Back in March I started a series on some of the best and most interesting play makers in soccer, looking at one each month with the plan to finish the series one day before the World Cup in South Africa kicks off. So here we are for the final part.
While I selected the subjects in the other posts based on my own ideas, this time I asked you for your input on who could be an interesting case via Facebook and Twitter. A couple of very good suggestions came in, but one instantly got my vote as there probably can’t be a more controversial, more thrilling, more talented case than him. He was one of the best offensive midfielders of all time (though in some parts of his career more playing in a striker position), yet he never played in a World Cup. This fact which makes it perfectly unintuitive to talk about him today when everybody is feeling the World Cup fever along with his flamboyant character and style easily convinced me there can only be one choice for this post:
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!
Eric Cantona is a legend, an incredibly talented player, yet a character who was always true to himself but seldom fully understood by others. To prepare for writing this post I read Philippe Auclair’s wonderful book “Cantona – The Rebel Who Would Be King“. A great piece of sports journalism (and the book goes well beyond that categorization) in which Auclair collected all facts and stories about Cantona he was able to find (Cantona himself expectedly did not agree to be interviewed) on a staggering 465 pages. I will not try to repeat the course of his career here, I strongly recommend to read the book instead (and you will have the opportunity to win a copy later in this post), however there are a couple of patterns I found in Eric’s behavior that I would like to put into a different context, just like regular readers of this blog are already used to.
After switching clubs nearly on a yearly basis, Cantona did finally wind up in Manchester to spend five great years and finally become United’s “Player of the Century” (according to a fan vote in 2001). In 185 games for the Red Devils, he scored 82 times and added tons of assist that both lead to four Premier League Titles and two F.A. Cup victories within just five years. He was truly a class of his own, but – be honest – when you first read who this post was about, did you spontaneously think of any of the great goals he scored or set up? Probably not. Probably you instantly saw the picture of Eric at Selhurst Park on January 25, 1995, appear in your mind, when Cantona kicked a spectator in the first row who provoked him in kung-fu style.
Oscar Levant, an US pianist, composer and actor once said:
“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” It seems like Cantona did so, too.
English newspaper “The Guardian” once wrote about Cantona that he was “seeing the possibilities earlier” than others and had “the facility to achieve these aims”. In his book, Auclair also cites French coach Gérard Houiller under whom Cantona played in the French National Team: “The more talented a footballer [soccer player] is, the more insecure he feels about his ability”.
Why is this? I didn’t come across any scientific findings on this, but thought about it for quite a while, not just when reading about Eric Cantona. I’m not a psychologist either, but anyway, here are my two cents:
Let’s peel the onion from the outer layer: People that see things earlier than others, that come up with ideas others don’t have or understand yet, that can do things others can’t do or don’t understand are not continuously getting confirmation from others that they are doing good work or the right things, because others just can’t follow. However, that positive feedback from others is probably the most important source for feeling confident and secure.
But below that there’s also a perception of the world around that is different from the one others have, as it is this perception, this view of the reality, which is the basis for their creativity. However, if one perceives the world differently, how can he build a common ground for discussion with others?
Maybe that’s why a lot of talented people behave different and always feel like not being understood. And in fact they aren’t. In Eric Cantona’s words: “I am only considered mad in today’s society”. People can’t cope with it. Auclair gave a perfect example when he cited the French Football/Soccer Association disciplinary committee’s chairman, who gave his view why Eric got a longer ban than anyone else would have received for a minor offense while still playing in France:
“You can’t be judged like any other player. Behind you is a trail which smells like sulphur. Anything can be expected from an individualist like you”
Ironically, he was right in a certain way.
Finally, on the inner layer I believe that most of these overly talented yet special people know they’re right or doing things better than others, but not receiving the respect they feel they would have earned adds to their frustration. The only two coaches that managed to keep Cantona on their team for a longer period of time were Guy Roux and Sir Alex Ferguson, both because they gave him the respect he was longing for and the freedom to develop his style and his flashes of genius.
Ferguson picked Cantona up from Leeds for a ridiculously low transfer fee because his former coach at Leeds, Howard Wilkinson, did not really understand how to approach a man on this thin line between genius and insanity. The transfer is still considered the biggest bargain ever in English soccer. But it’s not that easy. There’s a lot to learn from Ferguson. He never left any doubt that he has great respect for Eric and that he trusted him. Ferguson took more time for working with Cantona than with anyone else, he allowed Eric to bent some rules the others had to follow just to accommodate for the need for freedom Eric had.
Most importantly: Ferguson did not only accept that Cantona was different, he understood what strength was lying in this difference:
“[He's one of those] who do what can’t be taught, who, in fact, teach you something you didn’t know (…), and can’t be learnt, because you had no idea it existed before they did it”
Even after the Selhurst Park incident, Ferguson stood by Cantona. Eric more than paid it back: When his half year ban for the kick was over, he lead United to two more Premier League titles and an F.A. Cup victory in his final two seasons with the club.
There are Eric Cantonas around us, in virtually every organization.
While still in France Eric complained that he was “crazy”, but “not (…) allowed to be crazy”. This lack of acceptance finally led to his departure from French soccer. Are we treating the Cantonas around us in a way that drives them away from us or are we treating them with respect and granting them freedom just like Alex Ferguson did – and was greatly rewarded for?
Management Guru Tom Peters promotes the idea to hire more “freaks”, as they “are the only one who succeed – as in make it into the history books” and because when “Anything Interesting happens … it was a freak who did it”. Peters praises the inspiration the “freaks”, as he calls them, are bringing to an organization.
For Cantona, it is obvious how much he inspired his team. His former team mate Mark Hughes:
“He (Cantona) has really opened up everyone’s football awareness (…) We see Eric doing things, and we think, ‘I’ll try that.’ We’re not as good at it as Eric, but he has freed us a little bit, and that’s why we now play with that little bit more flair”
This all may sound good and like a no-brainer, but there’s a twist to it. People with extreme talents like Cantona are not always easy to deal with, as they know about their abilities and have been disappointed a lot of times before. Alex Ferguson once mentioned that when Cantona had “got something in his head, it is (was) almost impossible to make him drop it”. In addition to that it is not always obvious for outsiders to understand how something “got into the head”.
That notion closes the circle and brings us back to why this great player never participated in a World Cup. In January 1996, Aimé Jacquet, back then head coach of the French team, met with Eric Cantona, trying to convince him to play for his nation again, building a bridge by not taking Cantonas kung-fu kick into account. He was offering him the spot of center forward for the European Championships later that year. Eric played in this position a lot before and did so afterwards, but at this point in time he was playing in offensive midfield in Manchester. Because of not wanting to change his position and because of some older resentments with some officials in the French Association, he denied crossing the bridge and did not agree to come back into the French squad.
Half a year later, France dropped out after a penalty shootout in the semi finals of the European Championships after dominating the Czech Republic, who later lost the final in overtime against Germany, over 120 minutes. They only lacked a center forward with the ability to score. With Eric, they could have easily become European Champs.
One year later, Eric Cantona retired surprisingly, at the age of 30. Many believe that if he would have taken a different decision and if he would have still been part of the French National Team, he would have delayed his retirement by one year – until after the World Cup 1998 which took place in his home country. That year, France won the World Cup for the first time in history.
Note: This was one of my longest posts ever, but I always wanted to write about this topic, and combining it with such an interesting figure as Eric Cantona was a pure joy for me.
In order to thank you for following this post and my play maker series, I am giving away a copy of Philippe Auclairs great book on Eric Cantona. To win it, all you have to do is to promote this blog, businessgametime.com, in any way you want. This can be leaving a comment here or anywhere, tweeting it, suggesting it to your friends or whatever idea you may come up with. I will monitor where the blog is mentioned or linked and at the end of next week I will pick a lucky winner who will receive the book. As I will not be able to monitor everything: In case you promote it in an unusual place or even offline, just send a quick note via the contact form or leave a comment here.
Thank you and: Good luck!