Next Saturday is the 20th anniversary of Eric’s Selhurst Park Kung Fu kick assault on a supporter. Philosophy Football's Mark Perryman celebrates a night when football took sides
For football fans of a certain vintage, United or not, it has all the makings of our ‘JFK moment’. 9pm, Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace vs Man Utd on a Monday night live on the TV. Eric Cantona, after being persistently fouled lashes out in retaliation and is red carded. Nothing much very unusual in that. MInutes later though and any sense of normality is detonated, for ever.
A foul mouthed Palace supporter marches down to the touchline from his seat eleven rows back. He lets fly, insulting everything he felt Eric represented. Most of all his foreignness, being French, a continental unloved by this particular representative of the South London born ‘n bred brigade. Eric turns and unleashes quite possibly the most famous Kung Fu kick in martial arts history. Cantona crosses a line almost all in football have decided should never be crossed.
Je Suis Cantona? To identify with Eric then rather than his National Front and BNP supporting foul-mouthed verbal assailant was about taking sides. Football, from the authorities and players to the media and the fans, then and now, would excuse almost anything said at a game as ‘banter’. A collective refusal to bother with making any kind of distinction between a wind up, anti-social behaviour causing offence and criminal acts of racist abuse. Eric knew the difference.
Philosophy Football had been going just a few months in January ‘95, not a business yet selling T-shirts by the thousands, rather tens via word of mouth, networks of friends and fellow fans. We chose the words of the world’s greatest philosophers on the beautiful game, Albert Camus, existentialist and goalie, was our first, and put them on a tee, name and squad number on the back. But in ‘94 looking for a current player to champion that ability to speak to a world beyond touchline and terrace there was only ever going to be one candidate, Eric Cantona.
This was an era when Blackburn and England’s Graeme Le Saux’s occasional reading of the Guardian was to see him elevated to being a footballing intellectual by some, and a handbag-wielding cissy or worse by plenty of others. Eric’s musings were so quotable meanwhile they were about to be anthologised in a short book La Philosophie de Cantona, that was until the copyright police heard of this brilliant, but unauthorised, venture and forced the entire print run to be pulped. Not before though I’d got myself down to the cult, and much-missed, bookshop, Sportspages, on London’s Charing Cross Road and grabbed myself a pre-publication copy.
Eric was a player who not only embraced the meaning of teamwork and the passion fans demand, could find a route, never route one, to goal but knew also the difference between Rimbaud and Rambo. Did the affection so many of us had, and still have, for Eric and all he represented smack of snobbishness? For some, almost certainly yes, but the recognition of class as a key determinant in social outcomes should never be about excusing away the limits on human ambition that inequalities impose.
Eric refused to accept that the people’s game, absolutely framed by working class culture despite the worst efforts of corporate power, should be limited in this way. We loved him because he inspired us to dream of what football had the potential to become.
By one of those spooky coincidences Philosophy Football had finally produced our Eric Cantona T-shirt the week before his sending-off. Trawling through his quotes we were so spoilt for choice it was almost impossible to plump for any statement to sum up Eric in a sentence or two, and make a good design. In the end we chose:
“ I play with passion and fire. I have to accept that sometimes the fire does harm. But I cannot be what I am without these other sides to my character.”
Blimey we’d just printed up precisely why Eric reacted in the way he did and why so many admired him for doing so. When the authorities banned him we launched the tee to front an ‘Eric Cantona Defence Campaign’ live on BBC Radio Five. The fact we weren’t United fans was never an issue, the issue was about knowing the difference between right and wrong. And Eric was right, his detractors and punishers the ones in the wrong.
‘95 was still the era of fanzines, inflatable bananas in the stands, Half Man Half Biscuit and the Wedding Present on the cassette mix-tape, the success of Fever Pitch followed with other fans’ stories of following their club being published by the bucketload, some revealing a welcome feminine side to fan culture via their confessional writing style.
‘Fantasy Football’ started off as a cult game to become first a radio then a TV show, with the broadsheets falling over backwards to carry a version on their pages too. All of this suggested an irreverent and rebellious fan culture that wholeheartedly rejected the corporatisation and sanitisation of what was once ‘the people’s game’. The fanzine When Saturday Comes absolutely epitomised all this, it survives, or I should say thrives, to this day, testament to the enduring appeal of these values of resistance.
When Saturday Comes published an editorial following Eric at Selhurst Park decrying the idea that what would follow would be player after player assaulting their abusers in the stands:
"Cantona is a one-off, Matthew Simmonds ( Cantona’s abuser), former BNP sympathiser, sadly isn’t. We know which we’d prefer to see in English football.”
A sense of perspective, a willingness to take sides.
The authorities didn’t see it that way, nor most of the media. Moral outrage filled the papers for days on end, followed by Eric receiving an FA nine month ban from playing football. The longest such ban the FA had imposed for thirty odd years. Topped up by a 2-week prison sentence subsequently commuted to 120 hours community service.
And when he’d served his time how did Eric react? With the enigmatic "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea". Cod philosophising of the very highest order, quite unlike the banalities of ‘take each game as it comes’ we were more used to, Philosophy Football quite naturally turned Eric’s words into our best selling Cantona Sardines T-shirt . It’s been available ever since.
But this wasn’t about a clever-clogs continental fancy-dan and the language he delighted in using. The issue was the ability to distinguish between letting fans dish it out because they’ve paid good money to see you play on the one hand and on the other taking a stand against foul-mouthed racist abuse and hate of the country you’ve come from.
This is a viciousness that should have no legitimate place in society, including football. In English sporting culture it is so very rare to see any kind of stand of this sort being taken. In the USA athlete activism has a history and has erupted again recently around the #blacklivesmatters protests. Following the police killing of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown the local NFL team, St Louis Rams, ran out on to the pitch with hands held up in the ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ style adopted by those protesting at Michael’s shooting.
US sportswriter Dave Zirin described their action as so important, so daring, so transgressive. Cantona’s action 20 years ago didn’t have the purchase on a popular, militant movement that these players’ actions, and so many others acting like them in recent months across American sport, did, but that’s hardly his fault. Eric made a stand, and some of us stood with him.
Je Suis Cantona, twenty years on what does this mean now? Not the global being and nothingness of Je Suis Charlie when most of us have never read the said magazine. Standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the leaders of the world’s most repressive regimes, against an act of evil scarcely anyone in the entire world would endorse what does our 'opposition represent?
When Je Suis Charlie comes to mean the Saudi Arabian government lining up in defence of free speech with Marie Le Pen beside them to oppose intolerance then there is precious little space left for satire’s cause.
Taking sides is about knowing what you are for every bit as much as what you are against. 25.01.1995 some of us were for Eric. United Against Racism. You didn’t have to be a Red to know that was a a side worth joining, then, now, for ever.
Philosophy Football’s Je Suis Cantona United Against Racism T-shirt is available now
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.