The unpredictable Frenchman, whose notoriety reached its peak with a kung-fu attack on a fan in 1995, said he wanted to quit while he was at the top after winning five Premiership titles in six years with Manchester United and Leeds.
Club directors were taken by surprise by Cantona's decision. In a statement read out at a hastily-convened press conference, which the player did not attend, he said: "I have played professional football for 13 years, which is a long time. I now wish to do other things. I have always planned to retire when I was at the top, and at Manchester United I have reached the pinnacle of my career."
Alex Ferguson, the United manager, had tried over several days to persuade the Frenchman to stay, but his mind was made up. Paying tribute to Cantona, he said: "Whenever fans discuss United's greatest ever side, you can be sure that for many Eric's name will be very high up on the list. He leaves with our best wishes and will always be welcome at Old Trafford. He has given us so many wonderful memories."
After a troubled career in France, Cantona moved to England, where he quickly helped Leeds United to the Premiership title. He moved to Old Trafford in 1992 and went on to inspire the team to four championships including two league and cup doubles. He has become an idol for a generation of fans.
But he has been criticised, too, for the violent streak that saw him attack a Crystal Palace fan who was hurling insults at him from the terraces. It was after being sentenced to 120 hours community service for that attack that he demonstrated his penchant for homespun philosophy.
"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea," he said, creating confusion in his trawler's metaphorical wake. More thoughts of Eric Cantona were used in a series of Eurostar advertisements. Here, the footballer demonstrated his acting abilities - a career he would like to pursue.
He will always be remembered, however, for bringing poetry into the previously clogbound English game. Once, when discussing football as art, he wrote: "An artist, in my eyes, is someone who can lighten up a dark room. I have never, and will never, find any difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud.
"There is, in each of these human manifestations, an expression of beauty which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity."