Luis Suarez and Eric Cantona are club icons of two bitter rivals, but which of them is more hated by the wider footballing community?
Asking a Manchester United fan to write this piece may well yield a different result than if a Liverpool fan had been assigned the same task. However, even with all the impartiality I have at my disposal, I still argue that there is no real contest. The Uruguayan is much less well-liked by rival fans than the Frenchman.
The first point of data to cite is perhaps a tad unscientific, but revealing nonetheless. A Google search for "I hate Eric Cantona," in quotation marks, currently yields 40 results. A Google search for "I hate Luis Suarez," in quotation marks, currently yields 96,900.
Not a good start for Suarez. Why might it be that Cantona, an arrogant figure on the pitch, who helped propel a team that many opposition fans certainly do hate to phenomenal success, is the less disliked?
Luis Suarez’s transgressions can be divided into several categories. The first are those which are frustrating to rival fans, but are done in service of his team, about which Suarez is apparently unrepentant.
His proclivity for diving and his tendency to appeal to the referee with a pained look on his face at every imagined transgression are difficult to watch, but they can get results.
In 2010, after denying Ghana a place in the World Cup semi-finals with a goal-line handball, Suarez claimed, "The ‘hand of God’ now belongs to me," per BBC sport. He went on to say "Sometimes in training I play goalkeeper so it was worth it."
Then comes the next category. Call it "things which do not seem appropriate for adults to do to other adults." Alternatively, call it "the biting of fellow professionals."
Twice, Suarez has taken it upon himself to bite an opposition player. The first happened whilst playing for Ajax. Following a nil-nil draw with PSV Eindhoven, Suarez bit PSV player Otman Bakkal on the shoulder, per BBC sport again.
Then, in Liverpool red, in an incident etched in the minds of all who saw it, Suarez chomped Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic on the arm.
Both the diving and the biting come under the heading of "snide" offenses. They do not represent the blood and thunder that British football fans typically appreciate. They may not be hugely damaging, but they are underhanded and culturally at odds with the traditions of the game in this country.
There is a wider discussion to be had about whether it is appropriate for diving to receive so much opprobrium when compared with actual bodily harm, but the truth is it does, and Suarez is perceived as a "cheat." (per whatculture.com)
There is another, more serious, category of Suarez’s offenses, and into that fits his racial abuse of Patrice Evra.
A Football Association statement, following the investigation into the 2011 incident said, (h/t The Guardian)
Mr Suarez used insulting words towards Mr Evra during the match contrary to FA Rule E3(1).
The insulting words used by Mr Suarez included a reference to Mr Evra's colour within the meaning of Rule E3(2).
Further discussion of this incident does not belong in what is, after all, a relatively light-hearted discussion about two rival players, but, in truth, it should be the be-all-and-end-all of the discussion, given the seriousness of the subject. If a player racially abuses a fellow professional, he will be, and indeed merits being, hated by opposition fans.
There are certainly groups of supporters who hate Cantona. He is not popular in Leeds, having abandoned Leeds United for Manchester. Joining an arch-rival is never a well-liked move for a footballer. Joining them and becoming the catalyst which helps transform them into the side which dominates domestic football for two decades, even less so.
Liverpool fans are also not generally fond of the Frenchman, given his status as a United icon. It has been my experience that it is difficult to have a conversation with a Liverpool fan about Cantona without the word "overrated" being used. Try it yourself, if you want to test the theory.
Another group of fans amongst whom Cantona is not much appreciated is Crystal Palace. The image of Cantona leaping across the hoardings to land a flying kick on Matthew Simmons forms part of his iconography at Old Trafford, but he has a very different reputation at Selhurst Park.
Deep discussion of what is a very tragic matter falls outside of the remit of this piece, but there are those Palace fans who link that incident to the death some months later of Paul Dixon, as this archived forum post on Palace fan site CPFC.org shows. During the recent match between Palace and United, the subject reared its head, per ESPN.co.uk.
Manchester City fans, of course, have much to resent Cantona for, having been on the receiving end of his particular brand of magic on more than one occasion.
However, when I asked on Twitter for fans of other clubs to let me know how they felt about Cantona, the response was broadly very positive. Even the Bleacher Report's own Manchester City columnist Rob Pollard was full of praise.
@UtdRantcast One cool man and a damn fine footballer.— Rob (@RobPollard_) March 18, 2014
Outside of Palace supporters, and most of United's direct rivals, the response to my request for supporters seems indicative that fans of other clubs tend to appreciate Cantona rather than revile him.
@UtdRantcast Hated him v my team (Villa) but he was so charismatic. He strode around pitch with the theatricality & poise of a bullfighter.— Flumpmistress (@flumpmistress) March 18, 2014
Even if he is apparently used to teach salutatory lessons to young people.
@UtdRantcast bit naughty, but a bit good. My year 4 teacher used him as an example of a bad role model once— Hanna (@Hannamayj) March 18, 2014
I spoke to various people in my office yesterday before writing this piece. Again, a small sample size, but again, overwhelmingly the same message. Cantona was widely admired, Suarez is not (although, of course, everyone acknowledges he is a magnificent footballer).
The central reason for this disparity seems to me to be the nature of their wrongdoing. Cantona's most public wrongs were explosive, violent, certainly, but direct and in the open. Suarez's have either a more Machiavellian quality or a more infantile quality that makes him more likely to raise the ire of the opposition.
The final differentiation between the two is almost impossible to quantify, but is best described as charisma. I do not believe I am alone in finding Cantona intensely charismatic. His poetic proclamations, his arrogant celebration of a wonder goal against Sunderland, his collar-up, chest-out, elegant and powerful style on the pitch did a good deal to mask his flaws.
Suarez is an incredible footballer, but he does not have that kind of charismatic pull.
As I said at the start of the piece, I am trying to be impartial, although that was unlikely ever to be possible. To continue the discussion, ask your friends who do not support either club and let us know what they say in the comments below.
Whilst I am willing to concede my position may be somewhat influenced by my United-tinted world view, I stand by the thesis that Eric Cantona is much less hated by most opposition fans than Luis Suarez.