`Cantona is not going to be giving his bank manager sleepless nights. He has been pitched to a level of box office above that he occupied merely as the best footballer in Britain'

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The walk from his hotel to Croydon Magistrates Court on Thursday morning was a short one for Eric Cantona. Not much further, for instance, than from the centre of the pitch at Selhurst Park to the dressing-rooms. This time, however, there was to be no diversion via the chest of a foul- mouthed supporter; he kept to the path, eyes lifted above the head of the crowd. Besides, even had he been tempted - by the four black boys shouting jovial abuse from a passing drop-head BMW or the workmen cat- calling from some scaffolding - it would have been hard for Cantona to execute a decent drop-kick surrounded by 50 or more cameramen who had followed him all the way, all walking backwards in a bizarre parody of royal ceremonial.

On he swept, chest as ever on full expand, up the steps of the court building, past the Anti-Nazi League demonstration (always a presence when there are cameras around), past the awe-struck girls in replica shirts. As he swaggered towards the door the scrum was enlarged by the hundreds of other photographers who had gathered outside the building, folding in around their quarry like a malevolent duvet.

Seeing two snappers trade blows over possession of the most advantageous camera angle, overhearing a court official saying to an policeman: "We're printing T-shirts with `I was in Court with Cantona' on the front. Want one?", watching the other poor souls up in front of the beak lining the courtroom foyer to catch a glimpse, it was hard to imagine anyone causing a bigger stir in this country than Cantona did when he walked into that court. Short, perhaps, of Princess Diana checking into a country house hotel for the weekend with Bob Geldof in tow.

It was not ever thus. Tony Adams registered only a minor twitch on the media Richter scale when he turned up to face charges of drink-driving a few years back. Even a figure as charismatic as George Best when he was jailed for a cocktail of drink- related offences was surrounded by no larger a photographic presence than might be found camped outside the country home of a philandering junior minister. But both of them faced the consequences of their indiscretions in the years BOJ: the time before OJ Simpson was arrested, the moment that made sportsmen who transgress the ultimate in celebrity.

And since, eventually, a couple of years later and a couple of notches less hysterically, we do everything the Americans do, it soon became clear to the British media that what was required was an OJ of our own. Over the last few months there has been some competition for the role: Dennis Wise, Duncan Ferguson and Bruce Grobbelaar all gave good account of themselves in the auditions. But it was Cantona, as his procession into court on Thursday proved, who landed the part. True, slapping a prat about a bit is not quite as significant a crime as allegedly murdering your wife, and, true, facing two weeks in the chokey is not as alarming a prospect as an appointment with the electric chair, but we have more modest requirements in this country. And Cantona was a man of gifts extravagant enough to charge his fall with the quantities of schadenfreude required to fuel the public's fascination.

Not that Cantona need suffer out of the arrangement. He need only look to Mike Tyson to realise that. By a neat inversion, while the Frenchman briefly tasted the clink for assaulting someone, Tyson will be able to resume hitting people again now that he is out (though not in the sense Peter Tatchell understands it).

According to Chris Eubank, interviewed earlier this week, Iron Mike has benefited from his three-year lock-up. He has got fitter, uglier, meaner. But mainly what Eubank really meant was he has got richer. In short, Tyson's incarceration has meant that his celebrity has increased to the point where he will be paid roughly 10 times more for hitting someone now than he would have been had he not raped a beauty queen. The wages of sin.

Cantona, too, is not going to be giving his bank manager sleepless nights. He has been pitched, thanks to his OJ-ification, into a level of box office way above that he occupied merely as the best footballer in Britain. Any company seeking a universally recognised image (and now he has been manifestly wronged by the system, an image which is sympathetic) need look no further. Though they will have to pay for it.

A straw poll around the office yesterday revealed that of a dozen women questioned, half had heard of Jrgen Klinsmann. They had all heard of Eric Cantona. And those who hadn't heard of Klinsmann said they hadn't heard of Cantona either until he was OJ'd. Which means that if Jrgen really wanted to get rich, he should stop diving and start drop-kicking.