Eric Cantona and Diego Costa: the kindred spirits English football needs

Football is a story of near misses.

The obvious examples – Geoff Hurst’s strike at Wembley in 1966 or Frank Lampard’s 44 years later – are joined by an infinite number of less obvious ones, as the history of football as we know it rests on the decisions of every pass taken and not taken.

And if it weren’t for personality clashes and a whole host of near misses, Eric Cantona would probably never have made his indelible mark on English football.

After throwing a ball at a referee, in a French league game, Cantona was banned from football for a month. And then after personally calling every one of the French disciplinary board idiots to their faces, he was then banned for football for two months, instead of the original one. That led Cantona to take the perfectly reasonable step of retiring from football in 1991 at the age of 25.

But he was persuaded to reconsider.

Offers weren’t exactly flowing for the Frenchman at this point, though. He’d proven himself a hothead on many occasions prior to his first flirtation with retirement, and when Liverpool manager Graeme Souness was offered the chance to sign Cantona, he flatly refused: he wasn’t about to add such a disruptive figure to the Anfield dressing room.

But Cantona’s talent was too obvious to be repressed. He was himself presented with a choice of clubs, and rather than choose his old haunting ground of Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, he chose Yorkshire and Leeds United instead. Thanks, it appears, to the advice of a psychoanalyst. Once again, football’s path not taken would have changed the game, and the one which shaped its history is an unlikely one.

Sometimes football fans are asked a question that is hard to answer, usually by incredulous friends or relatives who have no interest in the sport and no appreciation of the emotion it holds. Sometimes we’re asked, ‘why do you love football so much?’

It is almost impossible to convey what the sport means and how events on a football pitch can move your emotions. It is also so easy to overlook the fact that so much of football’s charm takes place nowhere near its stadiums nor its training grounds. All sports – and football seems to take this to an extra level – have their soap operas and drama, and the characters who play their roles are often what makes it all worthwhile.

That’s why we have the stories we have, the paths forged by singular events and the great players we all remember.

But it’s the real characters who stand out.

Cantona was one of them – perhaps the only player who could speak about his psychoanalyst and for that not to seem out of place. And if it weren’t for that venerable old shrink, Eric Cantona, may never have come to English shores. He may never have allowed an entire nation to wonder just what was going on in such a unique mind.

Football has lost most of its characters like Cantona, and is the worse for it.

Chelsea celebrated winning another Premier League title at the Hawthorns last Monday, and the standout footage was probably those clips which offered a glimpse into the mind of Diego Costa. He has always struck me as a player whom Chelsea must wheel out every morning for training, after being locked away in a straight jacket and a muzzle overnight. He appears genuinely unhinged and thoroughly abnormal. And yet, he’s just part of the touring company roadshow which is the Premier League. Without those sorts of players – pantomime villains, in the footballing parlance – the sport is less enjoyable.

Because, after all, it’s the stories we love. We get engrossed in them. Football has a way of allowing its fans to get lost in the narration just like the best writers allow their readers to get lost in a novel. Just like the best screenwriters charm you with a captivating film.

And football is also a game of links and coincidences. Just like today marks the 51st birthday of Eric Cantona as well as the day Manchester United play in their first Europa League final. There is no particular significance to that. It just creates a link, and one that creates memories and coincidences. Just like there’s nothing in particular to link Cantona to Costa: it’s just that the actions of both men have often seemed over the top, unhinged and downright strange.

If it was indeed Cantona’s psychoanalyst who bestowed upon the English game a great character, let’s hope that Costa’s – because, well, surely he has one – decides to tell the Chelsea striker to stay in London and not move to China.

Football is a story of near misses, but we should never want to miss out on characters like these. They may not be the heroes we want, but they’re the heroes English football needs.