Culture

Eric Cantona on getting older, Manchester United and why we must tell people we love how we feel

Eric Cantona has changed lives with goals, acting roles and activism. And now music. His new album is like everything else he does. It is pure Cantona

Image: Jason Hindley

Eric Cantona is unique. Since striding into Old Trafford, collar up, in December 1992, electrifying Manchester United, igniting Sir Alex Ferguson’s unassailable legacy and revolutionising football in Britain, the idea of Cantona as being something other, elevated, an untouchable, has persisted, and grown.

This is not just because of football. Unquestionably he was an incredible player – physically imposing, a goalscorer of key goals in key moments, fearless and fearsome, yet possessing rare skill. He remains a folk hero for the United faithful, who still sing his name, though he retired almost 30 years ago.  

“United remains full in my heart,” he says. 

He is one of the few footballers that supporters of other clubs liked and still like – perhaps Crystal Palace aside. His two-footed kung-fu kick response to abuse from Palace fan Matthew Simmons’ at Selhurst Park in January 1995 resulted in an eight-month ban from football and a prison sentence, commuted to community service. 

But more, he is a figure beyond football. Those with only a passing regard for the game know his name. While he has made around 30 films since retirement and moved through art and poetry, always agitating for issues he believes in, particularly for people who are homeless, it is the idea of a life lived intentionally on his own terms that continues to draw focus and sets Cantona apart. The rebel fighting many causes.
“I am not a man,” he said, tongue slightly in cheek in Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric, “I am Cantona.” 

And now Cantona brings that Cantonaness to his newest endeavour, a live album, of songs written by Cantona and recorded during a tour last winter. Cantona Sings Eric, with titles like I’ll Make My Own Heaven, where he insists ‘I’m only judged by myself’ (as if there were any doubt), We Believe in Ourselves and I Love You So Much, a love note to United fans (seagulls and trawlers are referenced), will appear ahead of a new tour in April. The influences are clear – a Serge Gainsbourg rumble and half-sung half-spoken delivery, a Leonard Cohen wit and sensibility.

His adoration of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison is harder to discern, but one thing is certain – Cantona means it. This is not a half-hearted, half-baked ironic attention grab. 

The Big Issue: Is being a singer, the focus on stage, the point you have always been moving towards? 

Eric Cantona: I’ve always been passionate about art since I was a kid. My father [Albert] is a painter. He took my brothers and me to galleries. I was close to him as he was painting. I was painting next to him, he was explaining a lot of things. I have been very passionate about sports also forever. So I started with football. Which is better, I think. 

But I always knew that I will do something in art, any kind of arts, painting, photography, acting. Music, yeah, music is the last one. Since I retired from football I never had time to be bored because by now I have been involved in maybe 30 movies or TV series. 

I did a book of photography for homeless people, with Foundation Abbé Pierre, which is a big foundation in France. I travelled in France and in Brazil with them, many countries, to take pictures of homeless people or people who live in very small [homes]. So, it was a photography adventure and also a human adventure. When Abbé Pierre died he gave 20 names to replace him to tell the people what’s happening. I was one. 

Abbé Pierre was a Catholic priest, French Resistance fighter and champion of the homeless and dispossessed. He died aged 94 in 2007. Cantona’s commitment to the homeless charity runs long and deep. The photography book was published in 2009. In 2012 he announced a plan to run for the French presidency. This was revealed to be a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the Abbé Pierre Foundation and the French housing crisis. First, before his own songs, Cantona wrote some lyrics for his wife, the actress and artist Rachida Brakni, and her band Lady Sir. There was, says Cantona, much snootiness from French metropolitan critics when he was revealed as the lyricist

With his wife, French actress Rachida Brakni, at Cannes in 2009.
Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

EC: One of the culture magazines in France they asked the woman in charge of the music, did you listen to the album of Rachida Brakni. And she said no, I will not listen to an album with lyrics written by an ex-footballer, by Eric Cantona. She has a right to think whatever she wants! So, two years later I wrote the lyrics for the band on a song called Le Temps Passe. The same journalist is asked, do you like the Lady Sir album and she says yes and her favourite song is Le Temps Passe! I wrote it under the name Auguste Raurich, which is the name of my grandparents on my mother’s side, from Catalonia. So sometimes you have to take another way to be accepted.  

Eric Cantona in his final Premiership-winning season at Man Utd. Image: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

BI: Ex-footballers frequently say that what they miss most is being in front of a crowd. Is this, being on stage, as close as you have got to that old bliss? 

EC: Yes. I went onstage in theatre using words of others, which is completely different. [Cantona starred in a two-hander, Face au paradis, onstage in Paris in 2010. It was directed by Brakni]. Music, it’s the closest thing to the excitement we can have when we play football. Music touches you. Every one of us.
I don’t think it’s a human being that creates music. Music is a part of a human being. See a kid two years old and they start walking, they hear music and they start to dance. They never learned music. The music is something special.  

What happens on stage depends on the energy of the fans, so they are completely part of what happens. I use this energy. I use this energy of the people. For sure it’s what I love and it’s why I wanted to make music and perform – to be in front of the people and sharing our energy and sharing our adrenaline.  

BI: Was there any attempt to emulate the songwriters you like when you came to create your music? 

EC: Leonard Cohen, or Serge Gainsbourg or Nick Cave or The Doors. they are the ones I listen to a lot because I love their music, I love their lyrics and I love their personality because I think that they are completely free. Real artists, they are honest artists and great personalities. So, I have been influenced, but I have found my own way, which is important. I don’t want to copy anybody. I want to be myself in any kind of thing I do. This is the main thing. To find your way. 

There is frequently a feeling that Eric Cantona is playing up to preconceptions of what is Eric Cantona. He knows well, you sense, when he is being oblique – the seagulls reference is now hardwired in our national consciousness; when he received a UEFA award in 2019, Cantona quoted a lesser-known line from King Lear. He’s in front of me on screen today, from his home in Lisbon, and most prominent is a very reflective, somewhat diffident side that is at odds with the public perception. And mortality is knocking.  

We waste time if we don’t spend it with the people we love. And we waste time if we don’t say to the people we love that we love them

Eric Cantona

BI: The song The Friends We Lost is a high watermark on the record. Gainsbourg with echoes of Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas, it is very simple and very powerful, with its refrain of ‘The friends we lost/the time we waste’. Is it anchored in the memory of one person or a sense of time running out? 

EC: I’m getting old. I will be 58 next May. I’m old enough to lose friends and family. And it will be my time someday. I miss my friends and I miss my family. I wanted to write a song for them. And the time we waste. The great time we have together. Maybe one year or two years later I say, I have very good times with my friends, and I say to myself, I should have had even stronger good times with them. You want more when you love somebody. And sometimes you don’t spend the time as you wish. 

On tour in 2023. Image: Elsa Schulhof

And then, in any kind of situation with the people you love, you have the feeling that you have wasted time and maybe you didn’t say things you wanted to say. It raises the feeling that we waste time if we don’t spend time with the people we love. And we waste time if we don’t say to the people we love that we love them. 

That Cantona is an advocate for the outsider is a given. He has spoken previously of his pride in his maternal grandparents being republicans and fighting Franco’s fascists in Spain, before being forced to flee. As the offspring of refugees he said in the past he would house refugees himself. On the other side of the family, as well as being a painter, his father was a psychiatric nurse.  

BI: Do you believe that this part of your upbringing also moulded you, that it made you more supportive of those society judges differently? 

EC: I think so. I think so. On my father’s side, my granduncles, they came back from the war in the ’40s. My grand-uncle was a prisoner for a few years and he came back. We speak about the number of dead people in wars, but we don’t speak about the people who are completely traumatised by wars and lose their minds. And this granduncle was a godfather of my father. I think my father became a nurse in a psychiatric hospital because of my granduncle. He was a nurse in the hospital where my granduncle was. That was very hard for him.  

Madness is about the world we live in. And the madness is the limit. There are a lot of people outside this limit we say are mad, crazy. And you have a lot of people inside this limit, like George Bush, like Netanyahu, these kind, who kill hundreds of thousands of people, and they’re still in their shirt!  

I chose my side. I think I am on the good side of history. I prefer to live with people who even if they are outside of society, I don’t care. I tried as hard as possible to create my own limits. 

Eric Cantona starred in Liam Gallagher’s video for Once

Not only because my father was a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, but many reasons. I love artists who are outside of the limits. Who are being judged crazy, like Van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, Arthur Rimbaud, all these sorts of people. The family of Van Gogh took him to a psychiatric hospital. The family of Artaud took him to a psychiatric hospital, for me they are just genius. Artaud wrote a book about Van Gogh, Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. People wanted to call [Van Gogh] crazy, but he was genius, observing the world. It was the same for Artaud. But now, they are recognised as genius. 

I’m passionate for these kind of people. I’m fascinated by what we call madness and at the same time I am afraid of that, because we all walk on the small thin line, you know. And we can all go…  

We have a heritage of thousands of years over what is good and what is bad. And even when we fight against that you feel guilty when you do something a little outside of the limits. Why do you feel guilty? Because our education, the parents, the religions, everything. I try to fight that. 

We went in a village in the Alps, when I was younger, and there was a woman that you might call crazy
but I was interested by what she said. I loved this woman. I loved the way she expressed herself. I love to be surrounded by these sort of people.  

Following the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel, Cantona, who has long been vocal in support of the Palestinian people, posted a message on Instagram which said: “Defending the human rights of Palestinians does not mean you are pro-Hamas. Saying ‘Free Palestine’ does not mean you are anti-Semitic or ‘want all the Jews gone’.” 

BC: What is your position now? 

EC: What happened on 7 October is horrible, of course, everybody agrees with that. But it seems for a lot of people everything started on 7 October. It’s decades. The worst thing in the world is not money, it’s communications. With communication you can manipulate everybody. You know my position. But it didn’t start recently, for more than 20 years. I feel close to the people who suffer by wars.  

I wrote a song and I say in this song – it’ll come out soon, as soon as possible – ‘They gave to innocence/the power to die. ‘Give us a ticket for more justice/give us a ticket for two states of peace.’ 

BI: You always said you wouldn’t get back involved with Manchester United while the Glazers were there. If new part-owner Jim Ratcliffe rang you and said, come in Eric, be our manager, would you? 

EC: I am involved in too many things I really love to be manager. In everything I do I work hard to give 100% so that I am able to have the confidence and to enjoy. So I don’t have the time to be manager. But maybe something else… 

For sure with Jim Ratcliffe I think we come back as the best. The way you drive the club is important. Ratcliffe, who is a fan of United since ever, is a great businessman of course, but is also very passionate about sport. He had great experience of sport at Nice while he was president. And I think he had the right idea. Then the manager can work in good vibes and good environment.  

BI: Would you have been tempted to go to Saudi Arabia with all that money if it were around when you were playing? 

EC: No. NO! When I finished my career I was only 30 years old. When I lost the passion I decided to retire. I could have played five or seven more years. I never played football for money. I would have paid a lot of money to play for Manchester United.  

Going to Saudi Arabia we can’t speak about passion of football. Just passion for making money. For old players, OK but for some players, maybe 30 years old, they’re not passionate about football, it’s better to retire. If you decide to go to Saudi Arabia, that is just money. 

I live with passion. I try to live for as long as possible with passion and be full of passion. 

Cantona Sings Eric – First Tour Ever is out on 29 March on Decca.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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