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Eric Cantona didn’t play by conventional rules, and he remained a profoundly irresistible figure even when his brilliant career began to wind down.

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Illustration by Joe Morse

During his four and a half years with Manchester United Eric Cantona died twice.

The first time was at Selhurst Park in January 1995, when he jumped over some advertising hoarding and lunged into a baying crowd, landing his studs in the chest of a 20-year-old man dressed in a short, dark jacket and beige trousers. As he dangled across the boards, Cantona swung his leg back and planted his studs in the man’s midriff once more. Then he delivered a powerful right hook for good measure. The man, Matthew Simmons, waited for Cantona to be escorted away by Norman Davies, the United physiotherapist. Then he held out his arms and wildly looked around as if to say, “Did you see that?”

Very quickly, everyone in the country saw it.

The consensus was that the enfant terrible had gone too far. The FA referred to Cantona’s behavior as a “stain on our game.” One newspaper described him as “nitroglycerine in human form.” Many wanted him banished from England for good. It appeared that Cantona—a magnificent footballer with a long list of violent misdemeanors—had spontaneously combusted on British soil for the last time.

The Frenchman wanted to leave too, disgusted by his subsequent treatment. Initially, he was sentenced to two weeks in jail. On appeal, it was reduced to 120 hours of community service. The FA banned him for nine months, though few expected him ever to feature in the Premier League again.

But of course, he did. He was hiding back in France and close to signing for Inter Milan when Alex Ferguson tracked him down in Paris. Ferguson asked Cantona whether he wanted to stay. That was enough.

“Cantona is the most simple man to understand,” says Erik Bielderman, chief football writer with L’Equipe. “But he’s the most complicated man to deal with. He’s black and white. You’re with him or against him. You love him or hate him. He loves you or hates you. There is no light gray or dark gray. As long as you’re white to him, you have the most simple relationship and he’s the easiest man to deal with. But the moment there’s a drop of black ink on the white canvas, in his eyes you become black. Everyone, at a certain time, has been the black ink, and suddenly the relationship is destroyed. We don’t have to be black or white with 99% of players. We have to be impressionists almost. But you can’t be an impressionist with Cantona.”

Cantona’s resurrection was complete when, on May 11, 1996—six days after he hoisted the Premier League trophy above his head—he did the same with the FA Cup, having scored a magnificent game winner against Liverpool at Wembley with just four minutes left. He had risen from the dead.

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Cantona’s second death, on April 23, 1997, would have no such rebirth.

When he reappeared for the season’s curtain-raiser—the Charity Shield showdown with Newcastle United—he seemed fuller figured. In what perhaps was an attempt to disguise his few extra pounds, he let his shirt hang outside his shorts from kickoff.

He missed a decent chance early on. His initial effort was saved by Pavel Srníček before he wildly swung at the loose ball and sent a shot well wide. It was uncharacteristic for someone normally so composed in front of the goal. Soon after, he made everything look easy by slotting a clever finish inside Srníček’s near post for the opening goal.

Yet the player who controlled the game—displaying superb vision and creativity, and topping off a remarkable performance with a gorgeous individual strike—wasn’t Cantona but a young English midfielder who was set to have his breakout season. David Beckham assisted on Cantona’s goal and measured a superb cross to the far post for Nicky Butt to double United’s lead. Later, he raced onto a Cantona pass and deftly lobbed Srníček from 20 yards.

It was a sign of things to come. Six days afterward, in the first Premier League game of the season, against Wimbledon, Cantona smashed home the opener. There was an impudence to the celebration too: arms aloft—a dismissive statement to those pretenders to his throne, as if to say, “I am the king, even still, and no one comes close.”

But Cantona wasn’t the headline maker that day. Again, it was Beckham. His wonder strike from the halfway line was the best goal Cantona never scored. Away to Derby, it was Beckham who rescued a draw with another stunner. Against Liverpool, he scored the game winner.

Meanwhile, from mid-September to mid-December, Cantona—so long the catalyst—scored just twice. Inexplicably, given his reputation as a penalty expert, he missed one against Leeds, his former employer, at Elland Road. Of course, later in that game he nonchalantly flicked home United’s fourth at the far post and then incensed supporters behind the goal by brazenly staring down the V signs with arms stretched wide. Occasionally, he was still Cantona, but a diluted version of himself—he seemed to “perform” much more than ever, like a comedian returning to his best-known jokes because he has no new material.

Even his greatest moment of that campaign is almost tainted by what he did next. At home to Sunderland in December, he beat two defenders on the halfway line and played a one-two with Brian McClair. On the edge of the area, he deftly chipped his compatriot Lionel Pérez and watched as the ball floated, tantalizingly, toward the goal. It kissed the inside of the post before nestling in the net.

Cantona stood expressionless, stuck his chest out, and looked around as the stadium erupted and bowed down to give thanks to the king. Egotistical, well aware of what he was doing, he crossed the line into self-parody. Later, after scoring against Everton, he even conjured a kung-fu kick as a celebration.

“When I saw him in the early stages of the season, he was bald and mainly overweight,” Bielderman says. “The body shape made you think something had changed in the previous couple of months. Suddenly, it seemed that in six months, he had aged five years.”

Something did happen in the off-season: a European Championship held in England. But despite Cantona’s Cinderella story, French coach Aimé Jacquet didn’t care too much for fairy tales. Just seven days after the United’s FA Cup Final victory over Liverpool, he decided against including Cantona in his squad for the tournament. In many ways, his decision was justified. After all, Cantona—whom Jacquet, upon taking over as manager two years earlier, had appointed captain—hadn’t played for his country since a week before his assault on Simmons. Putting his faith in a new generation—including Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff—Jacquet guided the French side to the semifinals. But there was a delicious irony to France’s exiting the competition after a sudden-death penalty shootout defeat to the Czech Republic. At Old Trafford.

Before Jacquet’s announcement, Cantona attempted to give the impression that he was nonplussed. But for someone usually so quick with a quip and confident with his delivery, he fudged his lines when asked about the subject ahead of the cup final against Liverpool.

“The people who will play in the European Championship will be tired afterward,” he told the BBC, sounding as if he didn’t believe his own words. “It’s always like that. After the World Cup, it wasn’t Milan or Barcelona that were champions. So after the European Championship, it will be the same. The Champions League next season is a very important thing for Manchester United. We all want to win it. If I play, I will be happy. If I don’t play, I’ll go on a holiday and I’ll be fit for next season.”

Although Cantona’s omission was expected by the French media and probably by the player himself, it still irritated him. It was another reminder that acceptance and understanding from the wider French public were never going to happen.

“I think there is something behind it,” Bielderman says. “Only when he was in England and involved there did he really feel happy. In France, there was always division about him. We might have won the European Championship with him and he would’ve become, forever, like a kind of Platini or Zidane. Or it could’ve been something that hammered the French camp, and they may never have been world champions two years later as a result.”

It seemed Jacquet had a similar mind-set. “Eric’s qualities as a player have never been in doubt,” he said at the time. “But I have two priorities—to obtain the best possible result at Euro 96, and to work for the future, for the 1998 World Cup in France, and give the young generation a chance to meet the best teams in Europe.”

That sentiment applied to Manchester United. It seemed Cantona just wasn’t needed as badly anymore. Perhaps his appearance—shaved head, double chin, heavy stubble—was an acknowledgement of that.

Around him, others who had spent so long in his shadow were stepping up. Roy Keane—largely unheralded for his magnificent performances the previous season—was a snarling, irresistible force in the middle of the pitch: a leader, a warrior. Alongside him, Nicky Butt had quickly  developed into a fine foil. Paul Scholes was finding his niche. Gary Neville was defensively dogged while his overlapping runs were becoming a trademark.

In the league, there were still flashes of Cantona’s brilliance, but not many. The last great moment came in a 3-2 home defeat to Derby, when he waved his magic wand and mesmerizingly brought down a left-wing cross from Ole Gunnar Solskjær with his right foot, jinked past one challenge, and drove the strike to the far corner.

The most human and emotional version of Cantona that season came in the Champions League. His previous appearance in the competition was against Galatasaray in December 1994, when United were eliminated in the group  stages after humiliating defeats in Barcelona and Göteborg. Cantona had struggled on the biggest stage and desperately wanted to put that right.

Away to Fenerbahçe in October ’96, he settled a tricky tie with United’s second goal and was noticeably emotive as he ran to celebrate. Perhaps it was relief. Against Rapid Vienna, he scored again and United were through to the quarterfinals. There they faced a Porto side that hadn’t lost a group game and could count on the relentless Brazilian striker Mário Jardel, who had single-handedly beaten AC Milan at the San Siro a few months earlier.

At Old Trafford, David May opened the scoring after 22 minutes. Cantona added a second shortly after, thumping the ball to the net from close range. Losing himself in the moment, he grabbed wildly at his shirt, raced toward the United fans behind the goal, and slid on his knees in front of them. Later, Ryan Giggs and Andy Cole added goals to ensure an emphatic win. The second leg finished scoreless, and United were in the final four.

That’s when Cantona died for the second time. It was a Wednesday night in spring. United had got a favorable draw and faced Borussia Dortmund in the semifinals. On the other side were the heavyweights: reigning champions Juventus—United’s bogey team—and 1995 champions Ajax. There was plenty of optimism, but a first-leg defeat in Dortmund complicated things. United had dominated but lost to a late deflected goal. Keane also picked up a booking that ruled him out of the return fixture.

It was there, under the bright lights of the same stadium that had lauded his return not long before, that Cantona perished. Lars Ricken stunned the crowd after eight minutes, and United were in a hole. When the ball broke to Cantona later in the half in front of an open goal, he seemed certain to turn the tide. He went to tap the ball, but veteran defender Jürgen Kohler flung out a leg and deflected it to safety. Later, Cantona latched onto a flick-on and casually tried to float the ball over the advancing Stefan Klos. He was too casual, and Dortmund got players back on the line to clear.

United couldn’t find a way through. When Gary Pallister missed a simple header from close range, Cantona dropped to his knees and held his face in his hands. He knew it was over.

“For me, that was the turning point,” Bielderman says. “I was at the game that night. It was the obvious proof that Cantona would never put United where United were supposed to be. It was the beginning of the end for him. It was the night that Eric decided that it was the end.”

“Napoleon went into exile and came back for his Hundred Days and began to win some battles,” Bielderman continues, “then finished with defeat at Waterloo. With Cantona, his first game back after the ban—against Liverpool in the 2-2 draw when he scores an equalizing penalty—he’s received as the hero, like Napoleon. The Dortmund game is his Waterloo.”

Immediately after the game, Cantona told Ferguson he was retiring at the end of the season. And despite his manager’s best efforts, despite the year that remained on his contract, he was true to his word. Eight days after Cantona had won his fourth league title in his four and a half years at the club, and just days before his 31st birthday, United confirmed the news.

“I think he anticipated the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson was due—at some stage—to ds rop him in the future,” Bielderman says. “And if you know Cantona, you can’t drop him from the first 11. Cantona decided to go before he was told to go.”

“From the early stages right through to the last days,” Bielderman says, “he wanted to be in control of his fate. He just needed to look in the mirror to see he was not the same Cantona anymore. But he would be the man to decide what would happen to him. In many ways, there was relief. Because it was much easier for Ferguson to support Cantona’s decision rather than say, at some stage, ‘Eric, this is the end.”

“The myth of Cantona is bigger than the man,” Bielderman adds. “He was part of the theater, the show in making himself a legend. Zlatan Ibrahimović is the same kind of guy. On the biggest stage in Europe, he’s not the same. When United were emerging in Europe, Cantona wasn’t the man to bring success to them. In England, he was the king and then he became the myth. He will stay a legend forever. He was the player who came to England and made United.”

There’s a remarkable moment, during that BBC interview in 1996, when the camera frames Cantona’s face in closeup. He appears on the brink of tears as he selects each word. The silence is punctuated only by an intermittent noise: the lump in his throat. He’s been asked not about his wife or his children or his parents, the usual topics that might push someone into a heightened emotional state, but about the Manchester United supporters.

“I respect them very much—I love them,” he says. “But last season—for eight months—they never stopped singing. It may have only been for 15 seconds, but they thought about it. I will never forget it. Never.”

That untainted, unconditional, unrelenting support—the unspoiled white canvas—has always remained with Cantona. He’s still affected by it, and by the unwavering counsel Ferguson provided. He’d never had it before.

His voice cracks a little before he finishes the interview. “I will try to give the United fans the pleasures they need. Every time.”

Perhaps the legend of Eric Cantona, his real legacy, is that, even 20 years after walking away, he still does.

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