In the middle of a European Championships it is difficult not to overrate players. As we watch on TV, it seems like every other player is described as "great," "outstanding" and "exceptional." It is what leads the modern football fan to ignore the true great players of the past, and focus only on the present players when talking about greatness.
It is standard today for, in terms of entire football history, a pretty average player to be regarded as outstanding. In the current media age, such hyperbole is inevitable, and we are all taken in by it in one way or another.
The EPL is the biggest media machine in football, and as such, it has always been at the forefront of overrating players. Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard to name a few, but these four have been declared "the best in the world" despite their performances on the biggest stages of all, European Championships and World Cups, not matching their EPL exploits.
I am not saying that any of those players are not quality, but have any of them ever really been the best in the world?
In my opinion, Eric Cantona was the first to be grossly overrated by the EPL media machine. When you look seriously at Eric’s career, what will he be remembered for most? Will it be a tremendous goal in a key game for club or country? Will it be for shaping a crucial match to his will, and lifting his team-mates from the jaws of defeat?
No is the answer. Cantona is most remembered for his Kung-Fu kicking, his bizarre press-conferences, and his false pretensions to be an artist or an actor.
Football? In the media age, that is a mere sideshow to creating an aura, a myth, an ego.
Let us look at club football first. Cantona struck 161 goals in 432 appearances in his club career. A respectable sum, but hardly one that sends shivers down the spines of your Pele's, Cruyff’s, Maradona's and Muller's.
Most noticeable is that he only managed 432 games. Even Maradona, with all of his personal problems, managed 590 club matches. Surely longevity is as much a factor in judging a player as anything else?
Cantona made his debut for Auxerre in 1983, at age 17, he retired from football in 1997, at just 30, in a huge shock. His early retirement is another factor in the myth of Cantona, we miss most what we feel we have been deprived of.
In reality though, was Cantona really such a big miss? Manchester United managed to win the treble without him just two seasons after his retirement. That doesn’t exactly suggest that they had difficulty replacing him does it?
In their first season without Cantona, 1997-1998, Manchester United finished second in the EPL a point behind Arsene Wenger’s double-winning Arsenal side. Again, if Cantona was that special, surely it would have had a much more dramatic effect on the United team when he was no longer there, and such a sudden departure too?
In fact in finishing on 77 points in 1997-1998, United had managed two points more without Cantona, than they had in the previous title winning season with him. They also scored just three fewer goals in 1997-1998, despite the shock departure of such a supposedly huge creative and goalscoring influence.
The Champions League is arguably the highest level of football, comparable in quality to the international game but exceeding it on the basis that the club teams are a mixture of the best from any country. Now, such a "great player" as Cantona would surely have made a big impact on the Champions League right?
Well, not quite. Cantona played a total of 24 games in the European Cup/Champions League, scoring just seven goals. Cantona was part of the disgraced Olympic Marseille squad which lost the European Cup Final on penalties in 1991, but he played just three games in that run.
He then played for Leeds in the competition in 1992-1993 before he joined Manchester United, scoring just once in four games in the first ever Champions League as Leeds were knocked out by Rangers.
The next season (1993-1994) was his first for Manchester United in the competition, and while he scored twice in their four matches, he was unable to prevent them being knocked out by Galatasaray in the second round. Cantona had scored two penalties in the FA Cup final that year as United won the double, and he was voted PFA Player of the year, but on the biggest stage, he was a non event.
This was a time when Turkish football was not the force is it now, and though Gala were a decent team, you would expect a team including one of the "best in the world" to have beaten them.
In the next stage, Gala finished bottom of a group containing Barcelona, AS Monaco, and Spartak Moscow, they didn't win a single match out of six and scored only one goal in the process.
The next season (1994-1995) was not much better in the Champions League. Cantona featured in just two matches without scoring, as United were knocked out in the first group stage, including a humiliating 4-0 defeat in the Camp Nou, though Cantona himself was missing with injury for that match.
Eric was to have just one more season in the Champions League, 1996-1997, his final season as a player, when he scored three goals in 10 matches. This time United managed to get to the semi finals, impressively beating Porto 4-0 on aggregate after struggling through the group stage with three wins and three defeats.
Surely this could be Eric’s moment to show his class, a European Cup semi-final, at his peak aged 30?
Alas, it was not to be. United lost both home and away to Borussia Dortmund 1-0, and yet again, Cantona had failed to perform when it mattered most.
Borussia went on to lift the trophy, with Lars Ricken scoring that wonderful lob in the final. The rest of Ricken’s career was pretty average, but he will always be remembered for that magical moment on the pitch.
So if the Champions League was not to Eric’s liking, maybe he made a bigger impact on international football, after all, that is where the true global stars are made.
On the face of it, statistically, Cantona’s French career was decent. He won 45 caps, scoring a very respectable 20 goals. Not an amazing record, but none-too-shabby either. When you delve deeper though, he was as much of a disappointment in international football as he was in European club football.
His first big chance in a major tournament came in Euro 1992. France were managed by Michel Platini, who was a big fan of Cantona, and made allowances to include him in the team, despite doubts over his temperament. Paired up front with the goal-machine Jean Pierre Papin, it seemed a match made in heaven.
Unfortunately, France were as dismal as they have been in Euro 2008. They did not win a game and were out in the first round. Yet again, when it mattered most on the biggest stage, Cantona failed to deliver.
He did not play in another major tournament. France, with Cantona a key member of the team, did not qualify for the 1994 World Cup under Gerard Houllier.
They needed only a draw at home to Bulgaria in the final qualifier to progress, but the Bulgarians, inspired by a proper world class star in Hristo Stoichkov, won 2-1.
Cantona continued to play for France under Aime Jacquet, but by the time Euro 1996 came round, he had Kung-fu’d his way to an international ban, and was replaced as the fulcrum of the team by another proper world class star, Zinedine Zidane.
France went out on penalties in the semi final without Cantona in the squad, another team showing no sign of missing Eric after he had gone.
By 1998, Eric was retired and France were World Champions. So let's sum that up with Cantona as a key player, France were dismal in Euro 1992, and failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Without Cantona as a key player, they reached the semi final’s of Euro 1996, and won the World Cup in 1998. Ooh Aah Cantona! More like Oh dear Cantona...
That was the career of Eric Cantona, a very talented player, but also one of the most overrated players ever to play the game. Its amazing what a bit of media hype can do for the public's perception of a career.