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Offside, 10 February

Cantona's kung-fu kick, 10 years on.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Last month marked the tenth anniversary of Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kick. In football’s puffed-up mythology Cantona’s kick has acquired iconic status, regularly featuring in lists of memorable sporting moments.

We can all remember precisely what we were doing on 25 January 1995 when Cantona lunged feet first at Matthew Simmons. This is my story. I wasn’t at Selhurst Park that night but driving home listening to the match on the car radio. Judging by the frothing indignation of the radio commentators you would have thought that the Pope had been gang-raped by aliens.

I too was appalled, though not by Cantona’s actions but by the unctuous moralising that followed. An FA spokesman declared that ‘Such an incident brings shame on those involved as well as, more importantly, on the game itself’. Trevor Brooking, who is often as described as a ‘gentleman’ (ie, he couldn’t tackle for toffee), called it ‘the most horrendous incident involving a player I have ever witnessed at an English football ground’.

Maybe it’s the company I keep but most people I know thought that Cantona’s flying kick was hilarious and well worth the admission price alone – and so too did some spectators judging by the expressions of delight on their faces in newspaper photographs. Yet the ensuring inquest was relentlessly po-faced. I remember listening to a Radio 5 Live phone-in debate on the subject between indignant ‘rent-a-pulpit’ moralists calling for Cantona to be banned for life, and Manchester United fans whining about the intolerable provocation that Cantona had endured.

Irritated by both camps I phoned in to Radio 5 myself. My point was that the actions of both Cantona and Matthew Simmons were, in their own ways, justifiable. Simmons was only doing his duty as a Palace fan by hurling abuse at an opponent, while Cantona was simply responding as any reasonable man might do when told to ‘Fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker!’ (You need to replace ‘France’ with your own homeland here – though admittedly ‘Fuck off back to Bexhill, you East Sussex motherfucker’ doesn’t quite have the same cachet.) As it turned out, although I was allowed to defend Cantona on air, I was told not to talk about Simmons’ actions for ‘legal reasons’.

What the national furore over the incident told us was that football had become much more than ‘just a game’. Football had increasingly come to fill the void in our lives that was once occupied by our engagement in public life. An unfortunate side-effect of football’s inflated significance was that footballers’ conduct has come under far greater public scrutiny. Players were no longer expected simply to kick a ball but to serve as role models to children. In the fevered imagination of the nation’s moral guardians the legendary kung-fu kick would be slavishly imitated by thousands of prepubescent wannabe Cantonas in schoolyards across Britain (the lack of British martial arts medals at the Athens Olympics suggests that these fears were unfounded).

The reaction to Cantona’s kick also indicated that the rejuvenated sport was attracting new types of fans with new values. While condemnation of Cantona was widespread, there was also considerable sympathy for this brooding, poetry-writing, tormented genius. Cantona’s cryptic cod-philosophical utterances made him the archetypal thinking man’s footballer – perfectly suited to a time when more and more thinking men were proclaiming their love of the ‘beautiful game’.

Invariably all manner of social significance was heaped on to Cantona’s moment of madness. ‘One applauds Eric Cantona’s foray into the Crystal Palace crowd as an example of postmodernism’ said novelist Julian Barnes. Another Cantona acolyte declared that the kung-fu kick was an ‘instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement’. Cantona’s apologists retrospectively redefined his assault as an anti-racist act after allegations about Matthew Simmons’ right-wing allegiances were published. ‘It’s very ironic that it took a white Frenchman to bring home to the nation the issue of racism in football’, said former Liverpool and England winger John Barnes.

But rewriting Cantona’s assault as an intuitive anti-racist statement is post-hoc rationalisation of the worst kind. The English may not particularly like the cheese-eaters but there is no systematic discrimination against them. In any case, as Cantona explained in court, he had assaulted Simmons for insulting his mother (in some versions of events Simmons is said to have called Cantona a ‘dirty French bastard’).

Ten years ago I defended Matthew Simmons but today I’m not so sure. It’s not that I think that effing and blinding at the opposition is wrong. Far from it. It’s just that I don’t think Simmons himself is worth defending. While I protested against his punitive three-year ban from Selhurst Park, Simmons didn’t seem particularly bothered. ‘I had a season ticket at Crystal Palace and they asked me to give it back. I didn’t mind because the team was rubbish’, he told the Observer in 2002 (1). In a more recent Observer Sports Monthly interview he admitted that he now goes to watch Fulham instead. The slimy turncoat! Maybe that kung-fu kick was an instinctive expression of flawless moral judgement after all.

(1) ‘What happened next?’, Observer Magazine, 29 September 2002

(2) Observer Sports Monthly, 31 October 2004

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