Sunday, October 09, 2005

Eric the King

Eric Cantona in a Nike ad (forgot the year, but should be towards the end of the 90s). For the uninitiated, 1966 was THE year for most English football fans because they won their one and only World Cup then, on home soil. You might also recall the other Nike advertisement where he took part in some "underground" games with other famous football stars like Figo and Ronaldo.

At Old Trafford, Eric was called the king. Still is. Indeed, if you look carefully enough, you can still spot the odd Cantona flag or two being unfurled amongst the crowds during Man Utd's home matches. That he became such an icon to Man Utd fans in less than 5 seasons with the club (November 1992 to June 1997) makes it even more amazing. If you take into account the eight months' ban in the 1995, then he had actually played for Man Utd for a net total of maybe 4 seasons only. He has never played in a World Cup, only in some qualifiers, but even that did nothing to diminish his reputation and status in the game.

"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown in to the sea." At a press conference called after his famous 功夫 kick on a Crystal Palace fan which resulted in an eight months ban from football. I suspect it is a thinly veiled dig at the press. *Grin*

I will not even attempt to go through his career moves and highlights here. They are well-documented elsewhere (see for example, here and here). However, I have to at least say he certainly was the catalyst that brought the league title back to Old Trafford after an intolerably long span of 26 years. Yes, it had been more than a quarter of a century since Man Utd last won the league before Eric the King came along and started the club on a decade of immense success.

Football fans, not just those of Man Utd (and Leeds), will remember him not just by those sterling statistics his football has left behind, but also by his personality. Pumped up chest, ramrod straight posture, upturned collar (which quite a number of other EPL players copied at a point in time, e.g. Dwight Yorke), hands on hips, and that smouldering glare through those thick set eyebrows. He exuded such confidence, even to the extent of arrogance, that it inspired his teammates to play above themselves as well as intimidated opposition players.

"My lawyer and the officials wanted me to speak. So I just said that. It was nothing, it did not mean anything. I could have said 'The curtains are pink but I love them'" An explanation given by the man himself on his sardines quote. I like this quote a lot. Especially the "pink" part. And the plot thickens here.

But what I admire most about him is he knew when to leave. At his peak. Eric retired from professional football when he was just 30. The average outfield player usually retire at around 35 and goalkeepers maybe 38. 27-31 is usually considered to be a footballer's best years.

Many a sportsman or artiste has persisted on their playing (or performing as the case may be) career till they are near the bottom of that slippery slope of decline. The aura is lost by then. Think Michael Jordan, for example.

It is never easy to leave behind something you love doing. Especially when you've become so proficient in it. But Cantona had the strength to i) say enough and retire from football and ii) to stay retired. (ii) is infinitely times more difficult. It is noteworthy that when he retired, he had not won everything there is in the game, especially the biggest prizes. For one, the holy grail of the European Champion's League had escaped his grasp. And he had tasted almost nil success on the international front. Yet, he made the decision and stuck to it. And because he stuck to it, fans will always remember him at his prime and ask the inevitable question of how things might have been, had he stayed a few more years.

For me, I don't question that decision. I just respect him for that.

"Leaving a club is like leaving a woman. When you have nothing left to say, you go." I'm sure some lady readers will be offended by this quote. But what the heck... just remember he said it, not me.

After his retirement from professional football, he moved on to an acting career and playing beach football (I tried before. Fwah... very very tiring to play on sand! Your hips feel like they are on fire after a while). Indeed, my favourite French movie, Les enfants du marais (The Children of the Marshland), has Eric as part of the cast. I loved the movie not just because of him. The movie was a charming one to begin with. But when Eric made his entrance, it was really the icing on the cake. His deadpanned expression for his part as a champion boxer really added to the movie's charisma. I'm getting the DVD for that movie soon as well!
"The Art of the Game" by Michael Browne (copyright). Look carefully at this fabulous oil painting by Michael Browne and you'll be able to spot Fergie (Sir Alex Ferguson), Becks, Butt and the Neville brothers, besides Eric the King in the middle of course. Not sure who is the fella at the top right though.

Roy Keane took over the captaincy of Man Utd after Eric Cantona retired. Whereas Eric inspired his teammates by his confidence and flair, Keano absolutely controlled the team by his growls and barks and his impossibly high workrate. I guess both methods work in their own way.

But there can only be one Cantona.

Akan Datang: To delete or not to delete, that is the question.

173 days to go.


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