Oooh, aaaaah … Manchest-ar!
Way back in the mists of time (otherwise known as the late 1980s and early 1990s) I was a student living in Manchester absorbing a lot of that excellent city’s life, culture and … not inconsiderable precipitation.
At the risk of descending into Manc cliché, there was: whistle-blowing house music madness at the Hacienda; decent curry restaurants in Rusholme and Fallowfield; bands at the Boardwalk or the University Student’s Union (including the mighty Felt!); cheap plays at the Contact or Library theatres; films and drinking at the Cornerhouse; and a lot of time sitting in libraries and then traipsing back to various rented places in south Manchester (including getting mugged one night). Yes, it was all happening. Most of it good and not all of it - I hope - an over-privileged student’s life with little commitment to the locale.
Anyway, my eight years in Manchester overlapped with a certain Eric Cantona’s time in the city, knocking in the goals and puffing out his chest for Manchester United. I recall one of my student mates’ mates (drunkenly, expansively) extolling Cantona’s virtues. He still played for Leeds but he was becoming a much-praised player. And then his MUFC days were … well, they were “legendary”. Apparently.
Meanwhile, fast-forward to the present and the Cantona legend shows no sign of diminishing. His new documentary film on football in Brazil is showing at Amnesty's football film festival in Hackney in east London soon, and I understand that the screening is already sold out and journalists are clamouring (without success) to interview the great man. Pourquoi? Could it be that he’s got that extra something - a hinterland, a would-be intellectual edge or whatever - that makes him stand out in the not-always-very-characterful world of football and post-football punditry? C’est possible, non?
Anyway before I come back to what might make King Eric tick, I’ll quickly detour back through these ten goals. Ten of his best? Take a look. They’re all good of course, but numbers four and one are my picks. Great midfield control and skill in #1 (and he’s sporting his superior shaven-headed look). Gazza-like ball skills in #4, though poorly served in this clip’s un-atmospheric quality. Incidentally, isn’t the very good chip for #3 offside when Giggs passes it through? Or is the filming angle especially deceiving here? Je ne sais pas.
So, having re-affirmed the fact that the man could play football (64 goals in 143 Man Utd appearances is an excellent strike rate, if not in the uber-league of Denis Law, Tommy Taylor, David Herd, Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Joe Cassidy), what else distinguishes Mr Cantona? Surely it’s his unpredictable “hinterland” quality. Like Pat Nevin - who used to pop up on the John Peel show talking about indie bands - any high-level footballer who can break out of this highly-defined, much-cossetted role is already interesting. Cantona just takes it further.
Cantona’s strutting hauteur on the field often suggested personal arrogance but in fact his present sympathies seem to be very much with football’s underdogs. Talking about his Rio film, Cantona repeatedly regrets that favela-dwelling Brazilians can’t even afford expensive 2014 World Cup tickets, while he lambasts Qatar for hosting the 2022 World Cup on the back of mass migrant labour.
Could it be that Cantona’s sympathies are with the poor of Brazil or the exploited migrant workers of Qatar because of his own family background? His maternal grandfather was a Spanish immigrant injured fighting Franco’s forces during the Spanish civil war and his paternal grandfather was an immigrant stonemason from Sardinia. And the Cantona family home in Caillols near Marseilles was, rather incredibly, originally a cave (once used as a look-out post by occupying Nazi forces during the Second World War) that his grandfather extended into a proper house.
OK, c’est tout. I’ll stop searching for Eric’s special qualities (his différence). There are plenty of other people who’ve already tried this. As we go into extra time here I’ll just note that Cantona says that only 50% of an outstanding footballer’s success rests on their actual ability, and that instead he says footballing greatness is 50% a “mental” matter.
Cantona, for all his faults, flying kung-fu kicks and all, is perhaps finally quite a brave person who tries to deploy his other 50% as much as possible. Brave enough, at least, to try a few different things (a back-heel or a new “self-important” venture) and risk falling flat on his face. And when at the end of the Rio trailer he says “If I can say it, I say it. And I don’t care about … anything” - you … kind of believe him.
Hang on, the ref’s about to blow! Final thought: I think they should put Cantona’s Rio film on at Manchester’s Cornerhouse. It’ll give the latest generation of Manchester students something to do when they’re not drinking in Fallowfield. A la santé.
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