'Looking For Eric': The Return Of Cantona As Actor

Temperamental but lavishly talented French footballer Eric Cantona -- about to play film-star at Cannes -- is still worshipped in part of northwest England 12 years after leaving Manchester United to retire abruptly at 31.
WRITER-ID | 18 May 2009

Temperamental but lavishly talented French footballer Eric Cantona -- about to play film-star at Cannes -- is still worshipped in part of northwest England 12 years after leaving Manchester United to retire abruptly at 31.

So strong is his abiding love for Manchester that Cantona has formed an unlikely alliance with gritty British director Ken Loach, putting himself and the city at the heart of Cannes film festival contender "Looking for Eric", which screens there Monday.

Cantona, who has acted in a handful of films, plays himself, appearing like a vision to help a Manchester postman, also named Eric, a devoted United fan whose life is spinning out of control.

"I like the way it's so real, like documentary. And I like how you don't know if you have to laugh or cry," Cantona told the Guardian newspaper this month.

While film critics have been lukewarm about Cantona's acting career so far, in Manchester at least the mention of his name is still enough to stir emotion in United fans.

Twelve years after his sudden departure, red, white and blue French Tricolores still fly in the roads leading to United's imposing Old Trafford stadium.

In fish and chip shops, Cantona's photograph hangs alongside yellowing pictures of the club's legendary players like George Best and Bobby Charlton.

T-shirts proclaim 1966 as a "great year for English football" -- not because it was when England won their first and still their only World Cup, but because it was the year "Eric was born".

"We still sell this T-shirt and we still sell the flags," said souvenir seller Craig Ashton.

Cantona, with his trademark turned-up collar on his jersey and his willingness to defy referees and football's London-based authorities, was different.

"He brought his arrogance to the game," Ashton said.

Characteristically, Cantona moved to England after falling out with French football authorities.

He made his mark with Leeds United, another club in northern England, helping them to win the then First Division before a 1.2 million pound move to Manchester United in November 1992.

In his first season, United won their first league championship for 26 years as they triumphed in the inaugural Premier League.

The Frenchman helped them retain their title in 1994 but missed a chunk of the 1994-1995 season after infamously leaping in to the crowd during a match at London club Crystal Palace and launching a 'kung fu' kick at an abusive fan.

But rather than alienating his fans, Cantona's moment of madness in 1995 endeared him to them -- even after he was handed a lengthy suspension.

"We loved him even more," recalls Steven Rose, who sells the "United We Stand" fanzine.

In his comeback game, Cantona scored a penalty and United's fans broke into a chorus of: "We'll drink a drink a drink/ to Eric the King the King the King.

"What a friend we have in Jesus/He's a saviour from afar/What a friend we have in Jesus/And his name is Cantona/Ooh Aah Cantona".

When Cantona chose to walk away at his peak in 1997, he won fresh respect by depriving any other club of his services.

"Even in the last days, he decided to retire. He just decided that was it. He walked away from the game. You have to admire him for that," said Ashton.

Or, as Ivan Ponting, the author of a handful of books on Manchester United, put it, Cantona was "an uncontrollable free spirit, a capricious bird of passage who would never linger."

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