Idle Idol – Eric Cantona
Eric Cantona, says ROBERT NEWMAN, has always taken on the system and won. Which is what makes him a great idol for our times.
From Idler issue 8, February – March 1995
Eric Cantona once said that for him football was a spontaneous art form. I wasn’t so sure at the time. (He was playing against Sheffield United that day, and it was, as always at Brammal Lane, difficult to discern any meaning.) But now I am sure. Eric’s scuffle is like a Situationist art thing, in that it shows how bizarrely removed the media is from ordinary people’s perception of things.
(Ed: Eric had recently been banned from playing for the remainder of that season following the ‘Kung Fu’ incident at Selhurst park. Eric took issue with a fans response to his sending off, diving feet first into him in the crowd, as with everything Eric did with his feet, it was accurate and powerful, but not strictly within the rules. It turned out that the ‘victim’ had been shouting racist abuse and spitting at the enigmatic frenchman throughout the game.)
You, me, and anyone else we know thinks that what Eric Cantona did was brilliant. You, me and anyone else we know thinks it was exciting and the highlight of the season.
It was, to the vast majority of people, one of those events that make it worth trekking to a friend’s house to watch the game on Sky.
The Guardian, however, led with “The Shame of Cantona”. Today had “shamed Cantona”…well, in fact they all did. The disgrace-mongers’ account, though, bears no relation to what we actually saw happen at the Palace ground (a ground which some know as Selhurst Park, others as simply the Moral Low-Ground).
Firstly the “foul” on Richard Shaw of Palace. Shaw had been tugging and clambering and elbowing Eric for the whole game. I’m sure that Eric Cantona would approve of illustrating why he shouldn’t have been sent off by paraphrasing from Andr?� Maurois’ biography of Disraeli: “[Richard Shaw] reminds us of the puppy yelping under the pain of a kick from some strong-limbed horse, at whose heels he has been snapping and snarling for miles.”
So too Matthew Simmons the Palace fan, running down 14 rows in his British Movement chic. Ah if only you could – as Richard Shaw tried to – smother those with more talent and wit than you – then what a happy land it would be for Matthew Simmons!! Black tie, white shirt. Black leather jacket zipped up. (A bit like the Schutzstaffel except he couldn’t get one without elasticated cuffs.) Top button of white shirt fastened. (at a match! How he must have hated Eric’s turned-up collar.) Military grey trousers.
“I’m suing him,” yelps Simmons. Oh you brave fascist. Did Lewis Rajanayagam sue you after you attacked him with a three-foot spanner?
And let’s look at Cantona’s “Kung Fu” kick. One: it’s aimed at the chest, not the head or throat. Two: by the time Eric has sailed over the hoarding, he’d need mid-air refuelling before being able to do anything other than shove Simmons with his foot – which was, of course, all he was trying to do.
The papers all spoke of the shock and horror on the faces of the bystanders. On page 48 of Friday’s Today, I notice an old fella laughing with his hands in the air, a boy grinning, a girl smiling, and another girl mouthing something like “Cor” or “Lumme!” Now that’s entertainment!
I’ve always hated that “bringing the game into disrepute” argument. It’s our game, not theirs. And originally our game was five-hundred-a-side played between two towns with a pig’s bladder as a celebration of those times when food was plentiful enough not to have to eat pigs’ bladders. Seven people died or were maimed at every game, and exact figures for incidents of “disrepute” were not recorded.
It’s the people’s game. And on Wednesday the people saw a lippy fascist give it the big ‘un and get twatted as a result. That’s it. END OF STORY. But not for the people whose business is stories.
John Ley in the Telegraph (which I bought because it had the best picture of the kick) criticised Cantona’s “disregard for authority.” Eric Cantona was raised in Marseilles which was, only as many years before his birth as since Palace last won anything, ruled by the Vichy regime. The Cantona gypsy blood could have got grandp?�re, maman, papa, Nicole and all sent to the death camps by order of Vichy “authority.” Now he plays for the Manchester of Peterloo, the Manchester of black and Irish immigration, of the Lancashire cotton mills and of that New Order Greatest Hits Collection which is just like the one they had out a few years ago. In La Philosophie de Cantona Eric says: “I feel close to the rebelliousness and the vigour of the youth here.” Sans blague! You need a healthy disregard for authority in the town of God’s Cop.
Henry Winter in the same paper wrote: “The speed of the FA’s response is to be lauded. Too many youngsters follow Cantona’s every move…his horrific response…should be punished.”
Eric Cantona is a great idol for any kid: a Frenchman who fights fascists! And he looks like a cross between Travis Bickle or Keith Moon. That passion, that individuality! His career has been a heroic battle of the individual against the system, here symbolised by an individual throwing himself at a crowd. A friend of mine described Eric Cantona as a have-to-go hero. Exactement, mon copain.
Henry Winter wrote that “Ferguson would be failing a great club” if he didn’t punish Eric severely. No he wouldn’t. Quite the reverse. George Best was failed by United when Docherty didn’t defend that great player’s individuality. Alec Ferguson would be failing a great club if he didn’t rectify that debt of shame from 20 years ago, by defending today’s individual genius, Cantona, against the forces of cant and prurient hypocrisy. Because that’s what it is, isn’t it? “Let’s see that disgusting scuffle once more before the break, viewers. Shocking. Back soon.”
Did you see Pat Crerand on the BBC news, though? He refused to go along with any of that cant. This stubborn Scots non-conformist pointed out that Palace fans had been throwing things at Eric all game. (If people were shouting and spitting at Gielgud, and he had dived in, would the BBC use the same scandalised tones? No. It would’ve been: “An ashen-faced, still visibly shaken Sir John Gielgud made a brief press statement today: ‘I’m sorry dears. I may have lost it briefly, but the cunt called my mum a slag.’”)
At first I thought this was a tragedy for Cantona, like Paul Newman at then end of The Hustler. Destroyed by a man in grey trousers and men in grey suits. But now I don’t know. Cantona’s always taken on officialdom and won hasn’t he? “France you won’t pick me – OK, you don’t go to the World Cup. Sheffield Wednesday? You want another weeks’ trial? From moi? Languish at the bottom of the table for all eternity. Leeds – I won the league for you and now you want me to go? OK, let me just pack success in my bag. Now, can you show me Lancashire on this Michelin road map please? S’ank you. ” Sank you indeed.
He’s always taken on the system and won and maybe he will again. Maybe it won’t be a tragedy for him. For instance, this harsh treatment might be the only way he could ever leave his beloved Man U and still have their love. (Fans are fickle. Arsenal fans even chant “Where’s your Arsenal reject” at Michael Thomas who won the league for them. I know it’s partly a gag when they chant it at him but only for those in the irony seats.)
It will always be a tragedy for those of us in Britain who loved to see him play, and for Man U fans especially, but there’s comfort in the thought that it might not be a tragedy for Cantona. The Telegraph’s Henry Winter, of all people, hints how this might be.
“Ferguson must avoid leniency even if it does provoke the Parisien [sic] to pack his bags and continue his nomadic, eventful odyssey around Europe.”
Pack his bags and continue his nomadic, eventful odyssey: Hey it sounds just like Kwi Chang Cain in Kung Fu.