Eric Cantona’s association with Manchester United will go down as one of the most successful. Controversial yet brilliant, the Frenchman provided excellent entertainment and record-breaking football. However, on the international scene, his time will be less remembered. It is hard to believe that such an incredibly gifted individual would never grace a FIFA World Cup.
Enigmatic and challenging from the start – Cantona’s international began in 1987 with the then-head coach, Henri Michel. The first stage of his international career would last barely over a year. Michel dropped Cantona after his player launched abuse towards him and he was subsequently banned. France’s failure to qualify for the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy, saw Michel sacked, and Cantona returned swiftly to the set up as quick as he had left.
French football legend, Michel Platini, took the reigns of the France national team. His first role was to recall Cantona. The forward was now beginning club football life in England for Manchester United. Growing success followed at the club and this much impressed Platini.
However, for France, Cantona could not ignite his form for his nation, and nor could the team. France qualified for the 1992 European Championships, but they may as well as have not travelled. Eliminated at the group stage; they failed to win a single game.
Cantona’s international career was now on a decline, just five years after it began. There would be one last hurrah for Cantona, but first, it was the challenge to qualify for the World Cup in the United States. The French already knew they would be hosting the next tournament in 1998 and so France needed to qualify with ease.
Under the leadership of Gerrard Houllier, France stuttered throughout their qualification campaign. The 17th November 1993, was to be the French nightmare of all nightmares. Qualifying came to a head on a cold night at the Parc des Princes against a hugely unfancied Bulgaria.
Cantona gave France the lead on the half-hour, in a game that France could afford to draw. However, when Emil Kostadinov equalised just five minutes later, concern grew. The French became uneasy. There was a high feeling of trepidation.
With Cantona’s striking partner, Jean Pierre Papin, replaced by David Ginola, France faced a dilemma. The French could go on and try to grab a winner or sit back and see the game out. Houllier’s side did neither, and in the stoppage time, Kostadinov outpaced Laurent Blanc to beat Bernard Lama to seal a shock win for the Bulgarians.
The French were out, and Bulgaria qualified in their place. Didier Deschamps was in tears. Houllier was already opening the dressing room door by the time the crowd realised that they were no longer going to the United States. Cantona’s World Cup dream was in tatters. His forward partner Ginola was now to become the scapegoat. Houllier singled him out for criticism, accusing him of being “the murderer” of French hope.
Cantona’s next task was the 1996 UEFA European Championship in his adoptive nation, England. With Houllier gone, the French stayed with the set-up and in came one of the coaches, Aime Jacquet. France had missed the last two World Cups and was hosting the next edition. The pressure intensified.
Cantona was now France’s key man as Jacquet looked to rebuild his deflated squad. Cantona was given the captaincy until his moment of madness in the Premier League which changed his career forever. Cantona lost the captaincy after kicking out at a Crystal Palace supporter in the stands. His nine months ban from all football gave Jacquet a chance to experiment with new, unproven talent.
Cantona’s ban may have played its part in France’s future success. Cantona was out and in came Zinedine Zidane. Not only Cantona, but Papin and Ginola were dropped for the 1996 European Championships and never played for France again.
Despite criticism from the French press about Cantona’s omission, Jacquet remained firm, even when France were dumped out of the competition at the semi-final stage by the unlikely finalists, Czech Republic.
The FIFA World Cup in France could have been Cantona’s golden international moment, but it was not. Jacquet’s insistence in using the desperately inconsistent Stephan Guivarc’h as a forward proved that Jacquet had moved on from Cantona.
With no recognised forward and a goalless showing from Guivarc’h, Jacquet’s selection for their home World Cup proved to be a masterclass regardless. France won the competition for the very first time, and Cantona became yesterday’s news. It was now all about the emergence of Zidane, the leadership of Didier Deschamps and the new talent on the bench, including Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet.
France secured the international double two years later when they won the 2000 UEFA European Championships. Cantona has always held some level resentment for the treatment he received from the national team.
Perhaps he was robbed from playing his part in France’s greatest triumphs, but maybe had he not kicked a fan in the stands, he probably would have achieved international greatness.