Cantona and the making of the Cosmos
David Beckham named one of his children after a borough of New York. (I saw Brooklyn on the TV the other day, sitting next to his Dad at a soccer game. Cute kid; looks just like his mom.) George Foreman called all of his kids George, even the girls. And me? I named my kids after Manchester United soccer players. I have a Solskjaer, and I have a Cantona. And now, New York is about to have another Cantona, only this time it’s the real one: Eric, a.k.a. God.
I believe there are many ways to God, and though I’ve been taught to love one God, the father the almighty, I’d argue He is manifold, and one of his materializations comes in the form of Eric Cantona. Others think of Eric merely as a temperamental French soccer player, now inactive, a man who once launched himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park one Tuesday night to kung fu kick a fan who was calling him names. But that’s like saying Jesus was only an itinerant preacher from first-century Judea.
What is God? If you spent any time looking at boingboing.net or theawl.com this week, as I did, you might think it any number of things: An all-seeing, all-knowing entity who maybe, maybe not, invented the solar system, our world within it, and a grizzly bear cub playing in what looks like a stable. These people presumably think that Sarah Palin is a bit like God, only with better hair. This lovely man praises his God with a saw. Me? I’d argue this is also a version of God, right here, at 1:56.
I was at that game in 1996; one of the last I ever saw him play, because a year earlier I had moved to the United States, a place where God is seldom accepted. In America, we have grown estranged from God; we’re all about mammon, and border walls, and ads for Shams Wow (which I would like to suggest is the correct plural, like attorneys general). But on Wednesday, in news about God, it was announced that Eric Cantona had accepted the position of director of soccer for the New York Cosmos, a legendary side (literally: at the moment the club has a name and a soccer director, but no actual team).
Famous in the shorty-short seventies for attracting Pele, Beckenbaeur, and eighty thousand people to their games, the Cosmos has long since been defunct, replaced, but not really, in New York soccer world by the wittily named New York-New Jersey Metro Stars (now the Red Bulls). The Red Bulls, however, are to good soccer what the Mets’ second baseman Luis Castillo is to model sports-citizenship. ("Sometimes when you see people with no legs and no arms, when they go to fight for us and they're in [Walter Reed Medical Center] like that, I don't like to see that,” Castillo said, by way of explaining why he was skipping the Mets’ official visit.)
So to my eye, God is giving us another chance to recognize his power and mend our ways, at least when it comes to Major League Soccer. Because it’s a heresy that the biggest city in the nation has a team that has always sucked moose. (Their stadium is great, though, if you don’t mind sitting in a three-hour traffic jam, parking in western Pennsylvania, then walking the 148 miles back to Harrison, NJ.)
Eric is here to bring us closer to God. Even though the Cosmos has no team yet, and no stadium, it now has Eric Cantona, and as he put it yesterday in a statement, “The Cosmos are very strong, beautifully made, with a great past. It’s kind of a mix between football and art.” Can you imagine a MetroStarRedBull functionary talking about art? Only Eric would speak in such koanic language about what is essentially just a brand. When he was asked in a press conference in 1995 about the kung fu kick, he said, “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” No idea, by the way; that’s all he said. After that he paused, then walked out, leaving the journalists to play with their moustache dandruff.
Cynics and atheists out there may want proof that he is part of the Godhead. Well, apart from the fact that he’s taking over the Cosmos, 80,000 people in Manchester, and many millions around the world, still pray to him every week, and he hasn’t set foot on the turf of United’s ground for more than a decade. The song they, and we, still sing, goes something like this:
On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, Eric Cantona.
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me, two Cantonas and an Eric Cantona.
You get the idea. A few bars in, the ringing, ‘Five, Can-to-NAs!’ echoes around the world, like a New Year’s Auld Lang Syne, and about as comprehensible. I sing the Twelve Days of Cantona in Brooklyn, sitting on my couch watching the Fox Soccer Channel. But the thought that Eric will actually be here is almost too much to bear. Does this mean that along with the fish and the red-winged blackbirds dying that the coming of Eric to America is a brief notation in the heaving book of the End Time? Am I ready? Have I lived a good enough life? Will I be worthy? I honestly didn’t know when the time would be—I didn’t pay enough attention to Mark 13:33, “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is," nor even three verses later, “Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.”
There are so many other questions. Will the Cosmos wear red? Will they build the stadium a couple of blocks from me, right next to the Gowanus Whole Foods? Will he need somewhere to stay (I have a spare room), or will he go from inn to inn (in Gowanus that now means Super 8, Holiday Inn Express, and Hotel Le Bleu, which seems super-appropriate for a former French international soccer player, albeit one who was thrown off the French team for calling the coach, Henri Michel, a "sack of shit")? And will he be accepted as a prophet? This is not his country, so that may help; he will wear his collar up, as he always does, which will help in this weather, and he will strut, like a hipster on his way to see the Punch Brothers.
Who cares? Eric Cantona has the ability to create something out of nothing, like an artist or God. His team will play as he did, I hope, with a swagger and an ability with math—he saw angles on the soccer field that still don’t exist—that will make them in his image, a team so beautiful and graven and like a sardine that we will all bow before it, especially when they get to the first round of the MLS playoffs and are the featured game of the week on FSC.
Whatever happens, I still believe in one Eric, the father, the almighty, maker of heavenly goals and of Manchester United in the 1990s, of all those passes, seen and unseen ... I look for the resurrection of the moribund New York soccer scene, and for the life of the Eric-run Cosmos to come. AMEN.
Luke Dempsey is the author of the memoir A SUPREMELY BAD IDEA, and the editorial director of non-fiction for Ballantine Bantam Dell, a division of the Random House Publishing Group.