Suspended from football until October after his assault on a Crystal Palace supporter and almost certain to be confronted by terrace abuse if he stayed in England, logic suggested he would move abroad, particularly when Inter made a £5m offer for him. Instead, he said he wishes to see out his career with United.
"Manchester United are the biggest club in England, maybe in Europe, maybe in the world," he said at a press conference at Old Trafford yesterday. "I'm very pleased to have the opportunity in the next three years to win many trophies with them. Everybody at this club deserves this - and the fans too.
"I have never thought about leaving Manchester United, but maybe some people thought so. We are bigger than the people who have been so hard and so wrong sometimes. I hope to spend the rest of my career here."
Cantona's decision to pledge himself to the club until he is 31 is regarded as unexpected within Old Trafford, where the fear was that the hostile reaction and the media attention after the Selhurst Park incident would drive him out of England.
There was also the financial inducement coming from Milan, where Inter were reported to be offering him £25,000 a week, and a possible adverse reaction to his 120-hour community service sentence imposed by the courts. Martin Edwards, United's chief executive, said he was certain the Frenchman would stay only "when he walked into my office at 9.35 this morning.
"There have been other offers," he continued, "and it is no secret that Inter were very interested in him. He would have been financially better remunerated, but he has shown loyalty to us and we have shown loyalty to him. We're very delighted as a club, and we look forward to him playing for us again.
"It's been a long, traumatic period. Eric has had four punishments - he's been banned by the club, banned by the FA, he has received a court sentence and been banned by the French FA - and he's now serving those punishments. We hope this brings it all to an end," Edwards said.
Cantona, looking relaxed in a red shirt and pink and cream striped jacket, said that the reaction within the club - particularly from the other players and the manager, Alex Ferguson - had persuaded him to stay. But would he be able, he was asked, to ignore the taunts of rival supporters and players? "Easy," he said, with a smile.
There was just a hint of the extraordinary in his replies, but nothing comparable to his sardines and seagulls comment, which followed his appearance at Croydon Magistrates' Court, when his legal punishment was reduced from a custodial sentence to community service. "You fear me more than I fear you," he declared, which was taken to mean that he would regard future insults and intimidation as compliments.
Ferguson, probably the most persuasive voice in Cantona's ear, said he thought his player had taken the difficult option. "I thought that he was almost certain to leave," he said.
"There was so much pressure on him, and you get to the point where you have to think if you are doing right by the player. When you think what has happened to him since January, you wonder who else could have coped with it.
"The easier route would have been to go, but he has made the harder decision and put himself in the firing line. He has said to himself: 'They are not going to defeat me.' Obviously you worry what sort of effect all this has had on him inside, but outwardly he has reacted to everything very well. It's that which persuaded me he can handle it. He knows this is his last chance."
That chance, Ferguson believes, will be enhanced if ways can be found to separate Cantona and the rest of the United players from rival fans, particularly when they are most exposed; close to the tunnel and between the team coach and the players' entrance. He will be asking for better stewarding and facilities, although he did add: "The future of the game is in supporters' hands."
Meanwhile, Internazionale officials reacted with anger to Cantona's rejection, claiming they had been misled by the player's representatives. "They agreed to have him play for Inter next year," their general secretary, Paolo Taveggia, said. "I am disappointed with Cantona's representatives, his manager and his lawyer.
"I think they were not as fair with us as we were with them. We were waiting for a telephone call from his representatives, but they did not bother to call us."
That will hardly worry Cantona, who has picked up championship medals in three successive seasons in England (once with Leeds United; twice with Manchester United), and who says he prefers the more frenetic football in this country.
Certainly he looked content yesterday, bringing the press conference to a close with: "I'm sorry, I must leave for training. I need to be fit for my next match."
Unfortunately for United, that day will not come until October - but at least he will be wearing their red shirt when it does.
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