THE TROUBLED CAREER: Rebel with no instinct for survival

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The Independent Online
Eric Cantona has always been different. He has prided himself on it, paying tribute, in his autobiography, to the likes of Jim Morrison, Mickey Rourke and Marlon Brando for their "independence and rebelliousness".

In football that has manifested itself in little matters, such as his raised shirt-collar, and in big ones, like Wednesday night's act of madness.

Extremes of talent and temperament often co-exist within exceptional individuals. Great artists, and Cantona regards sportsmen as artists, feed off their intensity to give expression to their ability. Some, such as Morrison, proved unable to cope with the dark side of their personalities and died young.

With Cantona the demons only seem to exist when he is pursuing his calling as a footballer. Away from the pitch he lives quietly - he is fiercely protective of his privacy - and modestly in Manchester. His wife, Isabelle, who he has known since his teens, teaches French at Leeds University. Unlike several of his team-mates there have been no tabloid exclusives about Cantona drinking, womanising or fighting.

But when football is involved it is a different matter. He first came to English attention at a misty Highbury seven years ago when he inspired a French aggregate win over England (including Paul Gascoigne) in the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship.

He was already a full international and, by that summer, was a star with Bernard Tapie's resurgent Marseille. The move took him back to his home town, where he had grown up in a cave that had been converted into a house by his paternal grandfather, a Sardinian stonemason. His maternal grandfather, a Spaniard exiled by the Civil War, lived nearby.

It was a close-knit family but with an independent spirit - Cantona had first left home, to go to Auxerre, at 15. Now he had returned but the short fuse was burning. That August he called Henri Michel, the French national team manager, a "bag of shit" and was banned from international football for a year.

Four months later he threw his shirt at his coach and the referee after being substituted during a match against Torpedo Moscow, played in aid of the Armenian Disaster Fund. Tapie, having threatened to send him to a lunatic asylum, instead sent him on loan to Bordeaux for the rest of the season.

From there he went to Montpellier, where a dressing-room fight with a team-mate was followed by a petition from half a dozen team-mates against Cantona. He returned to Marseille, fell out with Tapie, and went to Nimes, whereupon he was sent off for throwing the ball at the referee.

He was suspended for a month and reacted by calling each member of the disciplinary commission an "idiot" to their face. He still expresses surprise that the ban was doubled.

He thought, petulantly, of retirement, but football retained its allure and England beckoned. Cantona fell in love with English football theatre, the crowds, the passion, even, he said, "the cops on horseback are beautiful".

He provided the spark that helped Leeds win the title, but fell out with Howard Wilkinson, their manager. He then had the same catalytic effect on Manchester United. Last year, Cantona again played a key role in their Double. It was his fourth league title in succession, Marseille having been champions in his last full season in France.

That is his impact on the field, but he has also been sent off five times for United: for kicking a Rangers player in a friendly; for stamping on a Swindon player; abusing a Swiss referee (after the game) in Turkey; kicking a Crystal Palace defender; andfor fouling Tony Adams at Highbury last season. That dismissal was regarded as unlucky, but he has escaped at other times.

Now he has crossed the Rubicon and leapt into uncharted territory. Manchester United - a club whose chairman has recently been fined for accosting a referee and whose manager will never criticise his players in public - cannot be trusted to administer their own punishment. There is too much money at stake. Their reluctance to act yesterday underlined this.

A lengthy ban is inevitable: three months minimum, probably to the end of the season. He may be the best player in the country, the one who, more than any other, supporters will pay to watch. But that is irrelevant. He will have to be treated the same way as any other player.

It is to be hoped that, whatever the punishment, Cantona does not turn his back on the English game. There are not so many great players here that we can afford to lose him. While question marks remain about his ability in the biggest games - his record in European competition is poor and his international career is unremarkable - there can be no understating his impact. The massive media reaction to the Selhurst assault underlines that.

That same night Frank Clark, the manager of Nottingham Forest, referred to the difficulty of dealing with temperamental players after his team's match at Stamford Bridge.

"He is a volatile character, that is what makes him the player he is," Clark said. "It is very difficult if you are a high-profile player. We talk to him all the time about not reacting to things."

Clark was talking about Stan Collymore, who had won the match after nearly being sent off for fighting, but the words apply equally to Cantona.

French television's equivalent of Spitting Image has a Cantona character named "Picasso" (because of his interest in art). He swears, paints a red card and shows it to himself, imagines he is playing for a team of birds and, constantly, rips his shirt off and throws it to the floor.

Unfortunately the English Spitting Image doll, with his bull's horns and steaming ears, is now a more accurate portrayal of Cantona's excesses.

In his autobiography - probably the most distinctive book ever written by a footballer - he writes of Brando and Rourke being "fragile people who managed to remain upright".

Cantona's instability is in danger of costing him his stage, and the game his talents. It is to be hoped punishment will bring reform but not retirement.