Eric Cantona is one of the greatest footballers of his generation, flamboyant, at times a controversial maverick of an entertainer, and undoubtedly one of the most influential players of the English Premier League era.
The Early Years
Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona was born in the southern French city of Marseille in May 1966, the son of a Spanish mother and an Italian father. He began his football career at the age of 14 with his local club, SO Les Caillols, the former club of French midfield star Jean Tigana. He originally played as a goalkeeper like his father had done, but soon moved to being a forward, a position he held for the rest of his career.
Eric played 200 games for Les Caillols before moving to Auxerre, and made his senior debut for them in November 1983 in a 4-0 win v Nancy. He missed most of 1984 because he had to do his National Service, but returned to Auxerre and scored his first goal for them v Rouen in May 1985. On the final day of the season he scored from 25 yards v Strasbourg to clinch a place in the UEFA Cup. In the 1985/86 season he was loaned to Martigues in the second division before returning to Auxerre and turning professional in 1986.
He did well in the 1986/87 season as he scored 17 goals in 40 games, but his famous temper surfaced when he received a fine for giving his own goalkeeper, Bruno Martini, a black eye. In August 1987 he made his international debut for France v West Germany. In 1987/88 he received a three month ban for a dangerous kung fu tackle on Nantes’ Michel Der Zakarian which was later reduced to two as Auxerre threatened to make him unavailable to play for France. He helped the France U21s win the European Championship and Eric scored three in the two-legged quarter final v England.
In 1988 he moved to Marseilles, the club he supported, for a French record fee of 22 million French Francs. He was left out of the France team in September 1988 and after a foul mouthed rant in the media against manager Henri Michel he received a year’s international ban. Not long after Michel was sacked for a poor run of results and his replacement, Michel Platini, immediately picked Cantona again.
Trouble continued to follow him around and in January 1989 he was substituted in a friendly v Torpedo Moscow and ripped off his shirt and kicked the ball into the crowd. He was then banned for a month and subsequently ended the season on loan at Bordeaux. He spent the following season, 1989/90 on loan at Montpellier and true to form he had a fight with team mate Jean-Claude-Lemoult, leading to some players demanding his expulsion, but he stayed and helped them to win the French Cup.
He returned to Marseille for the 1990/91 season, and although they won the French title, he never really settled there. At the end of the season he moved to Nimes for ten million Francs but only a few months later he threw the ball at a referee and received a one month ban. At the hearing, he went up to each individual of the French FA and called each one an idiot, and so his ban became two months. At this point Eric announced his retirement from football, but he later rescinded that after a chat with France manager Platini.
Moves to England
In December 1991 Platini said to Liverpool manager Graeme Souness that Cantona was available, but he declined because of his bad boy reputation. Sheffield Wednesday manager Trevor Francis allowed Cantona to train with the club but they couldn’t afford to sign him. In January 1992 he joined Leeds United on loan until the end of the season, making his debut in a 2-0 defeat at Oldham Athletic. He made 15 appearances and scored 3 goals as Leeds won the league, the final one before the Premier League came into force.
Leeds signed Eric on a permanent basis at the end of the season for a fee of £900,000 and paid him 7 grand a week, a high amount in those days. He was still a regular for France, and they went 19 games without defeat, but flopped at the 1992 European Championships in Sweden, going out at the group stage.
In the curtain raiser to the 1992/93 campaign, the Charity Shield, Cantona scored a hat trick as Leeds beat Liverpool 4-3 to become one of only a handful of players to score a Wembley hat trick. He scored another hat trick v Spurs later the same month but his form dipped as the season went on and after being dropped by Howard Wilkinson he refused to turn up for training and submitted a transfer request. In November 1992 he joined Manchester United for £1 million and a legend was born.
The Manchester United years
He made his debut for United in a friendly v Benfica to celebrate Eusebio’s 50th birthday then a few days later came on as a sub v Man City. He soon settled into the side as United’s form improved but he was soon in trouble and was fined £1,000 for spitting at a fan at Leeds. United only lost twice with Eric in the side that season as they won the title by ten points, their first league title in 26 years. Cantona also became the first player to win consecutive titles in England with two different clubs.
The 1993/94 season was even better as Cantona scored a career best 25 goals for United, but he was sent off as they went out of the Champions League at Galatasary, billed as ‘Welcome to Hell’. In the following game v Man City in November 1993, he wore his collar up which became a trademark for the rest of his career. The terrace chants of “Ooh ahh, Cantona” whenever he scored a goal also became synonymous. He became a cult hero amongst the Old Trafford faithful and they won the league again, Eric’s fourth in a row including Marseille in 1991. United also won the FA Cup, defeating Chelsea 4-0 including two Cantona penalties, and were beaten in the League Cup Final. Eric was also voted the PFA Player of the Year.
Kung fu kick and a suspension
1994/95 was going along quite nicely, Cantona was scoring goals and United were chasing a third successive title, until a dramatic moment in January 1995. United drew 1-1 at Crystal Palace and Cantona was sent off for kicking Richard Shaw, his fifth red card for them. As he made his way off the pitch Palace fan Malcolm Simmons shouted something to Cantona, and he reacted by launching a kung fu kick at him at the front of the stand to create mayhem, a quite extraordinary incident.
At the end of the game United manager Alex Ferguson gave some of the players a dressing down for a poor performance but when he got to Cantona, he simply said “Eric, you can’t do that son.” At a press conference afterwards Cantona famously said “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” Then he walked away.
In the aftermath Cantona was charged with a criminal offence resulting in two weeks in jail, but that was overturned on appeal and he was given 120 hours of community service. There were cries from the media that he should be deported and never allowed to play again. United fined him £20,000 and said that he wouldn’t play for them for the rest of the season. The FA increased the ban to eight months and made it worldwide so that he couldn’t join a foreign club or even play friendly games. He had not long been made captain of France but the suspension meant that he couldn’t play for them and he never played for his country again, having scored 20 goals in 45 games. United finished runners up in the league
Back for United
He returned after his ban v Liverpool in October 1995, scoring one goal and making one in a 2-2 draw. He struggled for form up until Christmas but netted in six successive games in the new year as United won the league for the third time in four years. Cantona was their leading scorer and he also scored the winner in the FA Cup Final v Liverpool to complete the double, the first English side to do it twice. Cantona was also the first overseas captain to lift the FA Cup, as regular skipper Steve Bruce missed the game through injury.
Cantona was made captain for the 1996/97 season and United won the league again, their fourth in five years and Cantona’s sixth in seven seasons, only missing the one where he was banned. His goal against Sunderland where he just stood motionless then slowly turning round with arms aloft will always be remembered.
Ends playing career
At the end of the season, he stunned everybody by announcing that he was retiring from football at the age of 30. Some thought he would change his mind, but he didn’t. His last game was v West Ham, his 185th appearance for the Red Devils in which he scored 82 goals. He then turned his attention to Beach Soccer, helping to promote the game as a player for France and then a manager.
He has also appeared in many commercials and also turned to acting, appearing in many films, one of which was called Looking for Eric. He has won many awards, included being inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame and winning the Overseas Player of the Decade. He joined New York Cosmos in 2011 as Director of Soccer but was fired a few years later after a confrontation with a photographer. He was also cautioned in 2014 for a minor assault in London. He was certainly never boring!
Eric Cantona Career Stats
|Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona
|Date of Birth
|May 24, 1966
|Place of Birth
|1.88 m (6 ft 2 in)
|Clubs Played For
|– Auxerre (France)
|– Marseille (France)
|– Bordeaux (France)
|– Montpellier (France)
|– Nîmes (France)
|– Leeds United (England)
|– Manchester United (England)
|– 5-time Premier League Winner (with Manchester United)
|– 2-time FA Cup Winner (with Manchester United)
|– 4-time French Player of the Year
|– PFA Players’ Player of the Year (1993/1994)
|– FWA Footballer of the Year (1995/1996)
|– Premier League Hall of Fame Inductee