The King’s Speech

A profile of Eric Cantona and the impact of temperament on the game.

I: El Filosofo.

In July 2009, former FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta announced what would become the most expensive transfer in the club’s 110-year history. Adding to an already lucrative market season – Tevez, Kaka, and Ronaldo had already shattered sundry world transfer records – Laporta met in Milan with Internazionale president Massimo Moratti to negotiate a deal that would see Samuel Eto’o join the Nerazzurri , bringing hitman Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Catalunya. The onus was on Barcelona to prove that the transfer was practical: the Blaugrana emptied their coffers to the tune of 46 million Euros in order to ensure the deal was equitable. The part exchange left a hole in Barcelona’s pocket, but the Catalan faithful had high hopes for their new number 9.

Ibrahimovic receives instruction from Guardiola

Ibra’s inaugural season was by no means unsuccessful. He amassed 16 goals in La Liga and four more in the Champion’s League. But for a club which wished only to improve upon a historic sextuple season (how do you surpass perfection?), and for a manager whose immutable ideology seemed threatened by a player who tempered his team’s otherwise virtuosic play style, good wasn’t good enough. There are a few ways to describe the hodgepodge cultural DNA of Zlatan Ibrahimovic  – Bosnian, Croatian, Swedish, even Italian – but there is nothing of España in his blood, and Barca entrenador Pep Guardiola recognized that.

So as the football season came to its conclusion and the summer transfer window lay once again on the horizon, reports came out of Spain that friction between man and manager was at a high point. Pundits speculated that Ibrahimovic had never been Guardiola’s first choice for striker, and with Spaniard David Villa expressing interest in moving north from the Mestalla to the Nou Camp, it seemed more and more likely that ‘Ibracadabra’ would be plying his trade elsewhere in the 2010-2011 season.

Soon enough the rumors were substantiated. After only one season, Laporta handed his wantaway striker a ticket to Italy and told him to pack his bags. He was fated to become a Milanese once again, albeit in the red and black stripes of his former team’s rival, A.C. Milan.

The story may have ended there, but football is never a simple thing. Seven months later, the imperious Swede is still taking jabs at his former coach. While Guardiola keeps mum on the ordeal, Ibrahimovic uses any opportunity to give his account of their problematic relationship. He’s even fashioned his own sobriquet for Guardiola: El Filósofo. The Philosopher – perhaps referring to Guardiola’s stoic demeanor in press conferences. (More likely, he takes his former coach to be a know-all).

Ronaldo at the Bernabeu

Impetuous comments are nothing unfamiliar to Ibra’s fodder. Already this month, he’s proclaimed himself the world’s greatest player and been handed two consecutive Serie A bans. But supercilious remarks are part of the modern game, and fans know to expect big talk from certain footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Balotelli come to mind as athletes who let their cojones do the talking. Talented though they may be, they’re comfortable balancing an abundance of flair with a deficit of humility.

That is not to suggest that football doesn’t need its share of prime donne. On the contrary, these players provide the perfect foil to the vanguard of modesty headed by the likes of Kaká and Andrés Iniesta (what is Romeo without Tybalt, after all?). For although neutrals may cringe when CR7 holds up an index finger in celebration (someone get this man a foam hand!), respite comes in due course, as in the 116th minute of the 2010 World Cup final, when San Andrés scored the only goal of the game and promptly lifted his shirt, revealing underneath an epitaph for a teammate who passed away the year before: “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros” – Dani Jarque, always with us.

Iniesta celebrates his World Cup winning goal

The real problem is this: the modern firebrand is more like Dr. Faustus than Don Quixote in that hubris won’t be his salvation, but his downfall. In crasser terms, his head isn’t in the clouds, but up his ass. With so much media attention dedicated to the topic of “World’s Best Footballer,” (an apparently quantifiable, and consecrated, title), the focus is often diverted away from club success and toward personal glory. It wasn’t always that way. Modern history provides a keen example of a villain who changed the game for the better. He was a footballer whose caustic personality saw him lauded as often as he was derided, striking a balance between provocateur and gallant. A man who earned his philosophic appellation years before Josep Guardiola. Hail to the King.

Dizzy Gillespie demonstrates his billowing cheeks

II: The Philosopher.

It may surprise you to learn that, beyond their fame in France[1], Eric Cantona and Dizzy Gillespie share in common a surprising and noteworthy quality. Not an embarrassing mole or a birthday, mind you, but a musical inclination: Eric and the late Dizzy were both self-taught trumpeters. Granted, the comparison doesn’t carry much weight beyond the fact. Gillespie’s career in blowing brass was as prolonged as it was prolific. With performances spanning eight decades, the puff-cheeked jazz legend is in company with Miles Davis and Louie Armstrong as the most influential trumpeters of the 20th century. As for Cantona, the story of a man’s calling to music is much briefer, although no less intriguing.

It began on a Wednesday night in South London during the winter of 1995. Manchester United travelled to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace, a side tottering on the brink of relegation. A win would see United move past Blackburn and into first place in their bid for a third consecutive Premier League title. By the end of the match, a disappointing 1-1 scoreline was the least of Sir Alex’s worries. Minutes after halftime, Cantona was shown red and sent off the pitch for a cynical challenge on Eagles defender Richard Shaw. On his way to the tunnels, wearing an all-black kit and a grimace that would make Johnny Cash blush, Cantona answered the insults of a hometown hooligan by launching a kick into the crowd and throwing several punches before the ground staff pulled him away (the other Man in Black croons, “I kicked a man in London, just to watch him die”).

Cantona’s Bruce Lee impersonation was not taken kindly by the FA, which handed him an eight-month ban from football. That punishment was later matched by FIFA, ensuring the Frenchman could not escape his sentence by leaving England. Such was the charm of football for Eric Cantona that the only suitable diversion he found in nearly a year away from the game was learning the trumpet. Dizzy would’ve been proud.

Cantona eeks out a rendition of La Marseillais in the 2009 film “Looking for Eric”

Cantona never officially apologized for his actions at Selhurst Park. In fact, he fondly reminisces on the attack in interviews, smiling proudly as though he’d fought off a back-alley purse snatcher. Indeed, it’s never been conceit that fuels his cavalier attitude, but a sense of valor; King Eric fancies himself a hero, and a hero he is. Manchester United lost the league crown that year by a single point, due in large part to Cantona’s absence on the field, but his reputation remained intact at Old Trafford. When he returned to the Theater of Dreams in October for a Sunday afternoon clash with Liverpool, he was met with fanfare and a chorus of “Ooh, Aah, Cantona.” His debut did not disappoint. The home side, down 2-1 after a pair of Robbie Fowler goals and in desperate need of an equalizer, found redemption in the 70th minute when Liverpool’s Jamie Redknapp brought down Ryan Giggs in the box, setting up a potentially game-tying penalty. Cantona stepped up and slotted coolly into the bottom left corner to salvage a point from the match. Before the ball even found the back of the net, the Frenchman was on his way to the stands – not to rough up a hooligan, but to celebrate with the United faithful. “The King” was back.

In terms of pure ability, it’s hard to find a footballer like Eric Cantona. Not for his consistency (God knows he had his dry spells) nor even for his technical prowess (others, like countryman Zidane, may have had his number) but for his dogged, unabashed passion for the sport. A passion that saw him spitting, punching, and name calling throughout his career. He once ripped off his jersey in protest when he was substituted in a friendly match. His short temper effected condemnation from every major footballing body he played under, but his actions were never puerile. In Cantona’s mind, he was only ever responding to the people he believed were the censurers of his artistic expression. For that was his conception of football: it was art, no different from ballet or literature (or the French cinema he works in today). Small wonder Cantona was renowned for his creativity, insight, and yes, madness. That was his legacy in Manchester. He was Dvorak in the New World, premiering his ninth symphony to the righteous approval of an entire nation. Although detractors would follow him wherever he went, Cantona found a niche where his creativity could flourish. And for that he paid his fans in kind, offering flashes of brilliance on the pitch, and suffering the hazards of martyrdom off of it. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

In a 1996 FA Cup tie against Sunderland, Cantona fashioned perhaps his greatest performance. Receiving a neat pass at the half line, he found himself inside a triangle of

Moments before Cantona hits his chip against Sunderland in 1996

defenders. With five clean dribbles (imagine monkey in the middle, but the monkey has the ball), he dissected his opposition and knocked on through the middle of the pitch. Two soft touches and a give-and-go with Brian McClair saw Cantona receive the ball on the edge of the 18. Flanked by two defenders and with only goalkeeper Leo Perez to beat, the Frenchman looked poised to dribble inside the box and tuck the ball in. But with 40,000 Red Devils looking on, he was certain to make this his Ode an die Freude, a definitive statement of his aesthetic identity. Cantona chipped the bell less than a foot inside the penalty box, floating it over the outstretched arms of Perez. The shot tapped the left upright, mere inches below the crossbar, and bounded into the net. As the Old Trafford crowd erupted, Cantona evinced no emotion at all, but merely turned in place with outstretched arms like a gladiator offering blood to the gods of the Coliseum. For Rome!

That was the temperament of a footballer whose kind is sorely missed today, a man who valued ingenuity over consistency and loved the game before the player. He earned his reputation as a philosopher years before Pep Guardiola took the helm at Barcelona. Even in the wake of his infamous kung-fu kick, Cantona refused to let his behavior distract from the beautiful game. In the post-match press conference at Crystal Palace, nursing a glass of water and sporting a wry smile, he said, simply, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you.” No mea culpa, just an enigmatic statement whose precise meaning has been disputed for years, but whose intent is ever clear: Let art speak for itself.

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[1] Gillespie received l‘Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s most prestigious cultural award.

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One Response to The King’s Speech

  1. Pingback: The Seagulls, the Sardines, the Sea | Must Read Soccer

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