“I should have been born English. When I hear ‘God Save The Queen’, it can make me cry, much more than when I hear ‘La Marseillaise’.”
Eric Cantona, as ever, playing to the crowd in an interview with The Telegraph some years ago, his profession of love for England belying his feelings for his homeland.
The legendary catalyst for the Manchester United side which came to dominate the nineties and noughties knew his audience well. He spent a footballing lifetime craving the kind of adoration which poured—and still pours—down from all corners of Old Trafford. However, as a youngster growing up in Les Caillols, on the outskirts of Marseille, the rainy northern English city of Manchester was a million miles away from what he envisaged and wished for.
Marseille is a melting pot of mediterranea—and it has long been so. Founded as Massilia by Greek mariners in around 600 BC, the city is located alongside a natural harbour and surrounded by hills. As time goes by, many other cities eat up their surroundings, growing across the landscape like flowing lava. Such crawling urban sprawl is not present here—it is a topography which has had a profound impact on the city.
Like all ports, though, all life is here. Marseille’s buildings are scattered like pieces of Lego onto the hillsides. As the traveller approaches the port, often bathed in golden sunlight, the picturesque ochre coloured cubes portray a sense of calm which belies the chaos that can hide in their shadows.
And just like Cantona, Marseille—and its people—had a complex, and often difficult, relationship with France.
The city’s most famous gift to the world of cuisine is Bouillabaisse—a stew traditionally consisting of the bony rockfish which would have been difficult to have sold to restaurants, beefed up with garlic and saffron and now loaded with clams, lobsters and more. There could hardly be a more appropriate culinary metaphor for a city of such a diverse and vibrant populace.
Indeed, people have flocked from all corners to the city in such numbers that Marseille has often been marked as an outsider in its own country. It is said that as far back as 1880 more than one in six of the city’s inhabitants were foreign.
It is this city which eventually welcomed Eric Cantona’s grandparents. His paternal grandfather a Sardinian immigrant and on his maternal side, his grandfather was a Republican who fought General Franco and eventually fled Spain as a refugee.
As with all iconic figures, there is always a touch of poetic licence afforded to their stories. Cantona’s tells of a childhood spent growing up in a hillside cave. La Chambrette was, indeed, a small grotto which his grandmother had discovered but this was temporary shelter while his grandfather busied himself building the family home.
The neighbourhood, Les Caillols, was far removed from the dark, brooding Marseille of legend. Lying in a valley at the foot of Saint-Julien, it is named after the brothers Caillol who had bought a property there. A parish and a village eventually formed around it.
By the time Eric Cantona was born, in 1966, urbanisation had reached the village—although the old centre still remained. Cantona has often reminisced of his formative years in Les Caillols, nostalgically talking of kicking tin cans with his friends and brothers in the streets or heading into the woods with his father for walks.
Family was important. “We were middle-class people,” he once stated in an interview with The Big Issue. “We were not poor. We had a very strong family. We were happy all together in this house. A big family at a big table, all together…arguing, always passionate, laughing, crying, singing. It was a warm house.”
Amidst this warmth was a love of sport—particularly football.
Marseille fostered a football culture like nowhere else in France and the Cantona siblings’ love of the game was heartily encouraged by their father, who often took the boys to watch Olympique de Marseille. One trip to the Stade-Vélodrome, to see a Johan Cruyff-inspired Ajax beat the home side, made a particular impression on Eric.
It would come to pass that Cantona’s major successes would be found elsewhere. Yet, when on the cusp of one of those triumphs—as a part of Manchester United’s revered double-winning side of 1994—he told L’Equipe magazine that he was still clear about the stuff of which his dreams were made:
“When I was a little boy, what made me dream was the Stade-Vélodrome. And this love will never leave me.”
In 1993, Cantona told a French journalist of his approach to football, “I kept the spirit of street football...no strategy, no tactics. Only improvisation. And pleasure.”
It took a short while for him to be able to use this approach in a team situation, as his first foray into football was to follow in his father’s footsteps. Life for Eric Cantona at Sports Olympiques Caillolais— renowned feeder club to Olympique de Marseille and OGC Nice — began as a goalkeeper.
Unfortunately for the youngster, Les Caillolais were so dominant over their rivals that he rarely touched the ball. He would soon change that. When it came along, he grasped the chance to shine outfield with aplomb, standing out straight from the off.
Cantona’s footballing education would be furthered at school. La Grande Bastide college provided the usual school curriculum coupled with a successful sports studies programme. Former French international Celestin Oliver headed the football department and soon spotted his talent. According Oliver, though, Olympique de Marseille had watched him play but were not so smitten and they passed on the chance to sign him.
At 15, Cantona took the decision to leave all that he knew behind. Enticed by the legendary Guy Roux he made the move to Auxerre, almost 400 miles north of Marseille. His parents bemoaned the fact that he didn’t choose Nice but it was at Auxerre where Eric’s star truly began to rise.
Expertly coached by Roux, Cantona bade his time at the club; he was eventually propelled from apprenticeship to first team in 1983 thanks to a combination of his talent, work ethic, and the total confidence, trust and belief of his manager. By 1988, though, a move was inevitable. A host of clubs were vying for his signature—Paris Saint Germain and Mantra Racing were believed to have been the frontrunners. It was the pull of home which eventually won out.
Olympique de Marseille Chairman Bernard Tapie was so keen to get his man that his courting of Cantona included a flight across France for a face-to-face meeting which lasted just a few minutes. He promised to match any offer—but his trump card would always be the city of Marseille. Indeed, even a late offer from AC Milan was spurned—Eric would return home.
It has been said that Eric could be shy—often retiring from groups, even at family gatherings, to be alone. Just as the grey tower blocks and derelict red brick mills of Cottonopolis where he finally cemented his reputation were a long way from home, this image of shyness is a far cry from that which is usually associated with him: the puffed out chest and turned-up collar of his Old Trafford days.
Cantona’s on-field posture gave the impression that he was looking down at everyone else that he shared a pitch with. His skill and flair for the imaginative were the colours which blended with his tendency for moments of aggression and petulance to paint the picture of an icon. His temperament, and personal perception of fairness, would have a major influence on his footballing career.
Unfortunately, not long after his homecoming, things turned sour. Eric made a slow start and the club’s fans were reticent in their support for their new man. His self-aggrandising manner of strutting around the pitch—something which would be regarded with affection years later in Manchester— rapidly became a turnoff for the Marseillais. His form was inconsistent, goals came in fits and starts. In contrast, his strike partner Jean-Pierre Papin was thriving.
The first speed bump was hit shortly after his debut for Marseille. The form which had cemented his move back to Provence had also resulted in him becoming a regular fixture in the national side. Manager Henri Michel had decided to rest Cantona for an upcoming friendly match against Czechoslovakia, though. Unfortunately, he hadn’t conveyed this message to the striker who was informed by a reporter.
Cantona was enraged. “I will not play in the French team as long as Henri Michel is the manager...I hope that people will realise quickly that he is one of the most incompetent national team managers in world football.”
Famously, he ensured his exile from the national side as he delved into the world of Hollywood, likening his own rejection to Mickey Rourke’s Oscar snub that year…
“I’ve just read what Mickey Rourke said about the Oscars: “The person who’s in charge of them is a bag of shit. I’m not far from thinking that Henri Michel is one too.”
The next day, Cantona blamed panic and poor self-expression. He had been blindsided, was wounded and had hit out.
Life at club level would also take a wrong turn, meaning that Cantona’s first stint playing for Olympique de Marseille would come to an abrupt end within six months of his debut.
In January 1989 OM were playing in a friendly match against Torpedo Moscow to raise money for the victims of a devastating earthquake in Armenia. The match took place on a frozen pitch in the northern French town of Sedan in the depths of winter. Cantona took exception to the conditions he and his teammates were being asked to play in. He brooded, sulked and strutted around the pitch in the manner of a child who has been told to switch off the TV and tidy his room.
Manager Gérard Gili had seen enough to know that Eric’s fuse had been lit. He substituted the striker— a move which only had the effect of unleashing the fireworks: Cantona reacted by tearing off his shirt and throwing it at his boss. He then went absent without leave. Chairman Bernard Tapie took swift action; Cantona was dispatched to Bordeaux on loan, where he impressed, scoring 6 goals in his three months there.
Although Tapie was happy to buy time and send this most troublesome of players off on loan for the rest of the season, he was less content to agree to a long term deal with a dangerous Girondins side. The problem was, there were few other clubs who could afford him. Step forward the newly-renamed Montpellier HSC, who had grand designs for the future.
Cantona completed a mouthwatering partnership with his former U-21 teammate Stéphane Paille but, despite a talented squad, Montpellier initially struggled. Cantona overheard another player criticising the team’s attack— a fight ensued and a boot was thrown. It seemed that he would have to go. However, Tapie refused to cut short the loan term and, thanks to the support of some of his teammates, his punishment was no more than a ten day ban.
Eric would end the season on a high, helping Montpellier to win the French cup. Come the season’s end, though, he returned to the Stade-Vélodrome. “They had been forced to appreciate me,” he opined.
The second time around started promisingly; he even survived a managerial change when Franz Beckenbauer took over from Gili. Beckenbauer was fond of Cantona but he didn’t last long enough to help him become established. A knee injury sidelined the player and, while he recuperated, Beckenbauer was ousted and Raymond Goethals took over the hotseat.
Goethals decided early on that Cantona was surplus to requirements. He did not fit into his system and results seemed to show he was right. He made him suffer on the bench—yet at the same time, he was becoming the lynchpin of a national side which had welcomed him back with Michel Platini in charge.
Cantona refused to sit on the bench and demanded game time. Meanwhile, Goethals dug his heels in and refused, removing him from the matchday squads entirely. Cantona eventually pleaded for a return, which was partially granted.
In his book Cantona: The Rebel Who Would Be King, Philippe Auclair stated that, in a visit to the Stade-Vélodrome, he could not find a trace of the player’s time at the club. Despite ending his time at Marseille with another title, in his second period at the club he had featured in only 18 games.
It is well known that Eric Cantona’s reputation for being troublesome didn’t end when his time at Marseille did.
At Nimes, he almost brought his whole football career to an end following an infamous incident where he threw the ball at a referee who he thought wasn’t offering him enough protection. Each of the panellists at the subsequent disciplinary hearing left the room with the word “idiot” ringing in their ears.
Persuaded by Platini to give England a try, Cantona was unimpressed when Sheffield Wednesday boss Trevor Francis asked for a few more days to run the rule over the Frenchman; Howard Wilkinson put up with him for a while longer—Leeds United’s 1992 league triumph will have helped—but was ultimately glad to see him head across the Pennines the following season.
According to Alex Ferguson, Cantona walked into Old Trafford “as if he bloody owned the place.” The rest is history: The goals, the trophies, the captaincy; the red cards, the Kung-Fu kick, the seagulls, trawlers and sardines. His name may not appear in the annals of Marseille but he found his place in the world. His dream may have been to star at Stade Velodrome but his destiny lay elsewhere.
He, and Manchester United, became symbols of a new, self-confident premier league—a league which revelled in its foreign imports and was taking its first tentative steps as a global marketing juggernaut, blazing a trail for all other leagues to try and follow.
Despite the four and a half years of success, peppered with more controversy, his true legacy at the club was to be found two years after his retirement when, on 26th May 1999, his former Old Trafford teammates truly came of age on the European stage.
Taken in isolation, United’s poor performance and dramatic last-minute comeback victory in the UEFA Champions League final over Bayern Munich told nothing of the season which had preceded it. A self-assured European campaign saw the Red Devils go toe-to-toe with some of the continent's best sides on their way to the final—and in some style.
Yes, there was the small matter of Alex Ferguson involved but on the field, Cantona had inspired a group of kids to walk tall in his shadow. In his absence, they became men.
Manchester United recently faced AS Saint Etienne in the Europa League. Current Les Verts coach Christoph Galtier was a teammate of Cantona’s both at Les Caillolais and in the successful U21 European Championship national side. He told The Telegraph his impressions of the last time he was at Old Trafford, for the occasion of his friend’s testimonial match:
“There were French flags on the streets, on the houses, on the balconies…the stadium was full and they sang La Marseillaise and it was a big, big thing for him.”
A quick google search shows the number of times over the years since his retirement that Eric has been linked with a return to OM in some capacity. Nothing ever came of the rumours — just newspaper talk, perhaps, but despite all the problems and setbacks, the ties that bind are still strong.
On Cantona’s relationship with England, Galtier remarked, “When Eric went to Leeds, he proposed to England. When he went to Manchester, he married England.”
By those terms, Marseille was his tumultuous youthful affair.