Given his marching orders, while playing for Manchester United at Crystal Palace, Cantona launched a 'kung fu' kick directed at Palace fan Matthew Simmons. It seemed Simmons had directed some very choice words at Cantona, who was walking towards the tunnel, and he snapped.
The talented Frenchman was no stranger to trouble, and it started very early in his storied career. 1987 to be exact when he punched his Auxerre teammate in the face. In 1998, he served a two-month suspension for aiming a 'kung fu' kick at a Nantes player. 1999 saw him kicking a ball at the crowd and rip his shirt off after being substituted. While on loan at Bordeaux, Cantona was involved in a fight with a teammate that culminated with him throwing his boots in the player's face. A minor incident comparably, he threw the ball at a referee in 1991 during a Nimes match. At the hearing committee to review the incident, Cantona walked up to every member and called them an "idiot."
Coming back from a short retirement, Cantona made his way to Leeds, where the turbulent times continued, but nothing major on the disciplinary front. More dressing room nonsense and unpredictable antics. Then it was on to Manchester United in 1992. A few red cards here and there, until the world witnessed the 'kung fu' kick that would call for him to receive a lifetime ban. He did receive a lengthy ban but returned to play for another season, retiring for good, once the season ended in 1997.
Cantona lamented on early retirement at age 30, "When you quit football, it is not easy, your life becomes difficult. I should know because sometimes I feel I quit too young. I loved the game, but I no longer had the passion for going 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."
Definitely a big personality in the game, Cantona played and continues to live life on his terms. His action at Palace was inexcusable, provoked though he was, but still. In his defense, we could say that he was a fiery competitor and a player that his peers would rather play with than against. Nobody doubted his supreme talent. We envied his confidence on the field and the arrogance with his collar turned up. He did leave the game too early, but we look back at his career with a smile and thankful he bowed out, for the most part, admired, not discarded by football authorities in shame.
I sat in the seat, one row directly in front of Cantona at the 2002 World Cup Final in Japan. Once again, like so many great players, smaller than I imagined. At halftime, he stayed in his seat and was mobbed by fans asking for autographs and pictures. Nobody watched the halftime show on the field. The attention and buzz were all directed at Cantona. It got so chaotic that I had to retreat from my seat and find cover. From what I witnessed, Cantona was gracious and accommodating to everyone, never refusing any request. Even five years removed from the game, his aura and magnetism were as strong as ever.
Brazil won their fifth World Cup that night, but Cantona looked unimpressed, and for just a moment, I thought I saw a sadness in his eyes, the pull of regret that he was sequestered in the stands and had not been part of the action on the field.