Philippe Auclair - CANTONA. THE REBEL WHO WOULD BE KING, Pan Books, London, 2010
Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch immediately comes to mind to destroy all stereotypes. Yes, it is an account of following Arsenal for 20 years, thus coming under sports history genre, but it is so much more than that, with its brilliant writing, its humour and its psycho-sociological investigations to mention but a few qualities.
With a sports book it is very important to look at the context before looking at the content. First and foremost, motivation: why has it been written? Is it an attempt to provide an honest historical account, or is it solely a commercial enterprise? It is also easy enough to know. Of course books like The Secret Footballer or The Secret Diary of Mario Ballotelli are abusing the dedication and often the ignorance of the game's followers. Of course yearly catalogues, club magazines and official accounts are just PR exercises of self-aggrandisement. Likewise Wayne Rooney's My Story So Far written at the ripe age of 18 or Cristiano Ronaldo's Moments (just contemplate for a moment this thought - Cristiano Ronaldo, the writer). There's stuff like Cantona on Cantona or Rio Ferdinand's My Decade as a Red that prove that writing isn't even esential to a book - they contain next to none and are mere selections of pictures accompanied by quotes. All these make a lot of money in the process, and keep the huge football marketing beast fed.
But then, of course, there are the honest accounts, be they commercially motivated or not. Even then, they can fail miserably, when the author, former footballer, either: tries to resolve issues with his peers, takes all the writing upon himself without trusting a journalist or picks a bad journalist/writer. Easy example, Dwight Yorke's Born to Score, which checks the first two.
Sometimes, however, biographies turn out brilliantly. Although very naive in some respects and by now inadecquated, I think Duncan Edwards' Tackle Soccer This Way is a brilliant read. So is Denis Law's autobiography.
Thus, the best shots you have in picking football literature are biographies written by professional sports journalists of footballers whose careers ended at least a few years back. This is a sure-fire way to know the book is not exploiting the fame of the moment, as I'm sure there are currently enough of Messi's biographers not only to defeat Barcelona, but also to provide the public for that game. This is exactly what Phillipe Auclair's book is, but let me stress one more point before I get to it:
At the end of the day, it matters for nothing. A fan is a fan, and would buy anything. I would literally buy shit with United's crest on it, and figuratively speaking I have already. I paid double the price for a stupid collection of pictures containing Rio Ferdinand playing football just to have a copy signed by the man himself. Most of the books I mentioned above as being stupid, fake or commercial I have bought and read, in full knowledge they're either stupid, fake, commercial or a combination of these. Why? Well, too big a question for me to answer. But I will refer you back to Nick Hornby's book, he gives it a pretty damn good go.
I wanted to read Auclair's book on Cantona since it came out and it is with a feeling of guilt that I think I haven't done it so far. Did it teach me a lot, did it make me a better man, did it reveal me any secrets about the universe or the world we live in? Well, I know more about Cantona now, and I feel very content about this, although by most accounts I knew a lot more than is healthy about Cantona even before. The hell with it! What do they know? Let these naysayers go back to their world, we have football!
Strangely enough, however, I did not think it was a particularly great read. I mean... it's well written, well documented and for the most part very engaging. But to my mind, Auclair fails the most important challenge he set out on, granted, the most difficult one, too. He does not give a satisfactory explanation to what is it that makes Catona special. Obviously, Cantona is like no other footballer in a number of aspects. But why is he The King? Or The Saviour, on a par with Jesus himself in the eyes of Old Trafford faithful, and bigger than the advent of Christmas? With a mere 4 seasons played for United and no international trophy with club or country to his name, Cantona's figures are easily beaten by other players with peripheral roles in United's history. And for all the talk about the poetry of the game, inspiration and artistry, it is Cantona himself who says he talks a lot of rubbish. So we need to look elsewhere to discover the essence of Cantona's greatness, and this, I think, is what Phillipe Auclair doesn't do. He tries to explain the miracle by staying grounded, tries to prove what it only takes faith to be understood. Sounds too religious? We haven't even scratched the surface.
I like to tell people this about Cantona: 1992, Cantona is playing for Leeds, Leeds wins the title. 1993, Cantona is playing for United, United wins the title. 1995, Cantona is suspended for the second half of the season, United lose the title to Blackburn. Obviously, 1994, 1996, 1997, the other seasons Cantona spent in an United shirt, United won the title every time.
Interesting as his early life might be, and the interaction between him and the management legend that is Guy Roux is pretty interesting, these 4 years are the miracle of Cantona, and the moment he'll be remembered for, just like of Jesus' 33 years on earth, it is only the last few weeks that the Christians celebrate, completely ignoring the rest.
I didn't like how the lead to the Selhurst Park incident felt so much like a build up. Important as the kung fu kick might have been - and its importance is hugely inflated by the media, as was the punishment, it is by no means the defining moment of Cantona's United career. Hell, the press statement in the aftermath is more memorable.
Myself, I cannot reduce Cantona's time at United to less than it was. This was his defining moment, these 4 years and a half in which, with Cantona, United not only played so much better that they completed turned their fortunes around, but they set out on a path to greatness that is, at least so far, unstoppable (meanies, don't mention Moyes!). If anything, Ken Loach was closest to the truth, in Looking for Eric. "You have to trust your team mates", "My best moment was a pass", these are all part of the Cantona canon, and they set that model of imitatio Catona that United has been so successful in following.
So in Cantona's case, there is no point to go looking for the man behind the myth.
For Cantona the footballer was pure myth. And today, if it happens to accidentally meet Cantona, he is transfigured before us.
A child born on the day Cantona retired would be 17 today. But if that child would go to a Manchester United game, he's gonna sing and drink a drink to Eric the King.
"I'm so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose." (Eric Daniel Pierre Cantona)
And quotes, because Cantona is an inexhaustible source of great quotes:
"It is better if it's not said but shown in other ways"
"And you can cry, even when you are a strong man. You can find something beautiful and simply cry because it is so beautiful. You can find emotion in the beauty of things and, to me, that's love."
"You see a lot of civil servants in football. This type of behaviour doesn't agree with me. I become bad"
"You need a lot of personality to accept putting yourself at the service of someone else. The creator doesn't exist without this tacit agreement."
"The problem is that England is very beautiful in may respects, but very ugly when it comes down to the image and to the press. It's unhealthy."(Eric Cantona)
"In football, yesterday happened a long time ago" (Billy Bremmer)
"For that money? Has he lost a leg or something?" (Brian Kidd upon news of Cantona's £1M transfer from Leeds)
"I'm so glad to meet the second most famous Frenchman in Britain" (Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd greeting French president Jacques Chirac)
29: Justice is an instinct, not a rulebook. No rules should circumvent invention. Those who have the ability to imagine beyond the rules have a right, maybe a duty, to break them, and damn the consequences.
155: You only used your voice when you had failed to share information and feelings in a different, more profound way - instinctively, by exchanging a look, or by passing a ball.
317: Federer's astonishing exploration of his gift is a selfish enterprise, an attempt to fins the answer to this question: how far can I go? But because this adventurous impulse takes place in a public arena, it becomes almost a gift to others.