Eric Cantona: “Alex Ferguson gives you that passion, that fire”

In an archive interview with The Big Issue, Manchester United icon Eric Cantona talks Franco, Fergie, and fighting the good fight

This interview was first published in The Big Issue on April 17, 2012

“I really think it is at the base of everything,” says Eric Cantona. He’s striking his chest, just by his heart, and staring with quiet insistence.

We’re talking about homelessness, something that increasingly occupies the thoughts of the world’s most famous philosophising footballer (though the man himself might prefer footballing philosopher). A few weeks ago, Cantona launched a campaign seeking support from French mayors for his nomination in the French presidential race.

Issue 995
Eric Cantona on Ferguson and fighting the good fight

The story went viral, and global – King Eric to take the Élysée Palace. Then it turned out it was a brilliantly executed publicity stunt. Cantona was agitating on behalf of the Abbé Pierre Foundation, an organisation that works to house the homeless in France. Donations to the charity surged. Job done.

“I think it’s the base of everything”, he says again, “for every family. In France we have 10 million [people affected by housing problems]. Some of them have a roof, some of them work, some of them don’t have a roof, some of them have a roof but it’s so expensive they don’t have the money for education for their children.”

The more I work, the more I am confident. And then I can enjoy and express

It’s just shy of 15 years since Eric Cantona bid his farewell to football. Yet still his name conjures reverie. He was frequently called mercurial but his style was more atavistic – as one particular Crystal Palace fan would tell you after Cantona launched an infamous kung-fu kick at him one night in January 1995, prompting talk of seagulls and trawlers on his return.

Cantona is one of those rare athletes who transcends their sport, maybe because he delivered with such élan, maybe because he turned his back on it, tired with it all, when he was barely 30.

Eric Cantona kicks a Crystal Palace, 1995.

The intervening years have seen him take a picaresque route – as an actor (moving from a bit part in period piece Elizabeth to the fulcrum of Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric in 2009), as a beach football figurehead, as an ambassador for Nike and the Homeless World Cup.

It is acting that has been the constant and acting that brings us together, on an uncommonly warm spring day at a self-consciously chic hotel behind the National Gallery in London. Cantona still attracts attention.

As I wait in the foyer to be ushered through I notice hotel staff gathering and staring beyond the reception desk. I get up to see what’s excited them and there he is, in jeans, workmanlike boots, a simple brown shirt and a generous salt and pepper beard, smiling politely to a member of staff as he signs a visitor’s book.

We’re here to talk about a film he’s made. Being kind to Switch, you can make a case for it being a morality tale, of sorts. Our heroine starts in bright sunlight and by the end the crusader (Cantona) has to go to ‘hell’ to drag her from the demon

It’s possible this is what director Frédéric Schoendoerffer had in mind. Though, as Schoendoerffer also helmed some episodes of cross-channel TV hit Braquo, he may simply have been trying to make a Hollywood-apeing police procedural, one that has echoes of Hitchcock and The Fugitive. It’s not going to be remembered as a landmark movie. Still, Cantona carries himself well, all barrel-chest, beard and internalised aggression. The part could have been written with him in mind.

“No, I don’t think it was,” he says with a slight frown, a slight shrug. “I think the director – and he is one of the best at these sort of roles – is very good friends with the boss of crime police in France and time he spent with him inspired this kind of story. His friend, the policeman boss, inspired him, not me.”

Cantona spent time with the police chief researching the role (“seeing the relationship with the team, the way he handles the situation – small details”). He brings, he says, the same intensity in preparation to acting as Sir Alex Ferguson said he had to training.

“I need to work,” he says. “The more I work, the more I am confident. And then I can enjoy and express. I only can do it if I am confident. If I don’t work, I can be nervous, I can feel insecure. It depends on what you need for your personality – know yourself better.”

I am the grandson of a Republican who fought Franco, who arrived in France and spent months in Argelès

The work ethic is ingrained. Cantona, now 45, was brought up, happily, in the Caillols hills around Marseille (“We lived in a cave”). He has two brothers (one of them, Joel, is another footballer turned actor). A strong sense of family shaped him.

“They were builders, my two grandfathers,” he says. “I was very happy. They gave us the idea if you want something, you work. They helped us to observe the world around us.” (When he says this, a strange thing happens. For a fraction of a second he raises his chin, his chest expands and eyes briefly survey. In a moment he is there again at the edge of the box as he scores, as the Stretford End rises and he turns, leonine, in a moment of control and command. And there I am beside him, thinking, ‘Bloody hell – that’s Eric Cantona’).

“We were middle-class people,” he says. “We were not poor. We had a very strong family. We were happy all together in this house. Big family, at a big table, all together arguing, always passionate, laughing, crying, singing. It was a warm house.”

Just days before we met, the horror and tragedy of Toulouse unfolded. Self-confessed al-Qaeda militant Mohamed Merah murdered seven people, including three children at a Jewish school in the city. Merah died in a shootout following a siege. It is an event that forced France to ask questions of itself as a nation. However, the fact that it happened in France, says Cantona, shouldn’t be overstated.

“It can happen anywhere,” he says. “What I don’t like is that in the campaign now, the people from the extreme right use this thing as an argument for them.” This, he says, is toxic. A child born of immigrant grandparents, he is vociferous about the benefits of a plural society.

Eric Cantona captains Manchester United in Champions League game against Juventus.

“I am the grandson, on my mother’s side, of a Republican who fought Franco, who arrived in France and spent months in Argelès [d’Argelès-sur-Mer was one of the most inhumane of the refugee camps for those, especially Catalan, forced out by Franco following the Spanish Civil War]. On my father’s side, [my grandfather] moved from Sardinia in the ’20s. For my wife [the actress Rachida Brakni], her parents are Algerian. We need to respect, to have humanity. It’s so important to live with different people – even for self.”

I love politics in terms of the citizen, the noble term of politics. It’s not to have power

Cantona’s tilt at the presidency, though born of a publicity stunt, also allowed his feelings about Sarkozy and his administration to come out. “For five years, we’ve had President Sarkozy,” he says. “If we keep someone like this in our country for more years, we will become a country like the extreme right wants. It’s a country that thinks there is a hierarchy amongst civilisations. They say things like this.”

And is he not tempted to run for office for real?

“No, not at all. I love politics in terms of the citizen, the noble term of politics. It’s not to have power. It’s just enough to say you satisfy your own life for the people. I think for many years we’ve lost the meaning of politics. I’m interested in life. I’m not at all interested in power.”

Ahead of the interview a warning has been sounded: don’t talk to Eric about football. He’ll bring things to a close. He’s moved on, he has other things in his life. He’s acting onstage in Paris now (in an experimental play called Ubu Enchaîné).

But the warning feels a little hollow. Eric Cantona is part of football folklore. And besides, he was unveiled last year as a pointman for an attempt to put a new version of the New York Cosmos together, that bunch of 1970s footballing veterans and renegades, like Pelé, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto, who chased the Yankee dollar to an ailing league.

When I was there, [Ferguson] had been there for years and it was still like every game was like his first

As a player, Cantona turned Manchester United from a failing giant into a phenomenon. When he arrived, collar up, in the winter of 1992, they were slipping down the inaugural Premier League table. They hadn’t won a title in almost 25 years. Cantona made things work.

United won the title in his first season (he would win another three titles and two FA Cups in his time there) and so their march began. As they grew, Sky TV grew, and football emerged from its working-class roots to become a pervasive part of society around which much was built. An argument could be made for laying much of that movement at Cantona’s feet.

It turns out Eric is fine with football. Ryan Giggs, the only player remaining with an unbroken career at Manchester United and with whom he played “still has the same passion, which is the most important thing. Sometimes you can keep playing and lose the passion, but for him it’s like his first game. For Ferguson it is still the same”.

Ah yes, Ferguson, the manager against whom all others are judged. He nurtured Cantona as a proud father would a preferred but errant son. He built his team, and in some ways his legacy, around his No 7.

Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona celebrate Manchester United's 1-0 FA Cup Final over Liverpool, 1996.

“I remember that when I was there he had been there for years and it was still like every game was like his first one. He was like a child. So he gives you that passion, that fire.”

Would Cantona replace him when Ferguson goes?

“I don’t think he’ll retire.”

But in five years, 10 years… he can’t remain forever.

Cantona leans over and smiles his inscrutable smile.

“I die before Ferguson.”

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