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Giants who outgrow the back pages

Newspaper front pages demand not perfect diplomats, but lousy, indiscreet and failed ones
The retirement of Eric Cantona is not only a grievous blow to everyone professing faith in Manchester United Football Club. A hole has been torn in the heart of the country's life - or, more exactly, in the heart of the media.

A new candidate (or candidates) is required to fill the unofficial post of national sporting celebrity. Preferably he or she should be British. But Europeans, even Latin Americans, will be given equal consideration. Exceptional ability in the chosen sport is essential, as is charisma. Most vices and eccentricities will be welcome to the selection board. Applicants need not put their names forward in writing. They will be informally notified of their appointment when their name(s) appear in headlines on the front page of every national newspaper. Clearly, the selection process is highly unpredictable. But here are a few guidelines to go by.

Rule number one, of course: you must be good. Intelligence and unusual behaviour help; but the most glittering mind, the most brazen gifts of self-promotion, the most titillating excesses with drugs, drink or the ladies will avail nothing, without outstanding skills to attract attention in the first place.

In some cases, huge talent on its own can be enough. Tiger Woods is the obvious example, mesmerising golf spectators and newspaper editors alike not so much because he is black, but because he is so phenomenally good. Or take Tim Henman at tennis, whose talent has yet to be fully measured. He does not swear at umpires, as does John McEnroe. To judge by what you read (or rather, don't), his off-court life is unblemished, unassuming and unremarkable. Were he to win at Wimbledon, though, he would generate more headlines than Tony Blair.

For those of only fractionally lesser talent, however, what cliche holds less media promise than a manager's hackneyed description of his charge as a "great ambassador for the game"? Notoriety is the lifeblood of celebrity. The front pages demand not perfect diplomats, but lousy, indiscreet and failed ones. They range from "Bad Boy" Denis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls and his vulgar, utterly calculating self-promotion, to the sadder stories of George Best and, more recently, Paul Gascoigne. Gazza's greatest, and thus newsiest, days are probably behind him. But his constant flirting with self-destruction rules nothing out.

Third, it helps if you embody a nation's image of itself. That was the gift to the front pages of Ian Botham, the Boy's Own yeoman hero whose ability to destroy the foe from Down Under had you forgiving his cavortings and braggadocio.

Eric Cantona, however, does not quite fit any of these categories. Clearly there is more to him than wonderful skills on the football field. Yet over the past five years he has engaged not in self-destruction but in resurrection, both of himself and of Manchester United. Equally clearly, as a citizen of the ancestral enemy from across the Channel, he hardly qualifies as an all-English role model. Yet, unless you hail from Leeds, the odds are that you love him. Why? Because of his mystique and aloofness, the dash of Gallic arrogance mitigated by his evident enjoyment at being here. But, no less, simply because he is different.

If Alan Shearer likened a run by Juninho to a sonnet by Keats, he would be laughed out of court. "Pure magic, Gary" is as close as is permitted to cerebral outpouring by our native footballing sons. But Eric le penseur can muse about becoming a film director (nouvelle vague Mancunienne?) and claim to find as much beauty in a pass by Pele as in a stanza by Rimbaud, and get away with it. Cross the Channel, and pseudo-intellectuals become the real thing. That is the other comfort provided by Cantona. We have taken a Frenchman, no less, to our hearts. Who can call us blinkered Europhobes ?

The gap he leaves is therefore huge. But alongside that of one sporting immortal, it pales. The halcyon years of Muhammad Ali were before today's supercharged cocktail of sport, money and media. Ali, of course, did not need it. He possessed everything required for sporting celebrity, and more. His professional skills were luminous, but his mind outside the ring was as fast as his feet and hands in it. By choice, and by skin colour, he was pushed to the centre of the controversies of his age: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcongs." In Ali, self-promotion fused with promotion of the cause. Yet he loved his sport to an excess that was to destroy him.

If Cantona's appeal is complex, Ali's remains more complicated and even greater. He was a black radical who challenged a white government - but came to be loved by that very same establishment, anxious to atone for its sense of racial guilt. Today the tragic ravages of Parkinson's disease only make him more compelling. The sports celebrity has transcended not just his sport, but all sport. One can only guess at the role a healthy and articulate Muhammad Ali - not the pathetic figure we prayed would not fall as he climbed to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta - might have played in the quest for racial healing in America and beyond.

Today, though, he is a spent force, and now that Cantona has departed, the celebrity stage is oddly vacant. On this side of the Atlantic at least, Michael Jordan doesn't resonate, while the Gascoigne star is fading. With his recent pointed criticism of President Clinton for racial pandering, young Tiger is showing serious promise of celebrity beyond the sports pages - but not quite yet. The shift to the "New News" of celebrity and scandal from the "Old News" of Cold War, ideology and the rest, means the bar to be cleared in the leap from the back pages to the front has been lowered. Football, central as never before to national life, is the natural source of new material, but somehow Zola, Juninho and the rest of the foreign legion don't fill Cantona's boots, and the vacancy exists. Probably, however, not for long. Like nature, celebrity abhors a vacuum. Just watch the front pages.