When Eric Cantona went over the wall to kick Matthew Simmons, he may not have intended to make himself seem more attractive. But the rich man from Italy found it irresistible. The reward will run into millions. JIM WHITE reports. Portrait by ALISTAIR BERG
On the night of 25 January, the overcoats lining the directors' box at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park stadium were of a more expensive, Continental cut than is usual at football matches in South Norwood. Martin Edwards, chief executive of Manchester United, had brought along a few guests to enjoy the evening's entertainment. There was Massimo Moratti and his advisor Paolo Taveggia, tagging along because they were in discussion with Edwards about Eric Cantona. The "lire-laden" Moratti (as the Mirror called him) was in the closing stages of purchasing the Italian football club Internazionale; a major part of his take-over plan was the promise that he would bring Cantona with him. Near the Italians sat Jean-Jacques Bertrand, Cantona's lawyer, who had also just opened negotiations with Edwards about how much it would take to keep his client away from Milan for the next year. The rumour circling Old Trafford reckoned Bertrand's starting position put the cost at £25,000 a week.

In the 61st minute of the game, however, the object of all this attention was sent off (for the fifth time in United's myriad colours) and, on his way to the early bath, took a diversion via the chest of Matthew Simmons, a mouthy fan. He subsequently received a record ban from his club, had it lengthened by the Football Association, paid out more in fines than the average British worker earns in three years, was given two weeks' imprisonment, had the sentence overturned on appeal and, on hearing the news, muttered something about sardines.

Precedent suggested that after this incident, Cantona would be about as popular as a Spanish fisherman in Newfoundland. The pen-portraits which filled the television news post-Selhurst charted his ten-year playing career entirely through its points of conflict: the fights, the fines, the punches, the petulance; as one French observer put it, wherever he went you could smell the sulphur.

Previously, Cantona's value in the market place had been compromised by this volatility; Manchester United paid £1million for him from Leeds, a figure more usually attached in footballing circles to the pedestrian and the past-it. Yet, the morning after the assault, Massimo Moratti was on the phone to Martin Edwards, firming up his interest in Cantona to the tune of a £5.5million transfer offer. Edwards himself, defying indignant demands from the press that his French forward should never be allowed to play in England again, was so anxious to keep Cantona that he issued a contract offer said to be in the region of £670,000 a year, topped up by at least £20,000 in potential bonuses. Here were two men, not generally characterised by fiscal impropriety, scrapping over the madman. On the night of 25 January, Cantona became a more wanted man than he had ever been.

Tommy Docherty, the former Manchester United manager, has a theory why this is. He believes the motivation is entirely financial.

"Cantona should have been sacked by the club," Docherty says. "United's action is all about the perpetrator, not the crime. I was sacked by Martin Edwards for falling in love with a beautiful lady who I am still married to and who I have had two daughters with. Cantona kung-fu kicks a spectator and they close ranks around him. Why? Because the club sees money. You go to Manchester now, the shirts with his name on the back are flying out of the shops. They've made a martyr out of him."

What Cantona unleashed with his soles at Selhurst was a public debate which carried him into an audience far beyond the frame of normal sporting controversy. This was not on the level of Ian Botham smoking dope, or Tony Adams being jailed for drink driving, or Denis Wise re-arranging the internal order of a London cab; this incident carried a moral ambiguity that made it of far greater compulsion. You could see that when, on the morning of 23 March, outside Croydon Magistrates Court, a small invasion party took up residence. It consisted of more than 200 press photographers and 40 television crews crawling over every available vantage point. Fists were thrown for the best view, and one enterprising cameraman had hired a hydraulic lift generally employed to change street lights to give himself a better angle. When Cantona finally strolled the 200 yards from his hotel to his appointment with the beak, he was envelopped by dozens of snappers walking backwards in front of him, in a bizarre parody of royal protocol. In less than two months, he had transmogrified from being the biggest story in football into the biggest story in the country; he had become a star.

And stars have a real financial dimension. To be a sponsor attaching yourself to the Cantona brand, for instance, would be to find your own name constantly in the headlines. At present, his signature is in possession of Nike, the organisation whose equipment he used on Matthew Simmons, and who, the morning after the assault, found a picture of one of their boots on the front page of the Scottish Daily Record flanked by the headline lethal weapon. The fact that the picture was of a rugby boot with metal studs rather than the plastic moulded soles Cantona was wearing was an irrelevance; it was publicity Max Clifford would lie for.

Nike was in a particularly strong position to benefit from Cantona's notoriety since the company had nurtured it in the first place, just as it had that of a previous client, John McEnroe. An advertisement featuring the footballer cataloguing his misdemeanours and then expressing surprise that he had ever found a sponsor was played on TV news and documentaries to the point of exhaustion, giving Nike acres of free coverage, and a neat opportunity to raise two fingers at the television authorities which had banned it in the first place. Not that the company would ever accept they were cashing in.

"We deplore violence in all sport," said Simon Taylor, Nike's head of marketing. "Eric knows what he did was wrong and we would not seek to condone it in any way."

Indeed, soon after the Selhurst incident, a commercial was launched featuring Cantona loudly declaiming that violence in sport can- not be justified whatever the circumstance. To nobody's surprise, least of all Nike's, more free media coverage followed, most of it hooting with laughter at the presumption of it. Recently, the company announced that it has no plans to scrap the deal with Cantona, which is not due to expire until after next year's European Championships. It was what might be called a vote of thanks.

If you are looking for memorabilia cele- brating Cantona's attack on Matthew Simmons, it is not hard to find. There are at least a dozen unofficial, non-United-approved T-shirts circling Manchester at the moment. One has Matthew Simmons's face, address and telephone number over the legend wanted for treason; another has an impression of a boot sole across the chest with the caption i've met eric cantona; a third has a picture of Cantona astride a motorbike, Terminator-style, saying i'll be back. Since Manchester is home to most of the small-scale enterprises specialising in the quick-turnaround production of T-shirts with topical jokes on the front (commonly known as swag working), these are almost certainly manufactured by the same outfits which are selling the parody of those Nike posters with the caption 1995 was a great year for english football, eric got f****d outside Liverpool's ground. It is called having it both ways.

"It's easy to slag off the swag workers," said Richard Kurt, author of the book United We Stood. "But they've touched a nerve with those shirts, which I think they are fully justified in exploiting." The nerve, Kurt reckons, is this.

"There's something about Cantona which symbolises what the hard-core United fan feels about themselves. Like him, we're picked on and hated because we reckon we are the best. What he was saying with that kick was what we want to say: you cannot say that sort of thing to us and get away with it. We are United, respect us. At the time, there was a lot of talk about not condoning what he did, but I reckon at root we think it was a fantastic thing to do."

And it is in this that Martin Edwards and Massimo Moratti have sensed the real value of Cantona: his differentness. Cantona is not in the usual run of gifted but problem players. He is not like Maradona or Romario or Gascoigne or Best, a man of talent compromised by grotesque appetites, ever-growing entourages or lacklustre approach to his craft. In fact, in the two-and- a-half years he has been in resid- ence, the staff and fans of Manchester United have grown to recognise Cantona as the model professional: the man who never misses training, who spends hours polishing his skills when lesser performers are content to leave theirs unattended, the man whose patience with fans seeking his attention goes well beyond the required remit (the first thing he did after drop-kicking that ITN reporter on the beach in Guadaloupe was to sign an autograph).

They also discovered, from the first moment he pulled on one of the ludicrous nylon bibs that passes as a United shirt, that he was a man who played without fear. He possessed, for example, the kind of contempt for pressure that you would want if you needed someone to take a penalty in the FA Cup final.

This ability, however, is the same instinct which meant he did not spare a thought about what might happen if he indulged his habit of seeking instant revenge for a slight. Time and again he stamped on lesser opponents who he felt had wronged him. It did not matter that time and again he was sent off, fined, suspended, banned - nothing was in his mind when he was crossed the next time but the red mist of revenge. Thus at Selhurst Park, though he must have known the place was stuffed with those with a vested interest in his future, he responded to a verbal assault from a flabby- jowelled prat with a dispatch that suggested he was a man indifferent to consequence.

But at United they were prepared to indulge him, to make a Faustian contract with his dark side in a way that no previous employer had. You can understand why. Alex Ferguson was the first coach he had encountered who recognised that if the massive organ that is the Cantona ego is accommodated, flattered, soothed and given space, it will reward you. And the reward at United has been substantial. Cantona's certainty in his own abilities was contagious: from the moment he arrived, he transformed a team adept at falling at the final fence into Double winners. His presence in the dressing room was galvanising.

"Everything about Eric is cool," Ryan Giggs once told me. "He's the best dresser at the club. He can wear anything and just look dif- ferent class."

Even that collarless jacket? That cardigan?

It is no coincidence that he has won a league championship medal every year for the last four (twice with United, and before them Leeds and, in France, with Marseilles). These teams triumphed because he was playing for them. Cantona is not, perhaps, the best player in the world. But he is a man capable of transforming any team he plays for into ruthless, arrogant, self-assured winners. What United want out of their Frenchman is not money, but trophies. Now United have worked it out, this galvanis- ing ability of Cantona's has become the most sought-after quality in football.

Right now, if any club needs transforming, it is Internazionale, wilting in the shadow of its neighbour, Milan, for so long. What a gesture for the new owner, to bring in the one foot-baller who will make the difference. Massimo Moratti, now in full possession of Inter, boasts that, like the Mounties, he always gets his man. He wants Cantona with a passion which will not be easily dissuaded, and the financial inducements he could offer would make Cedric Brown look unrewarded. A million a year, basic, is the tabloid rumour.

"My concerns are with the skill and brain of a player," said Moratti when asked if he was not worried about taking on a performer who, though long on talent, is demonstrably short on fuse. "Cantona is a cultured man and super class."

Unfortunately for Manchester United, unfortunately for Alex Ferguson, unfortunately for those of us who have not seen his like on a football field for 25 years, the next time Cantona plays, at the end of his record- breaking ban, all logic suggests it is likely to be in Italy. True, Manchester United have stood by him with a loyalty he has never before experienced in his career, true - as his house with the crazy-paving up the front wall proves - he is not a man wholly motivated by money. But Cantona is not long on time; he will be 29 before he plays again and, having achieved everything a player can in England, he might feel Italy deserves an opportunity to savour his talent.

But what really went wrong for Cantona post-Selhurst was the court case. That he did not enjoy. Pleading guilty, making long apologies, grovelling to authority, is not the Cantona way. Better, to his way of thinking, to have gone down pride intact than to be humiliated by the British legal system. His treatment at the hands of Mrs Pearch and her magistrate colleagues, desperate to condemn him as a special case, was typical of the manner in which some in this country have been uncomfortable with the differentness of the foreign genius in their midst.

"I wonder if Eric Cantona doesn't look at himself and wonder what kind of country he lives in," said Pat Crerand, a former Manchester United player. "The press has been un-believable to him. I tell everyone I meet not to buy the Sun, they're the ones who've really slaughtered him. I can't work out what their game is. They seem desperate to drive him out of the country. And they probably will. Yet when he's gone, what the hell will they have to write about?"