YOU didn't have to look very long and hard at Mr Matthew Simmons of Thornton Heath to conclude that Eric Cantona's only mistake was to stop hitting him. The more we discovered about Mr Simmons, the more Cantona's assault looked like the instinctiv e expression of a flawless moral judgement.
No, I'm sorry, I'll start that again. After all, this is still supposed to be a civilised society, in which the first duty of a sporting hero is to provide an example for children. And Mr Simmons, 20 years old, a double-glazing fitter with an alleged history of neo-Nazi sympathies and a conviction for attempted robbery with violence, was merely exercising the inalienable right of the English football fan as he played his historic role in the last temptation of Eric Cantona.
That right, as it has been described to me on several occasions this week, involves the ritual humiliation of opposition players. Acquiring the ability to ignore such systematic abuse is one of the tests of character faced by those who wish to play professional football in England. It is a test that Eric Cantona has clearly failed.
"If I wanted to define him," his friend Gerard Houllier, the technical director of the French football federation, told me last year, "I'd say that he's an island of freedom, generosity and pride." But Cantona's insularity was breached last Wednesday night by a set of circumstances that the fates were always going to arrange for him one day. Now he has become not merely a martyr to his own myth but a scapegoat for one of the ills that still afflict English football.
At Selhurst Park, Cantona had been complaining throughout the match about the challenges from Crystal Palace's defenders. Nothing new there. Attackers create, defenders destroy. With respect to such obvious exceptions as Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer and Gaetano Scirea, if defenders were better footballers, they'd be playing in another position. In order to keep things relatively even, the game is so arranged that the destroyers get away with persistent illegality while the attackers are supposed to cultivate a saintly forbearance. But in Cantona's case, if he is a genius, he is certainly not a misunderstood one: throughout the Premiership, defenders understand all too well how to get at him through his fatal weakness.
At 8.57pm on Wednesday, three minutes into the second half of a scrappy game, Cantona was tackled from behind by his marker, Richard Shaw. The linesman flagged; the referee did nothing. A minute later, the infuriated Cantona aimed a sly retaliatory kick at Shaw. It's something he's done many times before in similar circumstances, and it marks him out from the general run of British professionals. This time the referee paid attention, and Cantona was heading for the early bath.
According to the view of those who defend the manners of English football crowds, Matthew Simmons was guilty of nothing more than getting full value for his £300 season ticket when he rushed down to the touchline from his seat in the 11th row of the mainstand at Selhurst Park to tell Cantona that he was "a French bastard" who should "fuck off back to France". (Or something to that effect: for "bastard", according to some reports, substitute "wanker".) The speaker himself couldn't remember his exact words: "I might have sworn at him - I'm not sure," he told the Sun, which had bought the rights to his side of the story. "But whatever I said it never gave him any excuse to do what he did. Cantona was the lunatic, not me."
Hearing the words in question, and seeing their author gesticulating obscenely at him, Cantona misunderstood the conventions of English football, failed to turn the other cheek, and thus broke the understanding that such displays are, in the apologists' usual terminology, "part and parcel" of the game.
Since the success of the long campaign to curtail hooliganism at English football grounds, the noisy dishonouring of opponents seems to be the lout's last liberty. In my view, the ugliest sound in the English game is the shrill hiss of derision that nowadays routinely greets a missed shot at goal by a player of the visiting team. It isn't funny or charming, or even traditional. It's the distilled essence of hatred, and a reminder that the existence of all-seater grandstands with decent lavatories doesn't guarantee a mass conversion to the higher emotions. Perhaps that should be the next object of the campaign to improve football culture, and perhaps l'affaire Cantona might be its catalyst.
It is not an impossible task. Human beings are not irreversibly programmed to display rancour towards their opponents at football matches. The European Cup finals of 1992, at Wembley, and 1994, in Athens, were the most enjoyable football nights I can remember, for the ambience created by the supporters. The stakes could hardly have been higher, yet the fans of Barcelona (on both occasions), Sampdoria and Milan found a way of supporting their teams, of accepting defeat or victory, without needing to experience any emotion darker than disappointment. The expression of hatred is no more the sine qua non of an exciting football match than the crumbling terrace or the disgusting beefburger. In this connection, Crystal Palace's action in banning Matthew Simmons for the remainder of the season is a thoroughly appropriate response.
At the moment, however, Simmons is still ahead of the game. Cantona, suspended by his club until the end of the season, has been fined an undisclosed sum, said to be the maximum amount permitted under the terms of his contract. Manchester United's value as a publicly quoted company fell in the 48 hours after the Crystal Palace game from £79.6 million to £77.2m. At a special incident room at Addington police station in south London, seven policemen and women are devoting their full-time attention to the task of interviewing witnesses to the incident. And Mr Simmons is better off to the tune of whatever Rupert Murdoch's people have paid him, which could be £500, or £5,000, or £50,000 (on Friday the editor of the Sun declined my invitation to confirm the nature of their agreement, or to disclose the amount of any fee he may have paid).
Such is the nature of our society, a society from which Cantona, of course, has taken a share of the profits in such a way as to make it even harder to mount a plausible defence of his conduct. For his part in the notorious Nike advertising campaign, he has been paid several hundred thousand pounds to go with his £500,000 salary. When I saw the cinema advertisement last September, I thought he should have been charged there and then with bringing the game into disrepute.
"I have been punished for striking a goalkeeper," he said to the camera, in modishly grainy monochrome. "For spitting at supporters. For throwing my shirt at a referee. For calling my manager a bag of shit. I called those who judged me a bunch of idiots." A pause. A wry half-grin. "I thought I might have trouble finding a sponsor."
Yes, very funny. And very stylish. Advertising people naturally fell over each other in the rush to acclaim the piece. But in the real world, even those of us who have enjoyed watching Cantona's half-baked existentialism flourish in the unlikely context of English football found this hard to stomach. Nike's diabolically clever exploitation of unsporting behaviour had finally gone beyond the limits of acceptability.
But there was not a word from the Football Association, who could have used the opportunity to make an important point, quietly but firmly. When the ad was removed from the cinemas, it was at the insistence of the Advertising Standards Authority, on the grounds of its use of the word "shit".
This time, of course, Nike simply can't lose. At last they've found a way to overcome the principal threat to their campaigns, which is the basic uncertainty of sport. In the past, they have often been tripped up by hubris. Ian Wright sneered "Gary who?"and proved he couldn't score goals for England. Sergei Bubka fell flat on his face at the Barcelona Olympics. Quincy Watts's running shoe disintegrated in Stuttgart. But the irony of the Cantona brouhaha - and, in ad-man's terms, its magic - is that thescandal can only reinforce the message of the campaign. Reporters who rang the company this week to ask if Nike planned to terminate the footballer's contract were not merely wasting their breath but missing the whole point.
The obvious parallel is with John McEnroe, the original Nike bad boy, whose outbursts of vicious rage (usually directed at middle-aged line judges) were equally reprehensible, and similarly appeared to be out of his own control. When Jimmy Connors made semi-obscene gestures or put an opponent off by wasting time, it was the product of cold calculation. When McEnroe exploded, it was at the prompting of inner voices. This made it more frightening, and somehow pitiful. And genuinely tragic, since it was combined with a transcendent sporting gift. Cantona is not a McEnroe in world terms, although in the environment of the English league he can look like one, which is why we sincerely mourn his fate and try our best to find reasons for his aberrant be haviour.
Like a lot of other people, I found myself spending a few awkward minutes on Thursday morning trying to explain the events of the previous night to an eight-year-old who has always been encouraged to take pleasure from Cantona's presence among us. It wasn't easy. But I finished by saying that although we wouldn't be seeing him for a while, because he'd probably be suspended and that would be only right, I hoped he would be back next season, and we'd go and see him then. Because, whatever he did on Wednesday, I don't believe that Eric Cantona is one of the bad guys.
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