’m off?
No. Why? It could happen somewhere else just the same. The press is exactly the same everywhere. I play this game because I enjoy it. Just play, I love just playing. But then I think journalists play too sometimes. They help me say to myself that’s life, that’s not serious. One day it’s like this, one day it’s like that, one day you are God, one day the devil. It’s a circus, like I said.
“Even when I kicked a fan it is because I don’t take myself seriously… 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”
Is there anything you can take from football when you act?
Yeah, yeah, because confidence is very important. In the preparation of myself when I was a player and now as an actor, I tell myself it is important to relax.
In both acting and playing, you have to do things like a cat. Have you ever observed a cat? You think he is sleeping but he is always alert to react, every time. For me, that is the image, a cat. I take life like a cat. There is no point being in everyone’s face, trying to prove everything, saying I am the best. Relaxed, but always concentrated. In football, there is no point telling everyone I am the best. If they think that you are, they will show it. The camera is exactly the same. If it wants to take you, it will take you. But if you go to the camera and say, ‘look at me, I am the best’ it will ignore you. In football it is exactly the same: go on to the pitch relaxed, but with everything open, ready to react. Don’t run all over the place. But be ready, so when it’s time to run, you run. Before I receive the ball, I know what I will do with it.
If you are relaxed, you anticipate. If you are tight, you don’t, you worry too much. It is the same in business: if you know before someone says something that he will say it, you are already there. The best in every world has more anticipation than everyone else. When you have anticipation you are not stressed. You have to know what you have to do before the other one.