Eric Cantona – Great but not the greatest?

Eric Cantona

AUTHOR: – Stretford-end

Yes the title may leave me open for some criticism, however it is merely in response to a comment made by World Soccer editor Gavin Hamilton (a magazine that I do thoroughly enjoy reading) that the great Frenchman was a great player, but did not reach the heights of other great players.

I thought it was quite an interesting discussion, considering that I know some Reds that, although worship Cantona for what he did at Old Trafford, think that it was a kind of ‘right place right time right man’ situation.  Eric Cantona was made for Manchester United in 1992 and the club was made for him. He was the missing piece of the jigsaw in the search for Championship glory after 26 years, and in that year the Frenchman was free to display his sublime skill, flair and grace on the Old Trafford turf.

Any football fan, however blinkered, will clearly acknowledge the level of players such as Zidane, Maradona and Di Stefano – but there is no doubting that Cantona was inspirational to the ongoing success of Manchester United and the Premier League as a whole by helping to pave the way for the likes of Ronaldo, Henry and Zola as foreign stars gracing our league.

Eric was and always will be my hero.  When I was young, I thought he was the best in the world.  Romario? Baggio? Hagi? Maradona? No chance. His flair, rebellious attitude and goal scoring ability were three things that stood out for me. I remember trying to attempt his drive against QPR in 93/94 or his header at Maine Road the season before including subsequent head shaking celebration with Lee Sharpe (although the passing pensioner wasn’t as receptive as Sharpe was). He scored vital goals for United and his puffed out chest and skill was something that the crowd adored and his legacy, with chants of his name, can still be heard and seen at every game, nearly fourteen years after he walked away from it all.

However, as you get older you mature, you see things more pragmatically and express an opinion that only a few years ago would get you labelled a ‘gay lord’ in the playground.  Can Eric’s 0.31 goals per game in Europe for United stand up to the 0.61 goals per game of Lionel Messi, 0.67 goals per game of Ruud Van Nistelrooy or the insane 0.84 goals per game of Alfredo Di Stefano? On stats alone, of course not.

So Eric scored five goals in sixteen games for United in Europe, which isn’t anywhere near the level of some of United’s forwards of the past twenty years.  I would however argue that there were a number of obstacles that restricted Cantona from displaying some of his domestic performances on the continental stage.  Many have cited the ‘foreigner rule’ as one of the reasons for his apparent ‘poor performances’ in the European Cup, which of course didn’t impact him directly (for example Schmeichel was left out of the 4-0 hammering by Barcelona in 94) – however, the team as a whole suffered from not being able to field the exact same XI as the fixture on the previous Saturday.  Combine this with United trying to adapt to a more patient build up and controlled possession game, it wasn’t the greatest of recipes for success.  Eric’s first campaign was obviously cut short by United’s elimination from the tournament on away goals by Galatasary before fighting with a Turkish policeman with a dodgy moustache – which he subsequently got suspended for.

The following season he returned on match day five in the 3-1 defeat by IFK Gothenberg, which saw United eliminated from the competition – hardly enough time to judge a player on how successful his European venture is surely?  He played in the final group game against Galatasary, which United won 4-0 but he would have to wait until September 96 until he tasted the Champions League again.  United’s first game that season (96/97) was against Juventus, and if i’m honest I was in awe of the Old Lady.  Juventus were the Champions of Europe and as Fergie later stated were ‘the benchmark’ – again (at the time) there was no shame in being second best to such a side.  If I remember rightly, Boksic scored for Juventus in a 1-0 win.  As we all know, United reached the semi-final of the Champions League that season, losing to eventual winners Borussia Dortmund. Eric missed a few chances in the return leg, which many claimed was our skipper ‘bottling’ the big occasion.  I don’t know how true that is to be honest.  Like I said, United were evolving to the demands of European Football, and Eric was part of that evolution. Beating Porto 4-0 (in which Eric scored) was great and reaching the semi-final was an achievement – even though looking back it appears to have been an opportunity missed.

Eric’s association and high regard amongst United fans isn’t purely based upon ability and ‘performing on the highest stage’.  I still feel that Eric put in a number of noticeable performances (and goals) in big games that might not be as appreciated by non United fans.  His role as a number 10 or second striker meant that he could either heavily be involved in the game or the complete opposite and get limited touches of the football.  Many other players would have been subbed off, despite their superior footballing ability, due to the fact that they were deemed ‘invisible’ or ‘lazy’, however it is the responsibility of the team to try and find the playmaker high up the pitch – a responsibility that is shared by the player himself to find space to receive the ball.  Eric was different though, for the fact that he would pop up with important goals that would eventually result in trophies for the club.  Not to sound like Rafa Benitez, but it is a fact!  You could also argue that in the three 0-0 games in the 94/95 season, following Eric’s suspension, that the Frenchman may have scored or set up a chance for someone to score?

I would argue that his record in the French national team was pretty good.  His goals per game ratio of 0.44 (20 in 45 for Les Blues) was only slightly lower than the 0.55 of Jean-Pierre Papin – Eric’s striking partner for the majority of the late 80s and early 90s.  The only tournament Eric played in (having narrowly missed qualification for the World Cup in the USA) was Euro 92 in a French squad that consisted of Rémi Garde and Franck Sauzée – hardly the calibre of players that the 1998 squad had.  France’s failure in this time wasn’t all due to Eric Cantona.  France had won the European Championships in 1984 with an extremely talented set of players and lack of impact on the World stage could be comparable to that of the 2002 and 2004 sides.  One of the quotes that Hamilton used (a Platini quote) is that Cantona was a ‘Small player in big games’.  I think that might be a tad disrespectful for some of the sides that United played over the years.  He may not have done it against a Real Madrid or Brazil in a major tournament, however United and France weren’t as strong as the sides we’ve seen over the past twelve years (with United’s experience on the European front a major factor).

One last point, it is all very well and easy to state reasons as to why players shouldn’t be considered the best ever.  For example, Pele and Garrincha can’t be considered the best ever as they stayed in South America rather than getting tested in Europe.  Maradona couldn’t cope with the pressure at Barcelona and failed to make the impact they thought he was going to have when they signed him from Boca. Or Alfredo Di Stefano didn’t play in the World Cup, so how can he be considered one of the World’s best?  Of course all of this is subjective, for everyone that points to Pele, you will of course get another that cites Maradona as the greatest player to have ever graced the earth.  Although Cantona may not be in the same league as Maradona, Zidane or Lionel Messi, there is no doubting his influence on Manchester United and in my opinion the domestic game in this country.  His suspension and heroic return is something of a fairy tale, a time that endured him to United fans even more so.

To conclude, Eric will always be for me an inspirational character that transformed United from runners up to league champions in the space of twelve months.  I don’t think you have to win a World Cup, or play in a World Cup even (George Best & Alfredo Di Stefano), to be considered the best the world has ever seen, nor do I think that everything is always clear cut when looking back at records (i.e. Eric’s ‘lack of impact’ on the European stage).

George Best left Manchester United having achieved it all at the age of 26, Eric Cantona had done quite the opposite when he joined Manchester United at the same age.  What he did in the next four and a half years left a lasting impact on all who saw him play and of course a number of youngsters that were emerging through the club at the time.  Eric Cantona – right place, right time and a great player.

AUTHOR: – Stretford-end

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17 Comments on Eric Cantona – Great but not the greatest?

  1. Vastly over-rated imo. His record in France and for the national team was nothing to even write about. He hit the headlines for the wrong reasons as often as he did the right reasons.

    Even in England let’s get it right Leeds wanted rid. He joined the right club at the right time. We had finished 2nd the previous season and only lost it due to a fixture backlog. He was the finishing piece of the jigsaw. He helped United win the title after a 26 year gap. United fans loved him for that and have a passion for beautiful footballers with charisma.

    His record in Europe was poor, some blame the fact that we couldn’t play our strongest team due to the European rule. However I remember Robbo playing in pretty poor United teams and never heard fans make that excuse for him.

    Moreover let’s be honest Cole was a better player with Yorke than Cantona and Cantona also cost us the title for his kung Fu kick.

    Cantona was a very good player but the most over-rated United player I have ever come across. Some regard him as United’s greatest ever, I doubt he would get in my top 30 at best.

    I don’t believe in making excuses for a player over a career, you should be judged on what happened.

  2. I think your conclusion of right man, right place, right time fits the bill. An absolute legend, talent and most importantly character.
    I think he set the tone. Whereas Roy Keane may have been the embodiment of the the manager on the pitch, Cantona was the embodiment of what we love about the club. In esscence he might have been french but with his swagger & confidence he was was a manc at heart.
    A huge player & huge influence but if we are talking individuals I cannot look any further than Maradonna for the best player I’ve seen.

  3. A blog that leads with a question and never answers it, tossing out the variety of half assed references to the same generic list great players you always namecheck on this website. There are strange references to statistics and games with little relevant discussion of context, or any mention at all in those references, to Eric. Yawn.

    I saw the word conclude in here and I don’t see a true conclusion, merely a `right place, right time` assessment with no explanation how you got there from all the mundane examples that preceded it.

    Is the conclusion that if, in the present day, I think Cantona was on a similar `level` or better to Zidane or Hagi that I’m blinkered or immature? Or, as is so eloquently opined, `a gaylord`? And we are supposed to accept this from an amateur connoisseur who has used a reference to a Boksic goal to show us, well, exactly what, I’m unsure of.

    Back to the drawing board with this piece of trash I’m afraid.

  4. ^ Hi George,

    Many thanks for your comments and hopefully I can clear things up a little bit.

    The blog is there as an open discussion for Reds to get involved in, rather than have me dictate my opinion. Eric Cantona was my hero in the 90s and I thought he was the best player in the World. Looking back now, I can safely say that he was one of the best players in England, one of the most important players in for his club in Europe but I do not think that he is in the elite band of great players (Maradona, Pele, Cruyff…).

    You seem to have a issue with my references more than the topic of the blog itself? I don’t believe I usually refer to those ‘generic list of players’ and would welcome you to highlight some of the posts that refer to these players. You also mention strange references to statistics? Not too sure how goals per game stats can be classified as strange.

    The ‘gaylord’ reference was indeed meant as tongue in cheek to some of the immature comments you may hear in the school yard, highlighting that as a youngster you may be concerned in voicing an opinion that praises an opposing player (or for that matter slating one of your own). It was just a bit of fun, apologies that I didn’t make the reference clear enough for you.

    You can have the opinion that Eric was on the same level as Hagi or Zidane – I don’t think that I stated that you would be blinkered or immature? Even if I did, you’d have to be pretty insecure to take offence to something a blogger says pal!

    To just to sum up for you: Eric Cantona was a great player in England and will always be my hero, however I don’t believe he was in the same class as Zidane or Maradona. Is that clear enough for you now?

    Thanks for contributing.

  5. King Eric was a majestic player indeed but his egocentrics and theatrics cost him dear. During his prime, he embodied what football was all about; passion, skill, excitement, power, poise,pragmatism and all adjectives we now use for modern day footballers. He was for example over-rated by us and under-rated by all the ABU’s and even the France national team. which brings me had he not retired at age 30, he would have won France 98, Treble 99, Euro 2000 and other host of individual awards.
    so the conclusion should be had Eric Cantona not retired that early, He would have been the greatest player on par with Zidane and Maradon e.t.c.
    The greatest player should have won all the great tournaments he is involved and unfortunately, Zidane win them all and Eric didn’t.

  6. The topic of the blog is a provocative one, so I was interested to see how you would arrive at the conclusion. Your opinion on the topic is clear but the explanation was poor.

    Opening a debate or opinion on a topic > how you came to the conclusion > conclusion.

    My opinion is the `how you came to the conclusion` part of this blog is nonsense. The statistics are not relevant because they are out of context and matched against different eras, and not enough observation about that key point has been mentioned.

    The goals per game stat is one of the strange things you wrote. The circumstances and era in which Cantona represented UTD in Europe is apparently both acknowledged and disregarded and even worse has been misrepresented with what you present as a fair comparison.

    You have chucked Leo Messi and RVN in among the statistics in comparison and none of it makes any sense because you later suggest Cantona is `not in the same league` as Messi. From the stat it would be presumed you include RVN too. I presume you don’t think RVN10 was a better footballer but this is what I mean about it being a mess with vague references.

    You are free to have your own opinion and this is your place to put it but I just think when I am reading a blog written from a Manchester United follower dismissing or downplaying the ability of one of our best ever players then I would like it to be a bit more substantial for me to take it seriously. Out of context stats or a mention of Alen Boksic cannot be a strong enough argument and makes this a joke. Being dismissive of one of our best ever players without trying to present a valid case to kick off with is disrespectful but you’re entitled to your opinion.


  7. I’d also agree with the “Right man right time” thing. A very talented player, was perfect for us and is rightly considered to be one of the club’s greats. But he’s not even our best player ever let alone one of the best players ever overall.

    Would he have had a nailed-down starting place in either of Fergie’s european cup winning teams? I’m not so sure.

  8. George, this isn’t an English literature class, but thanks for sharing.

    Your comment makes absolutely no sense to me and I honestly mean that. I don’t know if you’re disagreeing with the point that although I worshipped Eric I don’t believe he is in the top elite (are you??), which is why I was understanding of what Gavin Hamilton was saying.

    Eric was amazing and the blog isn’t criticising him, I am merely putting the argument up there as I found it quite interesting to see it evolve on Twitter. Couple of issues with your points:

    “You have chucked Leo Messi and RVN in among the statistics in comparison and none of it makes any sense because you later suggest Cantona is `not in the same league` as Messi.” – Ability wise & goals per game ratio in Europe he isn’t – do you agree/disagree?

    “From the stat it would be presumed you include RVN too. I presume you don’t think RVN10 was a better footballer but this is what I mean about it being a mess with vague references.” – Ruud’s stats in Europe are better than Eric’s but you’re right, I think Eric Cantona was a better player than Ruud. However, I fail to see the reasoning behind your point (honestly, it is very ambiguous), surely you can make your own mind up on whether you think Eric is better than Messi or Van Nistelrooy, without me having to explain it to you?

    I don’t see the issue about including Lionel Messi and Van Nistelrooy in the stats if I think Eric is better than one and not the other? Facts are facts, both have better scoring ratios in Europe than Eric – what can’t you understand!?

    Your comments on eras is a joke, people compare Maradona to Messi everyday – and Best to Giggs. So what is your problem? That it is easier to score goals now compared to when Eric was playing?

    I’ve also defended Eric about playing only one full season in Europe under the the current system (following his suspension in 94/95) and we got to the semi finals. You seem to be blinkered into only wanting me to say Eric was the best player of all time?

    “Out of context stats or a mention of Alen Boksic cannot be a strong enough argument and makes this a joke.” – Is quite possibly one of the most laughable comments I’ve ever seen. Mentioning Boksic in an article (that discusses the 1-0 defeat to Juventus, the side that Fergie remarked were the ‘benchmark’) makes it a joke?? Laughable.

    On your final point about being ‘dismissive’ – you clearly haven’t even read the blog properly. Time and time again I refer to his importance but I present facts that you don’t even want to acknowledge. I used to know a poster like you that was constantly confused with what he was trying to say before presenting an in depth essay of his own self importance.

    I don’t mind criticism, in fact I welcome it – but your comments make NO SENSE and you don’t seem to have an issue with the other comments on here that don’t highlight Eric as the greatest. If you think Eric is the greatest THEN SAY WHY. If you don’t think Eric is the greatest THEN SAY WHY. This blog isn’t for me to get on a soapbox and tell you want to think – it is there for you to interact with a community.

    If you want to debate maturely then i’m all for it, but any more waffle and I will just delete the comment.

  9. I think the blog makes some good points about cantona. I also grew up watching united in the ninties and thought cantona could walk on water but through the wisdom of time I have come to relise that cantona wasn’t world class but was exceptional in his prime during the 95/96 season when he single handedly darged us to the league and cup doulbe. I also believe that being banned from the french team hampered his development on the european stage because the premiership back then was not up to european standard as can be seen with how easy it was for wenger to come in and instantly challenge united’s dominence. When comparing Cantona to Ruud I would say Van Nistelrooy was the better player, people seem to underestimate Ruud’s technique and skills, I personally think Ruud had one of the best first touchies in football. I myself think Cantona would be listed alongside the greats of Brittish football not alongside the greats of World football.

  10. My problem here is, you are trying to quantify a player whose influence, whose brilliance, whose importance is simply unquantifiable. I apologize for the aggressive tone of previous comments, perhaps my argument is lost in there, but I find it rather frustrating to see a player of such significance to the club simply be dumbed down to “right player, right time.”

    Maradonna was the “right player” at the “right time” for Argentina, because he was that damn good a player. Pele was the “right player” at the “right time” for Brazil, because he was a brilliant footballer. Do you mean to say that if either of those players had popped up 15 years before or after their era of dominance, they would not have been the players that defined era’s in football?

    Cantona might not be considered by most, even myself, to be as good a player as Maradonna or Pele, but the same logic applies. Eric was a genius footballer. An absolute genius. Different to Maradonna and Pele, but a genius in his own right, and the statement I made above regarding Pele and Maradonna applies to Cantona too. He was the “right player” for the club, because he was simply the best player in England. What’s more, as you rightly point out, he remains one of the biggest influences on not only Manchester United, but English football too. He is revered all over the world, not just amongst United fans, for his contribution to the world game. Even if that influence is not put on the same plain as Maradonna or Pele, Eric Cantona is rightly recognized as one of the greatest footballers to have played the game at the highest level, and that goes beyond mere sentiment. Vital goals and performances which drove Manchester United to 6 major honors is testament to that.

    I stand by my point that your arguments do not effectively back up your conclusion. You bring up a lot of stats and ratios, claiming that the numbers for Cantona don’t stack up to other forwards pre and post Cantona, and then acknowledge that Cantona played a fraction of the ammount of games they did/have in Europe, and that United were only embarking on their first European campaigns after a long standing ban preventing English clubs from participating in European competition. I brought up your reference of the Boksic reference because it is in complete isolation to everything else you have mentioned. It does not back up you conclusion without further explanation. You’ve simply stated that he scored a goal where Cantona didn’t.

    You accuse me of making “no sense”, but I fail to see the sense in bringing up a bunch of numbers before belittling their importance, presenting them in a fashion that contradicts from one player to the next, and coming to a conclusion.

    I do not wish for this to turn into a sledging war.As I said you are more than welcome to come to your own conclusions. I have read your article and feel there are serious holes in your argument and the way they have lead you to your conclusion, and I have now stated several times how I came to that conclusion. It is contradictory of you to then dismiss me as though I make “no sense”. I have acknowledged your arguments, assessed them, addressed them and come to very different conclusions. Don’t preach to me about maturity and then dismiss my argument as though I have failed to make a coherent point. You wrote an article downplaying the ability of one of our best ever players and the argument you chose to back it up was so poor I, as a United fan, wanted to respond to it to say I thought you were wrong to do so.

    This is the last I will say on the matter. My goal is not to convince you of my point of view so much as to present a different point of view to your reader.


  11. The logical comparisons for Cantona are:
    1) vs the players of his time
    In the mid 90’s he was comfortably the best attacker in the Premier League. If you extend that to compare him vs the rest of Europe, he still stacks up fairly well. From 1993-1997, Cantona was definitely one of the best forwards in Europe. Other players that were on Eric’s level include Baggio, Batistuta, Romario, Ronaldo, Bergkamp, Stoichkov, and Hagi. There is very little argument that he was one of the best players in the world in his prime. I would not have swapped him for any other support striker in the world at the time (even Baggio), because it’s uncertain how the rest would have adapted to the Premier League style.

    2) vs the great forwards of United’s history
    Having only seen highlights of Law and Best, I can’t really judge them. I’ll limit this question to the forwards that came after Cantona. He’s without a doubt better than Sheringham, Cole, Yorke, Solskjaer, Tevez, Berba etc. I’d say his superior creativity outweighs RVN’s better finishing. I’d say he dominated games a little more than Rooney does, even when Rooney is on form. However, I feel Ronaldo was a little more unplayable and a little more consistent at his best.

    3)v vs the great French forwards in history
    Here is where Cantona has issues, because he never hit his United form for Les Bleus. Not totally his fault, but he can’t be put on the same level as Fontaine, Platini, or Henry based on his national team contributions.

    4) vs the great forwards of Football history
    I’m really not qualified to compare him to someone like Puskas or Zico, because i’ve never seen those players. As for the post Maradona players, Cantona’s lack of Continental or International silverware leaves him at a disadvantage to the likes of Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Romario, Ronaldo etc.

    In summary, one of the 10 (possibly 5) best forwards in the world at his peak. One of the 5 best forwards in United history. My #1 favorite player ever.

  12. Laudrup – the most underrated player of all time. His lack of inclusion is a shame, up there with Cryuff, just behind Maradona/ Pele, better than Cantona.

  13. Interesting article. I think that if you, Stretford-end, were trying to construct a cohesive argument that it would indeed fall down under scrutiny, but it seems to me to be more providing a selection of possible tangents and talking points – no, Eric may not have the best scoring record in Europe, but is sheer goals the benchmark we are using as being synonymous with greatness? – with a few random reminiscences thrown in for good measure (“shut up you gaylord, Lee Sharpe is well better than Ryan Giggs” – I ate my words for that one in Year 6 I think!)

    It may just be me revising history for my favourite player, but Cantona seems to be so important to the development of the Premier League into (one of) the best leagues in the world. He combined physical strength and speed (just because he wasn’t quite as quick as Michael Owen didn’t mean he was a slouch) with technique and continental flair, with his strengths suiting the English game but with a bit of extra class that forced the rest of the league to sit up and take notice. He could play as a centre forward (Cantona-Hughes 93/94, so many kinds of awesome) or drop off the front man, adding tactical versatility and ingenuity in his reading of the game that was exceptionally rare in 4-4-2 dominated English football at the time. He opened the floodgates for other, equally talented foreigners to come over here – Bergkamp, Zola – and make the game more exciting to watch.

    That’s right – Eric Cantona saved football. NOt that I go in for hyperbole or anything…

    I think that regarding his goalscoring ability, he was more of a scorer of great goals and of important goals than the RVN type poacher. Also his work rate was phenomenal for one of those fancy-dan foreign types: there was one goal in particular, vs. Sheffield United if memory serves, where Eric won the ball from an opposition corner, linked up across the length of the pitch at full tilt before coolly slotting it home. Oh, another point is regarding his penalty taking, one of the best takers I’ve ever seen with an excellent conversion rate – two in the 94 cup final against Chelsea, 5 minutes apart, same corner, ice fucking cold man.

    Scoring in the dying seconds of the cup final against Liverpool with an I-still-don’t-know-how-he-did-that jumping backwards volley for a 1-0 victory will always stay with me. Shows to me as well that he was not a big game bottler: maybe could’ve done a bit better with United in Europe, but 15 years ago the FA Cup final really was the biggest game these shores had to offer and Eric was the difference on two separate occasions.

    At his best he could make space from nothing, pick out a pass from anywhere, score from 2.5 or 25 yards out, left, right, headed, dead ball, fire up his side, wrestle anyone off the ball, outrun 90% of players, had excellent stamina… Decimate smaller sides, score game-winners in finals… Only shame is that we never got to see him form a relationship with Zidane in the national side. Imagine that! Like Xaviesta but with goals.

    Long live the King.

  14. Cantona’s record for France is pretty solid but the fact remains that if he’d been in the “one of the best ever” category when he returned from his suspension they WOULD have found a way to get him and Zidane both in the team. Or at least tried. As it is they had Zidane and Jacquet seemed pretty content.

  15. Great player, but not on the same level as Cruyf, Maradona, Pele, or Zidane (The best player of the past 20 years).

    On a level just below with Zola, Bergkamp, Nedved

  16. Jack. Great comment and thank you for contributing.

    Yes, my blogging style is not to dictate and tell everyone what to think. I wanted to put together a selection of talking points that are there for the reader to debate. I think my thoughts on Eric are pretty clear and all of the positives you mentioned, I believe I have covered within the piece.

    Eric did so much for United and football in this country, an absolute legend for me.

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