Eric Cantona

Full name: Éric Daniel Pierre Cantona
Date of birth: 24/05/1966

Has there ever been a more ‘French’ Frenchman in football than Eric Cantona? He is perhaps one of the most iconic men to have ever played the game – a loose canon on and off the pitch, with his tall frame balanced by finesse, flair and skill the like the English game had never seen before. Ooh Ahh said fans of Cantona and he certainly gave them something to ooh and ahh about.


Biography

So the Nike advert goes, Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona was born in a big year for English football, 1966. His parents moved from Paris to the south in Marseille, where Eric began to hone his love of the beautiful game. His father was a huge influence on him and pretty soon Eric was attracting the spying eyes of the talent-scouting clubs, who took boys as professionals at only 14.

In 1981, when Eric was 15, he joined the Auxerre youth team. There he was spotted by the French national youth team too, but Eric had to do his duty to France in more ways than football back then. The time had come for him to complete his year of national service in the army.

Eric completed his stint but kept up the football throughout and went straight to Auxerre upon his return and right into their first team. After a promising period with Auxerre, a bout of illness led to him being dropped before going to Martigues on loan and then in 1988 to Marseille. Eric remained at Marseille until 1991, but during this period he was loaned to a couple of other clubs before finally being taken by Nimes in 1991.

The fires of the Frenchman’s belly were starting to bubble up. His temper on the pitch, which had been a huge part of his rocky eight years in French football, now made him a trouble-maker at Nimes and it was French legend Michel Platini who suggested Eric should move to the more aggressive game over the English Channel.

Calais to Dover…to Yorkshire

Eric was going to sign for Sheffield Wednesday but it was rival Yorkshire club Leeds United who nabbed the Frenchman. He became a vital part of the Leeds side that won the last ever 1st Division before it became the Premier League in 1991/92. As Platini predicted, Cantona enjoyed the English ethos and discovered quite the goalscoring touch for the Whites, none more so than in the 1992 Charity Shield, where he bagged a hat-trick against rivals Liverpool.

Sadly Leeds Utd failed to cut it in the new Premier League in the following season and their beloved French star Cantona left the club in Nov 1992 and joined giants of the English game Manchester United for what would become one of the biggest bargains in football – only £1.2 million. Man Utd needed a goal scorer and in Cantona they certainly got that.

The number 7 shirt

It’s questionable whether the complete dominance Man Utd had on the English game in the nineties would have been possible had it not been for ooh ahh Cantona. He appeared in 143 games for the Red Devils between 1992-97 with a fine return of 84 goals. He made an explosive start at Old Trafford and, in the first two seasons arriving from Leeds, Eric helped United win the next two league titles, the FA Cup and picked up the individual reward of 1994 PFA Player of the Year.

His skill was immense and the partnerships he had with wingers such as Ryan Giggs and fellow striker Mark Hughes made United an unstoppable force. But it wasn’t long before those fires were ignited once again and an incident at Crystal Palace in January 1995 would become a defining moment in the man’s entire career.

Not everybody was Kung Fu fighting

Fan abuse directed at players is the norm, but Cantona took issue with a certain Matthew Simmons at Crystal Palace. Finally snapping after being sent off, Cantona would deliver the most infamous kick in football, directed at Simmons. Cantona received a year long ban and 120 hours of community-service for assault. United consequently lost the league title to Blackburn that year.

Press speculated that Eric would be sold after this incident but manager Sir Alex Ferguson had faith in his star Frenchman and he was rewarded for his belief. Eric returned to form and he scored on his first game back against Liverpool. Manchester United went on to win the league title that year again.

Cantona helped United to 6 out of 7 league titles as well as numerous other cup wins. However in 1997 Eric announced his early retirement aged only 30. It came as a surprise to everyone but Eric. He simply felt he had archived enough so he hung up his boots and turned down his collar.

Man Utd 1 – 0 France

Cantona’s international playing career remains a mystery. His club form was never replicated for his nation. His debut was way back in 1987 but it wasn’t until he was made captain in 1996 for the qualifying stages of the European Championships that he seemed likely to shine. Sadly, his kung fu exploits meant he was banned from playing that year for France too and when he returned, even though it was in time to join his team mates for Euro 96, the French coach Aimé Jacquet made the (arguably correct) choice to stick with the emerging Zinedine Zidane.

Eric told fans and press that he was supporting England and not France during the competition. He would never play for his country again.

Off le pitch

Cantona’s colourful character meant he was always as popular outside football as much as on the pitch. When he retired Eric began a career as an actor and appeared in a number of short films and feature films in France. His biggest acting role came alongside Cate Blanchett in the historical film Elizabeth.

His cheeky flair was also perfect for advertising and sports giants Nike snapped him up to front their cool new adverts that featured other top footballers. However, Cantona has also taken to some rather more strange exploits, for example as coach of the French Beach Football side, taking them to their own World Cup in 2006, where they finished third.

Eric remains one of the most talked about and unique players the game has ever seen. In England and in the Manchester United number 7 shirt (with that collar turned up) he was a magician. He made the ball do the hard work, as his father had once taught him. He was what the French would call, la pièce de la résistance.


Player Statistics

Senior Club and National Team Statistics
Period Team Appearances (Goals)
1983 – 1988 Auxerre 81 (23)
1985 – 1986 Martigues (Loan) 15 (4)
1988 – 1991 Marseille 40 (13)
1989 Bordeaux (Loan) 11 (6)
1989 – 1990 Montpellier (Loan) 33 (10)
1991 Nîmes Olympique 16 (2)
1992 Leeds United 28 (9)
1992 – 1997 Manchester United 144 (64)
1987 – 1995 France 45 (20)