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All hail King Eric: an inspiration on and off the pitch

One of the most charismatic players of his generation, UEFA President's Award winner Eric Cantona continues to leave his mark.

All hail King Eric: an inspiration on and off the pitch
All hail King Eric: an inspiration on and off the pitch ©UEFA

Just over 22 years after he retired from football, former Manchester United forward Eric Cantona has received the UEFA President's Award from Aleksandar Čeferin for his outstanding contribution to the game. This is why.

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin on Eric Cantona

"This award not only recognises your career as a great player with unique talent, incomparable style and undeniable charisma, it also honours you for the person you are and have become: a man who refuses compromise, stands up for his values, speaks his mind and, in particular, puts his heart and soul into supporting the causes he believes in.

Cantona in the Champions League

"It will reward your magnificent playing career and the social commitment that you have displayed since you hung up your boots, it will cast a spotlight on the Common Goal initiative (a project to which you know I am also personally committed) and it will demonstrate that official institutions, like UEFA, also know how to honour those who give meaning to football."

Expert testimony

"He ruled Old Trafford for five years. He was an unbelievable talent to play with and watch in games and training."
Ryan Giggs, Manchester United team-mate from 1992–95

"Everyone took to him, controversy or not. He oozed charisma and genius in equal measure, and is by far and away the best ever in the Premier League. It was an honour to have played with him."
Peter Schmeichel, former Manchester United goalkeeper

"Eric Cantona was special, he had an aura about him, he is the king of Old Trafford and that's the way he should always be remembered."
David Beckham, former Manchester United midfielder

Eric Cantona and former manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Eric Cantona and former manager Sir Alex Ferguson©Bongarts

"If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: 'I'm Cantona. How big are you?'"
Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager

Playing career

• Marseille paid a French record FF22m for him in 1988; he sparkled intermittently, but was allowed to join Nîmes following OM's 1990/91 title success. He briefly retired (aged 25) in December 1991 but was persuaded to try again in England by his psychoanalyst.

• Settled on Leeds United following trials at Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday, and – after arriving in January – helped Howard Wilkinson's side win the 1991/92 English title. However, an unsettled Cantona put in a transfer request in November 1992. United signed him for £1.2m two days later.

• Supercharged a United side who were eighth on his arrival, and helped them win their first league championship in 26 years – he was the first player to win back-to-back English titles with different clubs. United's top scorer as they won a domestic double the following season, Cantona was absent for much of the 1994/95 campaign due to a nine-month ban.

Eric Cantona in movie star mode
Eric Cantona in movie star mode©Getty Images

• Won two further titles in 1995/96 and 1996/97 to take his tally to four in five seasons at United (six in seven seasons in all). Outrageous skills were very much the norm during his peak at United, as much of a hallmark as his upturned collars.

• Stunned football by announcing that he was retiring, aged just 30, at the end of 1996/97. He later explained: "I loved the game but I no longer had the passion to go to bed early, not to go out with my friends, not to drink, and not to do a lot of other things, the things I like in life."

Final tally

International: 45 appearances, 20 goals
UEFA club competition: 27 appearances, 9 goals
Domestic competition: 369 appearances, 131 goals

What happened next

• Having taken on his first cameo role during his playing career, Cantona has enjoyed further acting parts, most notably playing a French ambassador in the 1998 film Elizabeth, and himself in 2009's Looking for Eric.

• Cantona discovered beach soccer after hanging up his boots, and played for the French national team, believing that the sport represented a great way back in for players whose football careers had gone awry. He was player-coach as France won the 2005 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup.

• Cantona has been outspoken about social issues since retiring and briefly considered running for French president in 2012, determined to reduce the hardship suffered by "millions of forgotten families". He played in the 2018 and 2019 Soccer Aid games, in which ex-Premier League players compete to raise funds for UNICEF.

Eric Cantona in beach soccer action
Eric Cantona in beach soccer action©Bongarts

• In October 2018, Cantona was announced as the first mentor for Juan Mata's Common Goal charity, which encourages footballers to give 1% of their income to good causes. "We need to support a more sustainable, positive and inclusive football, and I will do anything that I can to help," he said.

What he says

"Even as a footballer, I was always being creative."

"I didn't study; I live."

"I'm proud of what I achieved [at Old Trafford], but a life built on memories is not much of a life."

"What is football if it is not about freedom? What is life if it is not about freedom? What is the meaning of life? I think we can all agree that we can do more for humanity?"