When Eric Cantona Kicked Soccer In the Face

Twenty years ago, Eric Cantona went into the stands and kicked a heckler. This was not the end of his career. It was, in many ways, its beginning.

Jan 26 2015, 2:25pm

Illustration by J.O. Applegate

Twenty years ago Sunday, Eric Cantona infamously launched himself Bruce Lee-style into the crowd, mounting a sudden kung-fu offensive on a heckling fan at Selhurst Park in London after being sent off against opponent Crystal Palace. The moment, somehow both unbelievable and unsurprising, could well have been an ending for Cantona. By that point, though, his career was already littered with endings.

Early on, Cantona moved through a number of clubs in his native France, creating controversy at every stop. At his first professional club, Auxerre, he punched a teammate in the face. A year later he was suspended for two months for an atrocious tackle on Nantes player Michel Der Zakarian. He moved to Marseilles where he was quickly banned from the national team for going on television and calling its manager a "bag of shit." He added a club ban to his tally, during a charity match no less, by kicking a ball into the crowd and tearing his shirt off. Loaned out to Montpellier, he promptly got in a fight with a teammate.

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By December 1991, Cantona had retired from the game, in response to a two-month suspension he received for throwing a ball at a match referee, while playing for Nimes. Initially, the ban was only for a month, but upon hearing his sentence at a disciplinary hearing, Cantona approached each member of the committee individually to inform them that they were idiots. The punishment was promptly doubled.

Eventually, after consulting with various French football figures (and his psychoanalyst), he was persuaded to opt for exile and cross the channel to England. What followed were three straight top-flight titles. First, he helped Leeds win their last championship. Then, it was onto Manchester United, where he was critical in ending a 26-year league title drought.

His temper hardly disappeared, though, despite the success in England and working his way back into the French fold, where he eventually became captain. Cantona was still a divisive figure, if only because he seemed to know no other way to be. He was sent off on numerous occasions, as opponents quickly identified him as a player who could be gotten to. In his return to Leeds for Manchester United, he was fined for spitting on a fan. By the time images of Cantona leaping into the stands themselves swept across the country and the continent, he had few in the game left in his corner.

Graham Kelly, then chief executive of the English FA labelled the incident a "stain on the game." Commentators called for swift and severe punishment, with many arguing he should be banned from English soccer for life. He was quickly dismissed as France's captain and once again kicked off the national team. Criminal charges were brought. According to former Manchester United director Maurice Watkins, "People have said this is the most famous common assault case in the history of the English legal system."

The media followed him around the clock and eventually he fled for a holiday with his family, where he wound up attacking a reporter who insisted on photographing his pregnant wife. Cantona finally broke his vow of silence after he returned home to face sentencing. Confronted by a massive throng of press, he delivered what is now one of the most famous quotes in the history of English sports, "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." Cantona then rose and left the bewildered group in front of him.

He didn't get away quite that easily. Cantona had been given a two-week prison sentence, which was reduced to 120 hours of community service upon appeal. He was suspended from the game for eight months. Rumors swirled that he would soon be on his way to Inter Milan, ending another strange chapter in an already complicated career, and quite possibly beginning another.

But a funny thing happened on the way. His staunchest supporter, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, decided to stand by Cantona. This was partly out of care and loyalty, but also at least partly out of expediency—Cantona was a talismanic figure for what was, at the time, Ferguson's greatest United team. Cantona's main sponsor, Nike, also took the unusual step of keeping this controversial figure in their marketing plans. After Ferguson met with Cantona in Paris to convince him to stay at United, the Frenchman dutifully served his suspension while his image began to shift from that of a talented and unhinged footballer to a rebel, a hero, and finally, some strange sort of king.

Merchandise bearing his name sold millions during his time away from the game; in absentia, Cantona only cemented his place as the English game's biggest star. By the time he returned to Old Trafford to face Liverpool on October 1, 1995, he was seen by his fans as almost a myth in the flesh—a notion his friends at Nike were unsurprisingly keen to capitalize on. It began with the amazing 'Apology' ad, which essentially mocked the attack on the fan. It helped Cantona become a lead figure in Nike soccer ads for years to follow.

His larger-than-life profile was only magnified by one of the greatest individual runs of form in the history of the game. Cantona wound up near-singlehandedly dragging United to the title; during a key stretch he scored in six straight games, four of which ended as 1-0 victories. He followed this up by scoring a dramatic late winner at Wembley to beat Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup Final. On his way to collect the trophy, a fan spat at him. This time, he brushed it off.

Cantona long claimed that he viewed himself as an artist, not just a soccer player. That soccer was the purest art form, in which spontaneity is at the heart of creation. He also admitted to speaking "a lot of bullshit."

Part of what made Cantona so fascinating was that, like many great artists, he allowed people to see what they wanted. If you wanted to see Cantona as a deranged goon with no respect for the game, you could go right ahead and see that. If you wanted him as a rebel at war against both authority and the tyranny of ugly soccer, no problem—that was also an option. If you'd rather see a man above the game, more interested in the justice brought by kicking a hooligan than petty concerns like results and trophies, that's there for you, too.

The beauty of Cantona was his ability to make the absurd real, while somehow no less absurd. He waxed hyperbolically about soccer as art, and then proceeded to paint a masterpiece upon his return to the game. He claimed to play for moments only, and his very style suggested that—he could disappear for minutes, games, even months at a time, only to re-emerge when the moment seemed to need him most. To be as mechanical a goal-scorer as Cristiano Ronaldo or as tireless a runner as Roy Keane seemed somehow beneath him, even though such attributes would have made him a greater player.

It speaks to the power of Cantona that, two decades on, the kung-fu-kick seems to have only strengthened his status. While Metta World Peace was said to have lost upwards of $7 million in salary and endorsements for his role in The Malice In The Palace, Cantona's attack on a fan helped make him more valuable than he could have possibly imagined. There is, almost, something redeeming and endearing about the notion that of course he kicked a heckler because, after all, he's Cantona. Not quite—it's not nice to kick people—but few could have come this close.

In a 2011 interview with the BBC, Cantona is asked "If you could take one memory with you, from what you did when you were a player, what would it be?" He pauses; we don't know if purposefully, or if he's just finding the words. "When I did the kung-fu on the hooligan," he says, making a chopping motion with his hand. The reporter laughs. Eventually Cantona does too, before claiming he didn't really mean it. Maybe he was joking. Maybe he wasn't. Pick your answer.