Eric Cantona has always been thought provoking in a way that todays sporting icons can only hope and aspire to. I’m speaking about elite athlets, the ones which have completely unmoored themselves from the traditional club-management-player hierarchy to become miniature industries in themselves. For decades these mega stars have tried to adopt the rhythm and tone of a classic Cantona ramble.
Cantona was never been the type to toss out ‘tough result to take but we go again on Tuesday’ when giving a post match interview or when cornered by reporters for a quote. Every word he says seems to have been carefully tended to as it grew in rich, organic soil before being harvested by hand, left to mature in a dark shed for six months, and finally brought reverently into the autumn sunlight. In writing a brand-appropriate statement for an elite athlete, brands and players’ reps like to channel that philosopher-king mode which Cantona minted and wove around his extraordinary gifts on the field.
However with todays stars, the substance of what Cantona would have been saying is scooped out, leaving just the cadence, the pretension and the appearance of An Important Statement. The sentences themselves are completely hollow. Because todays star atleths are isolated by the trove of agents, managers and handlers surrounding them, they tend to come off as fully laminated human beings. You have absolutely no idea what they might or might not think about anything, having insulated themselves against accidentally saying anything interesting in case their endorsement potential and economic clout suffers.
While picking up his latest award from UEFA, Cantona, sidestepped all clichés usually associated with elder statesmen being celebrated by their peers. Here is his speech:
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport,” Cantona began. “Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us but unfortunately, crimes, wars, will multiply. I love football. Thank you.”
Just reading the text or only listening to it will never do it the required justice. One must watch a video of the event and view the faces in the audience. Amazement, bewilderment, confusion, shock all were on display during the brief speech. I’m not sure what they were all expecting Cantona to,say, but this was defiantly not it.
Cantona was always a revelation in English football in the 1990s, and obviously it wasn’t just for his footballing skills. He helped to change what people thought footballers ought to sound like and what they ought to talk about. And through what some have called media meddling, this persona has crept into the ‘branding’ playbook for global sports icon. Cantona managed to tie together the imperious footballer with the philosopher, having a husky French voice only improved the idea that masterful players have the souls of Romantic poets. Just as he saw things on the pitch no-one else could see, he could see beyond the mundane and into the deeper workings of life. You’d want to know what Cantona thought about pretty much anything. He showed it was possible for footballers to transcend the sport not just by becoming household names and national icons, but as carriers of some broader intellectual heft.
Cantona was a one-off, and it’s unfair to expect any player who’s had years of schooling interrupted in the pursuit of a contract to follow up. But his impact on how footballers market themselves is still here. The myth of King Eric’s lives on.