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Football: Eric the Red part two

The film star is a footballer for one night. By John Lichfield
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ON TUESDAY night at Old Trafford, Manchester United will be captained by a French film star. His name will be familiar, even if you are not a an aficionado of French cinema. He is called Eric Cantona.

In a previous starring role, you may recall, he won four league championship titles and two FA Cup-winner's medals with Manchester United between 1992 and 1997. He also drop-kicked a Crystal Palace fan and popularised turned-up collars and sardines.

The Magnificent Seven is returning to Old Trafford, for the first time in 15 months, to captain his old team against an Eric Cantona XI in a benefit match for the survivors and families of victims of the 1958 Munich air crash. He is a little chubbier; his haircut is more severe than ever; otherwise, it is much the same Eric.

What has he been doing since he last played in a red shirt in a friendly match at Coventry City in May last year? He has starred in two movies, both of which have yet to appear on the screen, and he is at present making a third. In this latest venture, Les enfants du Marais (The Children of the Marsh), which is set in rural France in the 1930s, one of Cantona's main scenes involves smashing up a bar. No change there then.

His other cinematic ventures have included a small role as a French count in a movie about Elizabeth I, also starring Richard Attenborough. His principal starring role has been as an unconventional boxer in a movie called Mookie, which will appear in French cinemas this autumn (and in Britain, probably, some time next year).

In this film, which was shot partly in Mexico, Cantona co-stars with a chimpanzee, the "Mookie" of the title. Advance word, partly generated, it is true, by the film's publicity people, suggests that Cantona's performance is "extraordinary". The movie's producer insists that Cantona will, in the next few years, replace Gerard Depardieu as the most sought- after male star in French cinema.

One man who did not appreciate the realism of Cantona's performance was his sparring-partner in the boxing scenes, who complained to the director that Eric was hitting him too hard. "It's true," Cantona said, in a recent interview with Le Journal de Dimanche. "But he was hitting me too! It's nothing to be a bit groggy after taking a couple of punches in the face. I wanted it to be a real fight."

Cantona, now 32, is living in Barcelona. "It's a city which inspires me," he said, "Modern and gothic, between the sea and the mountains. There is only one problem, scooters everywhere, like piranhas."

Eric's brief, very funny, appearances in the Nike advertisements during the World Cup will be his last promotional appearances for the sportswear company. He also opened a Nike Park in the suburbs of Paris in June, when he was billed, pompously, as the President of the Popular Republic of Football.

Might he return to football one day? In another interview last month with the French cinema magazine Studio, he left the dressing-room door ajar, but only just. "I had no more passion for the game," he said. "At the same time I know that I can go back whenever I want. For the moment, I'm very happy in the cinema."

One person, other than the massed ranks of Manchester United fans, will be overjoyed to see Eric Cantona back in a red shirt. It is his nine year- old son, Raphael, who remains an English-speaking football devotee and United fan. "My son, when he is unhappy, he says it straight out. I appreciate that," said Cantona. "He liked it better when I was a footballer."