Cantona plays to the gallery

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AFTER months of court appearances, pleas and appeals, the end has finally come for Eric Cantona: the British legal establishment has sentenced him to hang.

But before anguished Manchester United fans descend on the High Court with blazing torches, we should hastily explain that it is only a painting of the poetic Frenchman that the lawyers are hanging: on the walls of a gallery in a solicitors' office in central London, as part of an exhibition of contemporary sporting art.

We went along to the private view of the exhibition one night last week, for we would not have you think us uncultured: we can sip white wine and peer at prices every bit as convincingly as that Captain Moonlight chappie. And a most interesting selection of work it was, too.

"People don't normally associate art with sport," the exhibition's curator, Tamar Arnon, told us. "But I'm happy to break that myth. Most of the artists exhibiting here are huge fans of a particular sport: it's natural that they should be inspired by that."

The inspiration takes many forms: Jason Hindley photographs boxers' hands, Jonathan Wright paints horses, Hassan Aliyu paints athletes . . . and Paul Reilly painted Eric Cantona. "Sports stars are such a big part of everyday life," he told us. "People are ambitious to be like them." Eric, or rather Eric, is depicted rather in the Soviet Realist manner, chin upthrust, cheekbones chiselled, frowning at the future: the Man of Destiny. "I want people to look at it and say 'Yeah! That's Eric!' " Reilly said. And no doubt they will. A garrulous young Glaswegian, Reilly graduated from the Royal College of Art a couple of years ago, and is finding success with sporting subjects. "I've been commissioned to paint Mike Tyson," he told us, "and Nike are interested in my work." He wore a Nike sweatshirt: perhaps they are expanding their sponsorship activities still further.

No such casual wear for the Sussex cricketer Martin Speight, who stood proudly besides his works in a smart jacket and tie. He was exhibiting three small paintings of cricket grounds in Sri Lanka: charming little oil landscapes painted when he was on tour there with Young England a few years ago. "This is a brilliant exhibition," he bubbled. "I like the mix of styles." Speight is publishing a book of his paintings this week: it features such evocative images of the "summer game" as Worcester Under Water (oil), The Saffrons, Eastbourne, Under Snow (water-colour), and Lord's Under Snow (oil).

Our favourite work was Mick Dodd's Shark, a large painting showing three football fans sitting morosely in a pub, eyeing each other in a most suspicious manner. They each sport sticking plasters on damaged noses. As we stood admiring the painting a smartly dressed man asked: "Do you like it? Do you like it? I hope you like it. It's mine." He'd painted it? No - he'd bought it, for pounds 2,100. The buyer was a partner with Collyer-Bristow, the firm of solicitors hosting the exhibition: active sponsorship indeed.

Godfried Donkor is another painter inspired by football, but his work also has a religious bent: he is concerned with Spanish football worship. "The Nou Camp stadium is like a church," he explained. "Mums and kids, young boys and old men go there to worship." While studying at the Escolla Messena in Barcelona, the Ghanaian-born Donkor became fascinated with the deification of footballers in the eyes of the local fans. "I was interested in the way they build players up into gods and demi-gods, saints and villains," he said. "If you miss a goal, you're a villain. If you score, you're a saint." Donkor therefore paints footballers as iconic, haloed figures: Santo Roberto, St Stoichkov, and St Ruud, who will shortly be attempting miracles for the Stamford Bridge faithful.

Such elevated themes, we felt, threatened to divorce the works from the essentially competitive and aggressive nature of sport. But luckily we had a quick word with Martin Speight on our way out. "There's a fantastic photograph over there," he said, pointing to a striking shot of one of his Sussex team-mates. "Alan Wells getting clean bowled. Brilliant." For some reason, we don't think he was referring to the composition of the work.

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WHILE European fans wait with bated breath for the latest round of the Hill v Schumacher duel at today's Canadian Grand Prix, the locals could not care less. Their passion is for ice hockey. Accordingly, the host broadcasters for the grand prix, CBC, will delay "live" transmission of the race to concentrate on the Stanley Cup (Eastern Conference) play-off between two American teams, Philadelphia and New Jersey.

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