Cantona says au revoir to football

 

ONE of the most bizarre tales in recent footballing history drew to a close yesterday when Manchester United revealed that Eric Cantona had decided to retire from football just two days short of his 31st birthday.

Having repeatedly rewarded those who expected the unexpected of him, Cantona once more shocked his devoted followers with the manner of his departure. The career of the most colourful character in British football over the past five years came to an end with a stark six sentence statement read out, in his absence by club officials at an Old Trafford press conference.

When the conference was called by the club it had sparked speculation of extended contracts or a big money move to France or Spain. Instead, club chairman Martin Edwards and manager Alex Ferguson were left to deliver the final twist to one of the most talked about sporting stories this decade.

"I have played professional football for 13 years," began the statement, "which is a long time. I now wish to do other things." For the moment at least, what it is that the Frenchman means by these "other things" remains a subject for wide ranging speculation, given his extraordinary past.

"It is a sad day for United that he has decided to retire," said Ferguson yesterday after the news was announced. He has been a fantastic player and helped us win six trophies.

"He has had a huge impact on the development of our younger players. He has been a model professional in the way he conducted himself and has been a joy to manage," continued the club's manager.

While Cantona's contribution to United's success over the past five seasons can hardly be questioned, the suggestion that he has been a "model professional" and a boy to manage" seems dubious.

His career included It transfers, several of which were the result of his tendency to show a certain contempt for those in positions of authority within the game. A decade ago, while playing for Auxerre, he was fined for punching his team's goalkeeper, and over the next two years be received lengthy suspensions at both club and international levels for displays of petulance.

At a disciplinary hearing in 1991 he walked up to each of the officials in turn and said "idiot" to them. His three game ban for throwing the ball at a referee was promptly increased to two months.

It was at this point that Canton a decided to relaunch his career in England and, after Sheffield Wednesday passed up the chance to sign him, he quickly settled in at Elland Road where, in 1992, he won a championship medal.

It was the following year, however, that he began to really establish himself as one of the game's greats. In a surprise move, Leeds sold him to Old Trafford for £1.2 million and his impact was immediate, with Ferguson's team finally ending the club's 26 year quest to land the league title again. Since then, he has won a further three championship and two FA Cup winners' medals.

During that time there have been further displays of indiscipline, most notoriously, the one on Wednesday January 25th, 1995, when he leapt into the crowd at Crystal Palace to deliver a flying kick to local fan Matthew Simmons who was racially abusing him. On that occasion, when many people believed that his career would be ended, he was suspended until the following September and was ordered by the courts to do 120 hours of community service.

Throughout all of the Old Trafford troubles, however, Ferguson has remained staunchly loyal to the wonderfully gifted international, a loyalty for which he has been rewarded with countless matchwinning displays by a man whose significance to the United team has grown out of all proportion to even his quite considerable talents.

Now, however, with a year on his contract at the club to run, he has decided to end his relationship with the club. Some speculation remains that, unhappy with the terms being offered to him for the future, he has decided to sit out the remaining 12 months before returning to the game as a free agent.

Yesterday, though, both Edwards and Ferguson insisted that the parting of ways was amicable, while in his statement, the player said simply that "I always planned to retire when I was at the top and at Manchester United I have reached the pinnacle of my career.

"I have had a marvellous relationship with the manager, coach, staff and players and not least the fans. I wish Manchester United even more success in the future."

The 30 year old's decision was only revealed to Ferguson last Wednesday but the thought is believed to have been lingering in his mind for a fortnight, following the defeat by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions Cup, the final of which he never played in.

There are bound to be a flood of offers to bring him back to the game over the next year or two. Real Zaragoza and Marseille are two clubs reported to be interested in signing the Frenchman in recent weeks, while many more would be sure to join the chase if he were to be available on a free transfer.

The recent speculation followed his most muted season, in every sense, since arriving at Old Trafford and a move did not seem to be out of the question. This announcement, however, is another thing altogether.

Perhaps we should really have known; things with the Frenchman were quiet ... too quiet.