Friday, 21 October 2011

Ooh Ah... Just a Little Bit - Cantona by Philipe Auclair

If the deeds of footballers as related via their autobiography are all that survives of our civilisation, the future inhabitants of our planet might wonder why we chose such mediocre (though well toned) gods.  Over the course of my footie watching lifetime, footballers of the top echelon have gradually ascended from mere heroes to gods.  No longer are they perceived as mere mortals, men performing glorious deeds on a field of sporting combat, now, after a process of celebritisation, they're portrayed as distant deities with superhuman skills capable of acts beyond the ken of mere mortals.   They're more remote than they used to be, even mediocre players earning in a week or two what might otherwise be considered a very good yearly wage. They live in mansions rendered remote from the public by the kind of security a spectacular wage can buy.   Most of all, they're no longer someone we could become given the right training and opportunities (no, the best we mere mortals can hope for is Football League or, if you're spectacularly unlucky, you could wind up in Scottish or Welsh football).

Of course, it's easy to ascribe this entirely to the interlinked rise of the Premier League and Sky.  The moving of football from a relatively rarity to a weekly event was underway before Sky bought the Premier League rights, but the current status quo, where football saturates TV schedules even outside major international tournaments, would be almost unimaginable twenty years ago.  Thirty years back? Anyone told that live football would become common, with even foreign league matches routinely broadcast live, would have laughed in your face.  There are other factors involved beyond the excellent timing of Sky and the Premier League - English clubs had returned to European competition after the Heysel ban, England's run to the semi-finals of Italia' 90 had made football cool again (along with one of the few genuinely credible football related songs, EnglandNewOrder's World In Motion) and, post-Hillsborough, grounds were being made safer, encouraging the more timid of the middle class fans who'd been scared off by tales of hooliganism to return to grounds. And make no mistake, there were middle class football fans back then, though perhaps not as many. It was simply that football wasn't a topic of conversation, wasn't the social glue it is now.  The Premier League's great trick was in tapping into the support that saw going to an actual game as too expensive or too much trouble, making England's top league accessible to them week in week out without them having to leave their living room.  And in that situation, tapping into a market previously beyond football, the game's popularity could only grow. Sky built the pedestals for the stars of their new show, most of the footballers happily scrambled on to them.  Who wouldn't wanna be adored?

From the perspective of today, with rich owners and huge TV and commercial income allowing the league to be gilded by some of the finest players in the world, the lack of glamour of twenty years ago is a reminder of reality rather than SkySports rewritten history.  The reigning champions were the functional Arsenal side of George Graham, Graeme Souness was busy replacing the artists of an aging Liverpool side with expensive artisans and the side who'd take the title in 1991-92 was an unmemorable Leeds side, livened by the spark of Strachan and sublime passing of Gary McAllister but largely dependent on long balls and the head of Lee Chapman.  It was a brutal world in which the likes of Vinnie Jones prospered in midfield and the sheer physical presence of the likes of Mick Harford and Dion Dublin made them prized strikers.  An insular, almost agrarian environment where foreigners, particularly the skillful players, were largely distrusted - the likes of Jan Molby were glaring exceptions to the rule.  This was the point at which the eccentric career trajectory of Eric Cantona collided with English football and the seeds of English football becoming entertainment as much as sport were sown.  Cantona, with seemingly more charisma than the rest of the league put together, provided the glamour that SkySports had desperately tried to inject with desperate measures such as the SkyStrikers cheerleaders. 

Philippe Auclair's biography is far from a simple study of Cantona's time in the English game - it's only around halfway through the book that the account of his time in England begins. Neither is it a comprehensive biography which covers his post-football exploits including his acting and beach football (and, lately, management) careers.  Instead it concentrates solely on Cantona as a footballer,and his activities relating to that career.  It ends with his retirement in 1997, only briefly seeking even to contextualise what legacy he may have left in football or what legacy football left to Cantona.  This is the cliche of 'football being my life' being exploited to shape the story, with retirement attempts referred to as 'suicide' and 'death'.  That might sound overly dramatic, but it isn't, it's a conceit which allows Auclair to fully bring home the drama and intensity of his subject.  This is an exploration of how Cantona's style of play and his career in the game were an extension of his personality; as concerned with character as it is with narrative.   At one point Auclair makes the point that the tendency of football biographies to hermetically seal themselves from the real world is preposterous, that the actions of footballers are nothing without the context being given of what they mean to the fans. Not only does Auclair put events in the context of clubs and fans, he's always at pains to see the even wider context, both in terms of football and society.  For normal footballers who often appear oblivious to wider events, it may not matter, but in a biography of Cantona, a man often defined as much by what he was reacting against as what he was in himself, it's a stroke of brilliance.  It immediately negates the tendency of football writers to view events in isolation, the sort of writing which leads to a complete lack of understanding as to why things happen.  Auclair's approach allows the reader to delve behind the headlines of Cantona as a nomadic troublemaker and instead seeks to explain his reasons for moving on in each instance.   Whilst it's clear his sympathies lie more with Cantona than those he kicks against, he's not judgemental, allowing the reader to judge actions for themselves.  It's a proper journalistic approach that echews the tendency of footballing biographies to either sensationalise events or justify them.  Each stage of Cantona's career leads to understanding of why events happened, why he failed to fit in at so many clubs. After this you'll understand (if not necessarily agree with) his actions, from his departure from Auxerre, through to the Selhurst Park incident and his eventual retirement. It's a book length illustration of a character, a portrait in the truest sense.  Even for a Liverpool fan, with the painful story of the rise of United to the top of the English game (where the story told here ends) it's compelling.  Fittingly, for Cantona, it's a very different type of biography for a very different type of footballer.

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