Sharuko on Saturday
ON January 25 this year, English football marked the 20th anniversary of one of its most dramatic moments when Eric Cantona exploded into a rage at Selhurst Park, after being sent off, and launched a flying kung-fu kick into a Crystal Palace fan.
The supporter, Matthew Simmons, had been showering the maverick Frenchman with loads of abuse, as the Manchester United forward walked to the dressing rooms, before it all exploded in one of the most extraordinary scenes ever seen at a football stadium.
The Daily Telegraph described it this year “as a moment of madness that stunned the football world,” and Cantona’s teammate, Gary Pallister, a defensive United stalwart, said “Eric had a fuse on him, there is no doubt about that, ultimately he exploded.”
Today, 20 years later, Cantona’s flying kick into the stands, to knock out that Crystal Palace fan, continues to resonate as one of the game’s most extraordinary moments, even by football’s sensational dramas.
That the Frenchman’s status had soared to turn him into an icon at Old Trafford, having provided the missing link to end the Red Devils’ barren run of 26 years without a league title, and then inspiring United to back-to-back championships, was beyond question.
And his brilliance, and grand achievements, including three English league titles in a row with Leeds United and two with Manchester United, combined to make the events at Selhurst Park that day into a global news story that shocked everyone who was a witness.
BBC Radio Five Live described it as the most shocking episode in the history of English football, something that had to be seen to be believed, a moment that will forever be frozen in the minds of those who saw it happen.
The then England FA chief executive, Graham Kelly, described Cantona’s actions as a “stain on our game that brought shame on football.”
United fined Cantona £20 000, stripped him of the captaincy and confirmed that he would not play for the rest of the season, at a time when the Red Devils were chasing a League and Cup double, while the English FA extended the ban to eight months and fined him a further £10 000.
FIFA confirmed the ban, and gave it a world-wide effect, meaning that the Frenchman could not escape the sanctions by moving to another European league, while Inter Milan officials, who were in the crowd when it all exploded, decided against signing the Frenchman.
That marked the end of Cantona’s international career, as he was never selected for France again, United moved him from his house, to a secret location as they battled to manage the fallout from that incident, and protect the Frenchman from rampaging mobs baying for his blood.
There was even speculation, in the British and international media, that Cantona’s time at Manchester United had come to an end, that he would never play for the Red Devils again, a match-made-in-heaven that was being ended by an incident-made-in-hell.
United lost the league championship that season, to Blackburn Rovers, and things could have been very different had King Eric remained part of the team with the club suffering, in its quest for trophies, because of the madness of just one man.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager whose arrival sparked the revival of this global football giant, initially thought that this was the end of the road for his relationship with his maverick Frenchman.
The damage that this would have, on the club’s profile, was huge and even the club’s share price on the Stock Exchange, when United was still a public limited company, took a battering as investors shunned a team that had, in its ranks, such a madman.
“Jesus, you know, he was done and it was a problem for the club because it got such headlines, it was front page and we decided to have a meeting at Alderley Edge the next night,” said Ferguson.
Then, something changed.
“On the way I get a phone call from Richard Greenbury, who was chairman of Marks and Spencer (a leading British retail chain) at the time, Richard, a big United fan,” said Ferguson.
“He says ‘well, don’t let Cantona go. He’ll give you great moments of joy.’ I said ‘I know that.’ But you know it was the mood of the board, so I had to fight the case, look we must keep him, we can’t let him go, we can’t give in to the mob.
“And we decided to suspend him for four months and the FA at the time were happy with it, but somehow they added to it.
“He’d never given us any indication that explosion was there. But I decided to approach it this way: I would speak to him every day, I would talk to him about football all the time and he loved it. That’s why the other players said he was my prodigal son.
“But I think he needed different attention, you needed different ways of dealing with him, he was a different guy from everyone else. He’s an amazing human being.
“THERE WAS SOMETHING IN ME THAT SAID I NEED TO STAND BY HIM BECAUSE THE WORLD IS AFTER HIM. AND IT WAS A BIT LIKE, NO ONE’S THERE TO HELP HIM AND I SAY, WELL, IT WILL HAVE TO BE ME BECAUSE I’M HIS MANAGER.”
When Cantona returned, on October 1, 1995, his first game was, of all games, against bitter rivals Liverpool and one United fan, inside the stadium, had her forehead emblazoned with the words — ‘GOD IS BACK’, for all the blasphemy that her message carried.
The Frenchman created one goal, for Nicky Butt, two minutes into the game, and scored the other, converting a penalty after Ryan Giggs had been tripped in the box, to secure a point for the Red Devils in a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.
But eight months out of the game had taken a toll on Cantona, his form had markedly dipped as he fought the demons that were circling in his brain following his ban from football, and by Christmas time, United were 10 points behind Newcastle in the championship race.
Form, they say, is temporary and class, of course, is permanent.
On February 3, 1996, Cantona returned to Selhurst Park for the first time since that incident, for a game against Wimbledon, and scored twice as United powered to an impressive 4-2 win another when he scored again at Upton Park, against West Ham, the Red Devils went on 10-match winning run in the championship race.
Seven of the subsequent United games ended in 1-0 wins for the Red Devils with Cantona always scoring the solitary goal.
When Cantona equalised against Queens Park Rangers on March 9 that year, United had overhauled the deficit and even went top of the table, on goal difference, and it’s a position they never relinquished with a 3-0 win over Middlesbrough at the Riverside, sealing the Red Devils’ third league title in four seasons.
In May that year, United faced Liverpool in the FA Cup final and, with regular skipper Steve Bruce unavailable because of injury, Cantona captained the team and, four minutes before the end of the game, volleyed home the winner to decide the contest and seal a League and Cup double.
He became the first player from outside the British isles to lift the FA Cup as captain as United became the first club to win the double twice.
Cantona was named the Manchester United skipper for the 1996-1997 season, after Bruce left the club, and he inspired United to another league title, the Frenchman’s fourth triumph in the championship race in five seasons.
“What you can’t do is ignore him or his contribution. That is his gift to English football. Love or hate him, you cannot ignore him,” Jon Champion, the leading Sky football commentator noted.
The Frenchman suddenly quit football, leaving while still at the very top, and he has since been named as one of the best United players of all-time, in various polls, with Ferguson including him among the four “world class players” he coached during his time at the club.
The others are Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes.
A GAME FULL OF STARS WHO
From George Best, Diego Maradona, Paul Gascoigne to Mario Balotelli, the world is full of good, if not excellent footballers, who had serious flaws.
Cantona is my all-time hero because he starred for United, he transformed my Red Devils from the team that had never won a league championship in more than a quarter-of-a-century, into one that would not only be champions again but evolve into the most dominant team of the Premier League era.
Even after he kicked that Palace fan, he still remained my hero, and as much as I was angry he had stooped that low, to let his anger overwhelm his ability to reason, in his moment of weakness, there was a part of me that still liked him.
This week, as I watched Rodreck Mutuma, the footballer who calls himself a Prince but acts in a manner that will shame anyone who belongs to that special class of people who deserve princehood, turn himself into a kickboxer at Barbourfields, memories of Cantona, converting himself into football’s version of Bruce Lee, or the Karate Kid, came flooding back in my mind.
And, just like the British newspapers, the local newspapers were united in their condemnation of Mutuma’s stupidity, with his public display of foolishness coming live on television, in the very game that should represent the best there is in Zimbabwe football.
Given that the Dynamos officials had moved mountains, just to try and ensure that he plays in that game, a match he should have missed had the Glamour Boys leadership not fought against the ban imposed on the same Prince for his wayward behaviour, his behaviour at Barbourfields on Sunday was not only a shame but a kick in the teeth of those who had supported him.
In that moment of madness, Mutuma insulted everyone who had questioned the PSL Disciplinary Committee’s decision to ban him, and that this group of people include his club’s officials, and his fans, was such a shame.
His foolishness was amplified, not only by the fact that he let those in his camp who had supported him down, but the fact that he also let down his teammates and coach who can rightly argue that, if they were not a man down in the twilight of the game, they could have even forced a draw and bought themselves a chance to win in a penalty shootout.
The criticism that he has received, from his coach, his club officials and even the journalists, is justified because he disgraced not only himself but also the game he should serve with example because there are a number of kids who are probably looking at him now as a role model.
But, while he deserves all the criticism he is getting, I don’t think it’s fair for some journalists to start leading a campaign that he should not be allowed to play for Dynamos again, to set the agenda for DeMbare to sack him, to lead the campaign that he should be fired because he has disgraced an institution that should lead the way when it comes to football in this country.
Neither is it fair for Dynamos officials to tell us that, because Mutuma failed them on Sunday, then they are reviewing their relationship with the player and his future at the club is now uncertain.
Of course, Mutuma is not as good as Cantona but let’s not forget that when Dynamos needed him, now and again, he was there to deliver for the Glamour Boys in big matches that brought silverware into their trophy cabinet.
In the 2011 Mbada Diamonds Cup final, it was Mutuma’s goal that made all the difference as DeMbare powered to victory, the following year, it was his goals, in the final, which also made all the difference, and, now and again, he was there for his team when they needed him most.
Therefore, against that background, it is important that Mutuma get his punishment, because he shamed his team at Barbourfields on Sunday, but that should not provoke a messy divorce between him and the club.
He should be given another chance, just the way that Ferguson gave Cantona another chance, he must be given some grooming, the way Manchester United groomed their French talisman after that flying kick at Crystal Palace and he should be helped, rather than abandoned, by his team.
Mutuma is a troubled soul but he is not the only such character in football and, if we are to dump all such characters, then we won’t have any players to talk about.
Let’s not destroy him, because — at times — he resembles a fool when he loses his cool, but let’s help him so that he understands that he can do better, in terms of his behaviour, and he has to control his temper.
THE CITY OF KINGS IS NOW THE CITY OF FOOTBALL
So, the powerbase of football is slowly shifting, or has shifted, from Harare to Bulawayo with the City of Kings now having the bragging rights as the centre of the game in this country.
They now have the league champions, they now have the Soccer Star of the Year, they also have more teams, in the Premiership, than those found in the capital.
With most of the games, next year, set to be played either at Barbourfields or Luveve, chances are that the league champions will, once again, come from the City of Kings.
Not so long ago, we had about seven or eight teams, in the Premiership, being based in the capital, but that has all changed now and all the football is now in the City of Kings.
To God Be The Glory!
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