Eric Cantona

Kung Fu Kick

Selhurst Park, January 1995

Even as a young footballer in France, Cantona was never far from controversy. The first of Cantona’s disciplinary problems began when he punched fellow Auxerre teammate, Bruno Martini in the face[1]. His intolerant actions rewarded him with a hefty fine.

Cantona’s emotions continued to get him in trouble. When substituted, he would react in a typical ridiculous manner: kicking the ball into the crowd and ripping off his shirt in disgust. His actions continued to result in fines and suspensions, but Cantona was unyielding. In 1991, during a match for Nimes, Cantona threw the ball at the referee after disagreeing with a minor infraction[2]. After the disciplinary hearing, the Fédération Française de Football suspended him for one month. To the bemusement of everyone except for himself, Cantona purposefully made his way to the front desk and called each panel member an idiot to their face[3]. His ban was consequently increased to three months; Both the Fédération Française de Football and Cantona had had enough. Sadly, he prematurely retired from international football at the ripe age of twenty-five.

Cantona was disappointed the way he was treated by the French Football Federation and promptly sought a move to England where he joined Leeds United in 1992. After a short spell with Leeds, Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, decided to gamble by signing the Frenchman. Upon his return to Elland Road, Leeds’ home ground, opposing fans would chant,

“He’s gay, he’s French, he’s always on the bench”[4].

Cantona’s stance on racism and general ‘hate speech’ was clear through his retaliations. He questions,

“Is it okay to shout racial abuse at me because I am on a football pitch? Some people say we have to accept it as part of the game. Why? I know that it is not acceptable in sport”[5]

In 1995, on a dark, January evening, Manchester United played Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Cantona’s short temper had let him and his teammates down again. He was shown a red card for retaliation, and was escorted off the pitch. While leaving, fans screamed a deafening wall of hatred towards Cantona. Being one to take abuse personally, Cantona broke free from the escort and launched a two-footed kick toward an abusive supporter’s chest, followed by a couple punches for good measure. Cantona never took insults lightly, but his actions were unacceptable in football. While the British press joked that Cantona had a mental problem, the Chief Executive of the FA, Graham Kelly, described his attack as, “a stain on our game” and suspended Cantona for nine months.[6]

In his response to the court’s ruling, Cantona clearly stated as though not to be misunderstood,

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea”[7].

Giving no explanation, Cantona stood up and left, leaving the entire courtroom astonished. His bizarre quote summarized the relationship between Cantona and the British media. He accused the press of constantly scrutinizing his every action and obstructing his freedom of expression.

Even though his expressions on the pitch created magnificent art, off the pitch they occasionally turned to violence, giving him a dark and rebellious reputation. In an interview in 2003, Amelia Gentleman had the rare opportunity to speak with Cantona. When asked about his controversial behavior, Cantona responded,

“Sometimes in life, one experiences an emotion which is so strong that it is difficult to think, or to reason. Sometimes you get submerged by emotion. […]You have to allow yourself to lose control from time to time”[8].

Although his comments failed to justify his actions, Cantona stood firm in his stance and accepted the punishments and abuse that he had become accustomed to.

Return to European Icons of the 1980s and 1990s

[1] Life and Times of Cantona

[2] Life and Times of Cantona

[3] Life and Times of Cantona

[4] Brown, Fanatics!

[5] Brown, Fanatics!

[6] The Life and Times of Cantona

[7] Midgley, Simon. “`When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea’.” Independent 01 Apr. 1995, Print.

[8] Gentleman, The Player

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