Eric Cantona was already a Premier League legend when he spoke to Loaded for the magazine’s very first issue back in May 1994.
Fresh from Manchester United’s second title win in two years, the mercurial Frenchman sat down to discuss his love of English fans, his hatred for then-France manager Henri Michel and his plans for after football.
Words by Bernard Bale
The words flow easily when the name of Eric Cantona gets an airing, be it in the blue-grey haze of the pub or the sharp chill air of the football stadium. One thing that’s never said is “Eric who?”. Cantona arrived at Leeds United from France in January 1992, with a reputation resembling that of a teenage hoodlum let off a murder charge on a technicality. He helped Leeds win the Premier League title before being controversially sold by Howard Wilkinson to Manchester United, where he inspired the Red Devils to win their first title in 26 years.
Cantona has not just hit the headlines. He has positively mugged them – stealing adjectives, expletives and column inches from the Sun to L ‘Equipe. Women dream about him, soccer managers have nightmares about him and goalkeepers fall at his feet – too late.
Why? He responds with a Gallic shrug, perfectly in unison with his raised eyebrows. The upturned collar of his expensive overcoat lifts as if in agreement. But there are words to follow – about the fans that he genuinely loves.
“They are very special. English fans are very different from those in any other country. Here the supporters have a need to touch their idols, to speak to them and express themselves. It took me a little while to get used to that. But you can feel their love and I want to return it.”
Love plays an important part in the life of the enigmatic Frenchman. He loves his family, he loves art, the English countryside, animals and hunting (shooting on the Yorkshire moors) – a contradiction in terms perhaps. Again, the indifferent shrug needs no subtitle.
It is difficult to imagine this is the same man who once stormed away from the French international squad after telling his bosses that they didn’t have the brains of a baguette. Imagine David Platt squaring up to Telboy in such a fashion as this: “I will never play for France again as long as Henri Michel is manager,” blasted Cantona. “I would like it to be known that I think he is one of the most incompetent managers in world football. I am not far from thinking he is a shitbag.”
What is Eric the Brat’s verdict on Michel today? He hasn’t changed his views. “Perhaps I was stupid to say those things, but a young man has a right to rebel. Many people took the opportunity to shoot at me then and since. I don’t attach any importance to what people say about me at my expense. You need a particular talent only to want to please all the time. I don’t have that talent.”
But a soccer talent he does have. Countless words have been written about him as the “inspiration” of the current all-conquering Manchester United team. “If I’ve done well, it is because the others have done well too,” he says. “We have enjoyed what we have achieved so far but more important is what we are going to achieve. I’m very happy at Manchester United and I feel I am going to stay here for a very long time. I’ve always felt that a player reaches his peak between 27 and 30 and I have three years to achieve that. I believe that I still have improvements to make and much to offer.
“This is the best team I have ever played in over a spell of matches. We are all capable of playing entertaining and exciting football and I take great satisfaction from that. When I score goals it must be remembered that the team is with me and helping me score – so the team scores the goals even though it is Cantona on the score sheet.
“I am often man-marked now, but I take it as a great compliment and it just makes me play in a different way. It makes it easier for the rest of the team because I can take that man all over the field and leave gaps for everyone else.”
He also draws strength from United’s legions of fans. “I cannot say how important the United fans are to me. They are one of the reasons why I continue to do what I am doing. They make me very happy and when I’m happy I perform. After all, everyone loves to be loved.”
Cantona inspires others, but from where does he draw his own inspiration? What has sculpted this charismatic character?
“I have always had idols, just like anyone else I identify with many people. I like to study people of all sorts and learn from them. The images of the poet Rimbaud had a great influence on me.”
Which certainly beats Lionel Richie and Phil Collins. When he was at Leeds one journalist misheard “Rimbaud” for “Rambo” and as a result hundreds of Sylvester Stallone pictures were sent by Eric’s “Ooh Aah!” army of adoring fans.
“Street football was the birthplace of the big names. The walls were our stadium, the game our liberty.”
All of Eric’s heroes were characters of strong individuality and flair: “[The French folk singer] Les Ferre sang of rebellion and that inspired the anarchist in me. Marlon Brando also appealed to my natural instinct to be different.”
Perhaps that need to be different, to be set apart, was born out of his early years in a strong family unit, where the individual gave way to the good of the family. He was brought up in Caillols, in a house that was built on top of a cave originally inhabited by his Sardinian grandfather Joseph and grandmother Lucienne. Grandpa Joseph was another boyhood hero and is still addressed with deep reverence and affection. His family was a stronghold of traditional values; whatever was on the table was to be shared by all. He discovered football at a very early age.
“The local Caillols club provided football from the age of five, but there was also street football, the birthplace of most of the big names of soccer. Garage doors were our goals, there was a sense of freedom. The walls were our stadium, the game our liberty.
“My football heroes were men like Skoblar and Magnusson, both stars in the Marseille team – our Manchester United of that time. I also dreamed of playing football alongside other stars of my teens – Cruyff, Repp, even Maradona.
“When I was a boy I usually played in goal. Now my son Raphael is very interested in football and his hero is Peter Schmeichel. Raphael will probably play in goal as well, but who knows what will happen. Perhaps he will only play for fun and do something else for work.”
A huge poster of Bruce Lee adorned Eric’s childhood bedroom wall – “He expressed so much, he was so famous, so talented, so tragic.” The young Eric was also fascinated by colours. His father, Albert, used to let him play in his workshop, a room that had a unique odour of paint and a kaleidoscope of wonderful, colourful images. Albert had a passion for painting. His own hero was Van Gogh. “I was captivated from childhood. That workshop and the things in it mean so much to me, I still visit it sometimes. I grew up eagerly sharing my father’s delight in both hunting and painting, his two favourite pastimes.”
His favourite painters include Auguste Chabaud, Nicolas de Stael and he has a special rapport with Pierre Ambrogiani. (Don’t ask us – Ed.) “Looking at the pictures of Ambrogiani, I see the beauty of those vivid and sometimes violent colours of Provence and its sky. When Ambrogiani died a page closed on my childhood.”
But there was another hero in Eric’s life, his schoolteacher Celestin Oliver. He was a former football international and played a big part in providing the world with Cantona’s genius. “Without doubt it was he who discovered that I had a driving need for success. He was the first one to convince me that my strength was not just as a footballer. He pushed me towards victory without betraying the beautiful game of football.”
Cantona’s clouds of glory have had leaden linings of dressing room punch-ups, rows with the establishment, outbursts on the field, stampings on Swindon midfielders, ripping off of shirts and baring of souls. Even now there are claims and counter-claims about his acrimonious departure from Leeds. If you believed all the ridiculous rumours flying around the street Eric punched all his former colleagues and shagged most of their wives to boot. However Leeds captain, Gary McAllister, recently told The Guardian, that there was absolutely no truth in any of the rumours. So despite the headlines how does the talented rebel enjoy a quiet family life with his wife Isabelle and their son Raphael?
“I was brought up to realise the importance of my family. Isabelle enjoys her work teaching French at Leeds University and my son Raphael speaks better English than I do. We enjoy our time together. I live in a nice part of Leeds where I can also enjoy the English countryside. I feel very at home here.”
But there is a taste of home not too far away, a brasserie in Leeds called Leodis. It is one of Eric’s favourite hang-outs and the management love to see him. They do their best to treat him like a mortal but are also more than willing to accommodate his little quirk of wanting to pay the bill in Francs.
So are there things about France that he really misses? “France is my family home and I go back there often, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for business, but I have never turned my back on my country.”
The business is not just football. He eagerly accepted the chance to model for Paco Rabanne. “It was an interesting experience. I do not think it would ever be my career, but it was very enjoyable and I like the clothes very much.” Rather thought he might: Eric is not the ‘Man at C&A’ type. “I dress as I please. I do not shop anywhere special or for anything special. If I see what I like I buy it.”
Cantona’s a spontaneous person and so are his likes and dislikes. He will rarely discuss his favourite things simply because he has such unspecified tastes. He likes what he likes at that time. At the moment, he seems to like getting sent off. Ask him why French rock ‘n’ roll is so uneventful and he will share the world’s disinterest. Give him a string of famous names to consider and he’ll look at his watch. He doesn’t read books about football – psychology yes, poetry yes, animals maybe. Football, no, although he will glance through the odd magazine.
“I cannot say how important the United fans are to me. After all, everyone loves to be loved.”
His own book Cantona – My Story is a bestseller even without him being paraded on the Anne and Nick shoe or GMTV – possibly to avoid another shirt-throwing incident. It’s a good book, honest and to the point. It epitomises the man who sees himself as an adopted Englishman and plans to be around for some time, nullifying the claims that his wanderlust and explosive temperament will soon see him buying a one-way ticket from Manchester.
“I feel really at home here. I love the game, above all in England. I really thought I would not play football again, but my career was changed completely by coming here, I did not really know what to expect. On the continent, they say that the English are cold and reserved, but they are not. The English like to laugh. They like to tell jokes. I’ve been surprised, I like the English. And then there’s the whole lifestyle that surrounds football here. I like the people in general, the way they welcome you in the streets.”
Cantona is even thinking of staying in England when he hangs up his boots and spending his time in his own workshop full of paintings and poetry. By then he will be able to do without the help of his friend and translator George Scanlon.
“I like a challenge, and one of the reasons I’m still in England is the challenge of learning the language. I don’t want it to be over too soon.”
Eric doesn’t look too far ahead, He wants to savour every moment of his current life with its hero-worship and family security: “I am a family man and Manchester United have made me feel part of their huge family. It is a very cosmopolitan team, English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Danish, Ukrainian and French. There is a fraternal link that makes us one united family.”
But he knows that one day his son will probably analyse him just as he still analyses his own grandfather, Joseph. “One day he will look at me and say: ‘Tell me then you didn’t waste your time and in all the things you did and all the places you went and all the things that happened, you were yourself.’ And I shall be able to answer yes.”