Cantona back on the scene

On the way out of Old Trafford on Tuesday night one of the dozens of street traders who fur up Sir Matt Busby Way on match days was doing his best to cheer up the hordes who had just seen their team stumble out of Europe yet again.

"Never mind, " the man was yelling. "Only five days until he's back. Get your souvenir poster here. Only a pound."

The one thing all those old sportsmen who go on the nostalgia circuit, telling stories about the good times, agree on is that there are no characters in the game any more. George Best claims that, so do Rodney Marsh, Malcolm Allison and Tommy Docherty, all of them mythologising their own past by dismissing the present as a uniformity of grey. But if Le Tissier, Gascoigne and Ginola were not enough to gainsay this assertion, it makes you wonder what they think Eric Cantona is. In 20 years of watching football I can remember nothing like the Eric Cantona phenomenon. As far as I can recall, Charlie George didn't have 19 different T-shirts bearing his name on sale on stalls outside Highbury, Tony Currie didn't have seven different terrace chants sung in his honour, even Best himself could not boast of a billboard paid for by supporters appearing outside Old Trafford reading: "Welcome back Eric, from everyone who loves football."

There has been nothing like the Cantona phenomenon before, because there has been no one like Eric Cantona before. In the past the epithet "character" in football was generally earned by turning up at training with the whiff of last night on your breath, employing a bookie's runner to take your bets from the dressing-room for the three o'clock at Market Rasen, or issuing threats to opposing wingers about what you would do to their hamstrings should they attempt to nutmeg you. Cantona is not like that: Cantona is, to quote his colleague, Ryan Giggs, "well, different". He doesn't drink, he doesn't gamble, he likes training; his play is outstanding and he makes a significant, match-winning contribution to his team. But then so does David Platt. The point about Cantona is he contradicts all those virtues by having a mad streak, an inability to control his urge to retaliate for supposed wrongs. That passion within him is what appeals so much to United's fans; they believe he cares for their team with a commitment that matches their own.

But what has really pushed Eric Cantona into the national consciousness, made him the subject of dinner party conversations, projected him as the one footballer everyone - my wife even - has heard of, is that he is doing his idiosyncratic thing at a time when there has never been so much coverage of football. If television had continued its old practice of not covering mid-week League matches, for instance, there would not have been half a dozen cameras at Selhurst Park that night in January to cover Cantona's assault on Matthew Simmons, and replay it endlessly. If the editors of certain national broadsheet newspapers still - as they used to - regarded football as if it were a skin complaint, then there would not be hectares of newsprint dedicated to the player. And if magazine publishers still thought the idea of a putting a footballer's face on the cover of their publication was a certain route to bankruptcy, then there wouldn't be at least two dozen glossies bearing Cantona's haughty mug presently lining the shelves of a newsagent near you.

The football media explosion could not have found itself a better fuse than Cantona. Particularly as, since he keeps his counsel and no one knows what he really thinks, we can all indulge in fanciful speculation. Cantona's steadfast refusal to say anything to the press other than artfully contrived aphorisms about deep-sea fishing worries many at Old Trafford: if only he would talk, they say, everyone could all hear what a decent guy he is. True enough, but even if that is not his motive, Cantona's silence speaks volumes to his image: the broody, stubbly, shrugging myth is infinitely more enchanting than the decent, hard-working, always-signs-an-autograph reality.

Indeed everything surrounding Cantona seems to contrive to bolster the legend. As Johnny Flacks of the Manchester United Independent Supporters' Association pointed out on the radio this week, by extending his ban so that it finishes in the middle of the season, the FA has only boiled up the hype about his return: if the player had been allowed to ease his way back in a series of summer friendlies, then 108 TV companies would not be squeezing themselves into Old Trafford for Sunday's return.

One thing we know of the biggest thing ever to happen to British football, however, is that he likes the big occasion. Since he appears to be scripted by Ian Botham, it would be a fool who bets against him scoring against Liverpool. Which means there is only one question that needs to be asked about tomorrow's game: anyone know of any spares?

Philosophy of a fire-eating Frenchman

n It's my nature to react the way I do. It's an instinct and to hell with people who are not happy with it.

n To achieve happiness you sometimes have to go through the worst depths of despair.

n A young man has a right to rebel.

n A quarter of an hour with supporters now and then is the least I can give them. In France I have often refused to sign autographs and I have gone so as far as to criticise the public violently. There's no love there. No passion.

n It's pressure that makes the game beautiful.

n In England everything is beautiful. The stadiums are beautiful, the atmosphere is beautiful, the cops on horseback are beautiful. The crowds respect you.

n I hear now and again from the mouths of certain managers that you have to be a killer to succeed. Myself, I have never killed anyone.

n He [Rimbaud] was the pioneer, but the torch he lit was picked up by others like Jim Morrison and I believe that, even in football, I should live as instinctively as that.

n Genius is about digging yourself out of this big hole which you find yourself in, or in which others have put you. That's genius. Genius is not about complaining.

n Freedom of expression brings genius, brings euphoria, brings fire. I play with passion and fire. I have to accept that sometimes this fire does harm. I harm myself. I am aware of it. I harm others.

n I leave when I need to change. It's like being with a woman. If you get to the point when you've got nothing left to say to her, you leave. Or else you stop being good.

n What I have to do now is find a solution that works. I believe I have found one now.

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