Poetry, motion and Cantona's mind games

Sport on TV

NEAR the start of The Cantona Affair (BBC2, Wednesday), a journalist declared that "It's easy to put top-spin on a Cantona story". But, as we've seen in some of the coverage generated by the Matthew Simmons misdemeanour, it's easy also to swing wildly, catch the thing at some laughable angle on the top edge of your racket and balloon it on to the next-door court.

So how would The Cantona Affair fare? Essentially, this was last year's Standing Room Only interview spruced up and rejigged to incorporate the recent events.

There was no new comment from Cantona, sadly. But at least we got to look again at some of Eric's finest seconds; that peachy goal against Wimbledon, that extraordinary shot which hit the bar against Chelsea and that blissful moment in France when he returned the ball to the referee with a touch more vigour than was strictly essential. Against the rules, a bad example to youngsters, not to be encouraged etc., but it was an athletic achievement of its own kind to be able to hit the referee that hard from that distance.

Connections were explored between Eric and the poet he holds dear, Rimbaud. Simon O'Brien, narrating, boldly insisted on pronouncing it "Rimbo", presumably in order to steer clear of the traditional "Rambo" confusion.

O'Brien pointed out that Cantona had had "more words written about him than `Rimbo' managed in a lifetime", a statistic which seemed a little unfair on the plucky young symbolist from France who lived in a time before competitive mass circulation tabloids and so couldn't always rely on hitting the headlines ("Top Verse Man In Prose Poem Stunner").

The programme also reflected on the Cantona Nike commercial (in which Eric lists his misdemeanours in a manner at some remove, you could argue, from remorse) in order to initiate some thoughts about the perpetuation of an image. This was a little cheeky because the Standing Room Only team were themselves guilty of playing up to received images of Cantona in their interview sequence. Not for Eric the standard dodgy two minutes of close-up after a game with his hair still wet from the showers. Standing Room Only filmed him seated in a blackened studio strikingly lit from the side, a treatment ordinarily reserved for dissident Balkan playwrights and Norwegian underground movie-makers who pitch up on The Late Show.

He was wearing his Nike- endorsed baseball hat, the condition, one would wager, of the interview being granted in the first place, and looked more like a racing driver than a soccer player.

And just occasionally, with his jaw tilted up imperiously, he would thoughtfully rub the underside of his chin with his thumb and forefinger in the manner made famous by intellectuals worldwide. I am convinced that I have never before seen a footballer doing this.

It is here, I think, that the inevitable comparison with George Best breaks down. It's an easy one to begin to make, given Best's and Cantona's talent levels and given that both players possessed or possess gifts which are inexplicable.

Also, both of them would know something about a kind of suicidal or kamikaze impulse. But other than that they may only have in common the red shirt of Manchester United. (Or in Cantona's case the red shirt, the green shirt, the black shirt, the blue and white one, and probably before the end of this season the lilac and cream shirt with apricot shoulder areas and a fetching neckline in jade, a snip at £49.99.)

Best, as clips reminded us here, was always willing to be portrayed as a fun lover, just the man for a champagne fountain or a boutique opening and never once tried, even in his darkest moments, to lead us to believe that behind closed doors at his luxury home he was in fact writing a thesis about Chaucer.

Cantona's temperament is altogether different and the sense of imminent implosion which hangs about him (and is one of the reasons for our attraction to him) has nothing to do with loving the spotlight and threatening to go to seed. When Cantona finally blows it, it won't be in a nightclub with a banana daquiri in one hand and a gin fizz in the other. It will be on the pitch, or in the stand on his way off the pitch in some enormous storm of intense, personal seriousness.

Accordingly, the single moment which rang false in the interview was the one in which Cantona alleged, about Manchester United's success, "We have lots of fun and score lots of goals." Lots of goals, yes, and lots of astonishing football. But fun? This is a team whose brilliance often seems directly proportional to the players' ability to get on each other's backs, a team whose emotional condition is perhaps best encapsulated in the perpetually aggrieved face of Paul Ince. Or in Cantona's furrowed brow

As predictable as the dawn, Best appeared on the programme, and, in a lordly kind of way, suggested that Cantona was indeed a player he was prepared to pay money to see but that he could maybe learn to handle the press better. Given Cantona's performance with the news crew on the beach, there's probably nothing that any of us can tell him about handling the press.

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