I am not a man, I am Cantona

“I am not a man, I am Cantona”. Eric Cantona is a legend of English Premier League and Manchester United. Inducted in the Premier League hall of fame, there is hardly  any doubt about his footballing abilities. But there is much more to the man than his footballing heroics. Debojyoti Chakraborty of Goalden Times with the help of some jaw-dropping illustrations by Dan Leydon, explores the man who always lived, and is still living, his life on his own terms and never hesitates  to pour his heart out.

There are footballers who are being worshiped as God. There are legends whose statues are built and followers pay their tribute there. But there are not many who find themselves immortalised in the English literature. The number is even less – to be precise, the number is only one – for his lines to be quoted by someone from Hollywood. That’s exactly what happened when controversial US actor Shia LaBeouf stormed out of a news conference in February last year, not before what is henceforth known as, doing a Cantona.

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.

A gnomic utterance, as described in the Brit dictionary, finds its place as something that is short, mysterious, and not easily understood, but often seems wise. Well wise it must be to be uttered after a couple of decades later, in a different continent, by a person as alienated to the sport as vegetarians are from beef ribs.

The man whose quote was used here, Eric Cantona has also inspired Dan Leydon, an Ireland based illustrator  specializing in football and portraiture. There are not many who dedicate their lives towards illustration of football’s iconic images; Dan is one such man. A majority of Dan’s work revolves around football where he puts in his knowledge about the beautiful game to its maximum use. His artworks have been used for Nike’s social media campaign, for a studio to develop their last World Cup ad campaign. He has also conceptualized LA Galaxy artwork for Gerrard’s transfer, Graham Hunter’s award winning Barcelona book and its follow up about the Spanish national team. More of his works can be found here.

Dan has also devoted four years of his creative life to illustrate Eric Cantona’s colorful life through his drawings. To start off with, he had drawn Cantona’s face in 57 different ways over a few days and finally decided to freeze the minimal look. Quite remarkable, isn’t it? We shall peep into his genius works throughout this piece and reveal the marvels of his illustrations.

Cantona’s iconic quote through Dan’s imagination
Cantona’s iconic quote through Dan’s imagination

A quick glance towards his roots and it is not difficult to understand Cantona’s unsettled yet alluring, unconventional but  scintillating life. He was born in a family of immigrants and throughout his life Eric was – or is, still – searching for the correct avenue to express himself. Born to a painter father and Catalan separatist mother, talent was in abundance and in multi-faceted form in him.

Cantona started as a shot stopper, inspired by his father’s short-lived career on the green field, and used to spend his evenings with his two brothers kicking puckered newspapers in their bedroom where the beds doubled up as goalposts. Gradually his natural creative instincts forced him to play higher up the pitch and eventually he became one of the most feared forwards of his era. Cantona though had a logic of his own to play as a striker. People often judge the quality of a player by numbers only – goals scored or assists provided. So it is really difficult to prove the worth of a goalkeeper or defender by the help of numbers. So, that was that – Cantona decided to become a striker!

 From a very young age, it was evident that Cantona was not going to be remembered as just a footballer. He never followed the rules, idiosyncracy prevailed,  inevitably, he found an uncanny pleasure in creating his own methods. Such unpredictability coupled with the enigmatic genius like that of a poet on the footballing pitch made him the darling of the ardent admirers. Others, mostly skeptical about his true intentions, tried to logically deduce his frantic actions, movements on and off the pitch  He polarized millions like very few footballers have done. He was, like any other creative person, a mystical footballing prodigy, enshrouded  in enigma.

His love affair with controversy started at the tender age of 21 when he gave a black eye to Bruno Martini, his senior teammate from Auxerre. He would go on to improve his record the following year by giving a taste of his  assassin tackle to Nantes’ Michel Der Zakarian. You would be amazed to see his reaction after the tackle – something like a child admitting to a rush of blood and surrendering to punishment, which came in the form of three-month suspension. Auxerre rebelled for their jewel and got the ban reduced by a month. Cantona responded to the leniency of French football federation by playing a key role en route to winning the EFA European Under-21 Football Championship, their only championship win till date.

Such was Cantona’s precarious talent, that he was given his senior national team debut even before this, in August 1987 against West Germany under erstwhile manager Henri Michel. But barely a year later, poor Henri felt the wrath of his emotional outburst. After being dropped in September 1988, Cantona referred to him as a “bag of shit” in a post-match TV interview. Michel banned him indefinitely from all international matches. Cantona was not one to take the punishment lying down – he vowed to never play for France till Henri Michel was in charge.

Auxerre got their due for standing by their prized possession through thick and thin in the summer of 1988. Eric Cantona, a hardcore Marseille fan was transferred to the club of his dreams for a then national record fee. Almost 15 years after witnessing the magnetic atmosphere in the Vélodrome, perched on his father’s shoulders, Eric now had the chance to reconstruct the same buzz all over again – this time with the ball at his feet and 50,000 spectators eager to be treated. But his emotions again got the better of him. During a friendly game against Torpedo Moscow, he was frustrated at his substitution. So how would one react? Just kick the ball into the crowd before taking off your shirt and throwing it on the ground in utter disgust. That is, if you are a certain Eric Cantona.

The dream was becoming a nightmare for the boyhood Marseille fan. Fines, bans and suspensions continued but who cares! Never did he shy away from expressing himself and thus an unyielding Eric gave the newspapers a reason to make a living out of him. The shirt-ripping incident handed him a month-long ban. Cantona responded by disappearing from public eye all of a sudden, Fed up with his antics, Marseille managed to convince Barcelona for a transfer deal. But as luck would have it, the then Barcelona manager, and Cantona’s boyhood idol, legendary Johan Cruyff backed out at the last moment in favor of his protégée and fellow countryman Marco Van Basten.  Basten did not come but by then it was too late for Cantona. And we are left with the thought what if Cantona had gone to Catalunya! A potential  tempestuous love story that never took place!

But Marseille had had enough of Cantona. They offloaded him to Bordeaux on a six-month loan. Bordeaux was desperate for a saviour amidst a disastrous season and they thought their messiah had arrived. It was February 1989, Bordeaux was in the penalty shoot out in Coupe de France against Beauveais, a Second Division team.

Stage was set for Cantona as he stepped up to take the final shot. Cool dude that Cantona was, he first juggled with the ball, placed it on the mark and then went for an atrocious panenka. The kick was so feeble that the goalkeeper even after going in the wrong  direction could turn back and stop it. Things that bloopers are made of!

The shocking penalty kick
The shocking penalty kick

Cantona’s Bordeaux stint was over and he  started a fresh search for his new home. His next stop was Montpellier on a year-long loan. It did not take long for the disturbed  kid; he was still only 23, to get into another trouble. After losing to Lille, Cantona got involved in a fight with teammate Jean-Claude Lemoult and threw his boots towards Lemoult’s face. The hapless owner Loulou Nicollin could only lament:

“…this is the first time one of my players has hit a teammate. It’s serious, it’s unacceptable – you’re fired.”

The ban was short lived as several team mates including Laurent Blanc and Carlos Valderrama were instrumental in getting him back in to the team. Cantona went to win Coupe de France with Montpellier and Marseille thought of trying him out once again. But the cracks in this marriage were already too wide to be hidden. Cantona had his fair share of problems with chairman Bernard Tapie and new coach Raymond Goethals. A league title also could not heal the wounds and finally in 1991-92, Cantona was transferred to Nîmes …. to ignite a fresh controversy!

Cantona was a proud man and naturally he was not very happy to move to an average club like Nîmes. He was seriously considering  calling it a day even at a tender age of 25 and his frustration spilled all over creating a mess. In December 1991, having been infuriated by the referee’s decision during a match he threw the ball at the referee. Cantona was charged of misconduct and was summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the French Football Federation following a one-month ban. Cantona appeared for the hearing and let everyone hear him. He walked up to each member of the hearing committee one by one and called him an idiot. His ban was increased to two months. Cantona had seen enough, he was not motivated at all and he responded by announcing his retirement from football on 16th December 1991.

Cantona, however brat he was, was not a fool. He had grown up in the house of a psychiatrist and he himself was consulting a psychoanalyst to control his emotional outburst. This is when one of the great footballers and administrators of modern era, Michel Platini lent a helping hand. On his and the psychoanalyst’s advice, Cantona decided to move away from France where he had gathered such a bad reputation and looked for opportunities elsewhere. But it was mid ‘90s and the world was no longer a big place.

The signature turned up collar of Cantona, by Dan Leydon
The signature turned up collar of Cantona, by Dan Leydon

 Cantona was rejected by many English clubs due to his notorious past and it was more of an accident that he found himself in Manchester United in January 1993.

Cantona played a key role in the reincarnation of the myth that is Manchester United today. His turned up collar gave him a cult hero status at the city of Manchester. And in his own words, it just happened – it was a cold day, the collar was up, it felt a little warmer, Manchester won the match and so the legend was born! Cantona became an important figure in the renaissance of the best-decorated club in modern English football, as is the gaffer, Sir Alex Ferguson. Today, he is very rightly hailed as a legend at the club, King Cantona, he is fondly known as. But there is much more to Cantona than Old Trafford There is Selhurst Park.

King Cantona, by Dan Leydon
King Cantona, by Dan Leydon

On 25 January 1995, in an away match against Crystal Palace, the referee had sent off Cantona for a kick on Palace defender Richard Shaw after Shaw had pulled his shirt. A Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, had run down 11 rows of stairs to confront and shout abuse at Cantona while he was exiting towards the tunnel. Cantona did not oblige. He believed that he should not be confronted only because he was a footballer. Things do happen on the pitch, but that does not mean that they should happen. Footballers should not be subject to abuse.

Cantona launched his infamous kung-fu kick towards Simmons and followed that with a series of punches. The incident is still labeled as the most violent behavior a footballer has inflicted upon a spectator. Cantona was punished mercilessly. Criminal charge of assault, two-week of prison sentence which later got converted to 120 hours of community service, fine of £20,000 and ban for rest of the season by Manchester United, an increased ban till September 1995 for any game worldwide and a further £10,000 by Football Association citing the incident as “a stain on our game” – the fines and suspensions just poured in. Manchester United eventually lost the Premier League title, Cantona lost his national team captaincy and was never ever called up by France. Ever since the incident  took place more than two decades ago, it has prompted never-ending media coverage, psychological analyses and protests from vehement football fans to crucify a footballer perceived as felonious and treacherous.

The roar and the reaction, brilliantly put together by Dan Leydon
The roar and the reaction, brilliantly put together by Dan Leydon

Fans did support him though. They travelled from Manchester, in the middle of the week, to Croydon for the hearing. Cantona was not someone to take it lying down.

He was beaten, but he did not lose the battle. He called for a press conference and uttered the following in his unique slow and deliberate posture:

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.

That was all! Cantona then stood up, did not wait for anyone to get the hang of things, and quickly made an exit leaving a room full of dumbfounded and bemused people behind.

Dan's illustration about Cantona's psyche
Dan’s illustration about Cantona’s psyche

 That quote at the conference summed up the stormy relationship he shared with the British media, notorious for interfering in celebrities’ personal lives.  It was his signature style of accusing the press of persistently dissecting his actions and thwarting his freedom of expression. On the other hand, there were some who denied Cantona the tag of a deep thinking philosopher and rather accused him of plagiarism from the work of a little known French philosopher. Michael Kelly, the former head of security at Manchester United, went even further in his book and claimed that the quotation had been put together by a number of people in a London hotel room to fabricate a sympathetic image for the man. Whatever it is, Eric Cantona, the enigma was engraved in history forever.

This even inspired our friend Dan Leydon, who has numerous applaud-worthy illustrations to his credit, for his best creation till date – the ‘Cantona and Seagull’ portrait (shown above). Leydon expresses his satisfaction with his work that subtly captures Cantona’s most famous quote – especially the illustration of the most standout feature on his face, the eyebrow. The portrait is not gloomy or serious; rather it carries a certain coolness which football fans will be able to connect with. Undoubtedly, the entire series is quite awesome, but this single piece would have been worth the effort. The satire is presented in such a minimalistic way, even King Cantona might fall in love with it!

Later Cantona admitted that emotions got the better of him and he had lost it in the spur of the moment. But mischievous as he is, reaffirmed afterwords,  that it was a dream come true for the fans as they don’t get to see such actions everyday in a football ground.

“…it’s like a dream for some, you know sometimes to kick these kind of people. So I did it for [the fans]. So they are happy. It’s a kind of freedom for them.”

Cantona confessed that it was a mistake but he stood by his actions – he even expressed his regrets for not punching the man harder, considering the kind of abuses he was using that day! Take it or leave it, but that is the man Cantona is. In his own words, “There’s a fine line between freedom and chaos.”

And he moved on. Beyond football, but certainly not far away from the limelight. He was not a person to dwell on his past – he was very  conscious not to become a captive of his own memories, his past. A past that he cherishes, a past that allowed him to get paid for what he would rather himself have paid – playing football. A free spirited person, always eager to break the shackles, Cantona set his sight on beach football, acting and raising social awareness.

Cantona - a true Rock star, conceived by Dan Leydon
Cantona – a true Rock star, conceived by Dan Leydon

 Very few have embraced the green pitch with equal charisma as the center stage of an opera. Very few characters from the footballing field have full series video games launched about their on field heroics. Very few have been so omnipresent in commercials two decades after retirement from professional football.  So much so that they do not hesitate to strip naked (almost) for the cover of a magazine! Probably only one person ticks all the boxes – the Enigmatic Eric, the Charismatic Cantona.

Two diverse avatars - Eric the troubled soul vs. Cantona the magician, by Dan Leydon
Two diverse avatars – Eric the troubled soul vs. Cantona the magician, by Dan Leydon