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BIFF, BANG, WALLOP!
Steve Rushin
June 12, 1995
The all-out attacking style and rich history of English soccer make it a game with worldwide appeal
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June 12, 1995

Biff, Bang, Wallop!

The all-out attacking style and rich history of English soccer make it a game with worldwide appeal

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It was the most familiar sight in English soccer: A player was shown the card. This card, however, was neither a yellow warning card nor a red expulsion card but rather a good-luck greeting card passed to Cantona in a Croydon courtroom by a 13-year-old Cockney Red, as Man United's London-area supporters are called. The boy wore a replica jersey, its number 7 underscoring three stitched letters: GOD.

Like God, Cantona is a brooding, temperamental genius. He plays with his collar up, his face five-o'clock-shadowed, his single eyebrow furrowed in a frown. In France he punched his own goalkeeper, called the nation's highest football officials "a bunch of idiots" and his own manager "a bag of s——." Which explains why he now plays in England, where his teams have won the league championship in each of his three full seasons.

But he is also an expressionist painter who reads Rimbaud. In fact, a slim volume of Cantona's own philosophy has been published. This season he lived modestly in a rented house worth $120,000. And the recipient of his kung fu kick was a yob, once convicted of attempted armed robbery, whose verbal abuse of Cantona was by most accounts xenophobic. How, then, to define Cantona, when he is athlete, aesthete and ascetic all at once?

In an appeals court Cantona's jail sentence was overturned. In its place the judge imposed a sanction worthy of Sartre: Cantona must spend 120 hours teaching his unteachable, otherworldly soccer skills to Manchester youths. Following the verdict, God called a press conference. He would make an opening statement.

"When the seagulls," Cantona began, pausing to sip dramatically from a water glass, "follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you." And with that, Cantona—the sacrificial sardine of this delphic parable—shook the hand of his stunned solicitor and disappeared through a back door, stiffing the scavenging seagulls of the media.

They swooped instead on Sebastian Pennells, the 13-year-old who gave Cantona the greeting card. Pennells is, it turns out, from suburban Sevenoaks, the son of a single mother. Inside the card that Cantona carried away was a handwritten poem from Master Pennells. It read:

Eric is an idol
Eric is a star
If my mother had her way
He would also be my Pa.

Outside the famous Old Trafford stadium stand two hangarlike emporiums. The Man United Superstore and the Man United Megastore sell Cantona duvets and Ryan Giggs bath towels to tourists from every nation, which is one reason the club netted $17 million in 1994. In January, United spent $11 million for the mere rights to 23-year-old Newcastle striker Andy Cole, a.k.a. Cole the Goal, a.k.a. Goal King Cole, but the defending champions finished second in the Premier League to Blackburn Rovers, a team assembled for $42 million in transfer fees.

But just behind Blankcheque Rovers and Merchandise United, as they are known to cynics, was Newcastle, whose manager is the ex-Liverpool superstar and two-time European Footballer of the Year, Kevin Keegan. Sandwiched between the Newcastle Brewery and a pub is the Magpies' ground, St. James' Park. Stop a steward for directions to your seat, and within minutes you know his name (Mike Bell) and full-time occupation (schoolteacher), have met his wife and daughter (lovely) and been invited to stay at the house whenever you're in Europe. There are 35,000 other hooligans here just like Bell, including the future prime minister of England, Labour leader Tony Blair, who cheers the Mags from his midfield seat.

"The football team means everything to a town like this," Keegan says of Newcastle, a city of 280,000 about 40 miles south of the Scottish border. "We treat the fans as family: They can come in for coffee, have a chat with players—we listen to their concerns." On the stunning afternoon that Man United CARRIED COLE FROM NEWCASTLE, as the headlines inevitably had it, distraught supporters descended on St. James' Park, and Keegan waded out among them, earnestly defending the January transaction. Can you see Buddy Ryan doing this?

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