An enigmatic philosopher

Last month one of Europe’s great, albeit enigmatic at times, philosophers walked on to a stage to receive an award.

The audience was packed with some of the richest young men in the world, dressed in elegant tailored clothes, watching and listening to the philosopher with amazement as he held forth. The philosopher was dressed rather less elegantly although his crumpled red shirt, greying bread and flat cap made him stand out from the others on the stage.

He was, as usual, cryptic but illustrated his brief remarks with a quote from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.” And yet, he continued, “Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars will still kill us but unfortunately crimes, wars will multiply. I love football. Thank you.”

The philosopher was Eric Cantona, the 1990s Manchester United forward, speaking after receiving the UEFA President’s Award for 2019.

Among Cantona’s wisdom was his 1995 explanation of why he kung fu kicked an abusive Crystal Palace fan: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because the sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

Whether the deconstruction of Cantona thinking is any easier than deconstructing Wittgenstein there are moments when Cantona is profound, epigrammatic and insightful. For instance, when asked about the essence of football (which Australians call soccer) he replied: “The ball is round.”

Whenever we hear a contemporary Australian Rules footballer, coach or club official talking about their sport the difference is huge. The AFL footballer, perhaps all of 21 or 22, when asked about the game will talk not about ‘the game’ but rather ‘the industry’. Although arguably modern AFL is closer to 19th century or Henry Ford industrial conditions than it is to traditional ideas of sport. Players lives, work practices and health life are micromanaged and the career of the unsuccessful and non-performing are handled ruthlessly – albeit there is rather more generous payment for the brief time of their careers than industrial workers once received.

The word team never gets a mention either. It’s ‘the playing group’ and on field plans are always ‘executed’, whether poorly or well, demonstrating that managerialism cant and jargon are alive and well in ‘the industry’ as much as it is in private and public sector bureaucracies.

AFL is of course an immense industry heavily supported by TV broadcast rights, poker machines in pubs for many clubs, and advertising revenue from betting companies. Club Boards are stuffed with business boys and an increasing number of business women.

But football is many, many times bigger and is the only genuine world game – the beautiful game as supporters call it – despite the US national game holding an annual World Series confined to clubs in cities which pay fortunes to attract teams owned by billionaires.

The AFL sends clubs to play in China, supposedly to promote the game there, but official Chinese policy is driven by President Xi Jinping who is a football fanatic determined to produce world class teams and one day host the World Cup.

Eric Cantona, as well as being a football star and philosopher is also a film star. In Ken Loach’s film Looking for Eric he plays himself and the cast list describes him as ‘lui-meme’.

The film is the most optimistic of Loach’s film about working class Britain. The central character is a postman called Eric whose wife has left him; has a son who has fallen in with criminals who threaten Eric; and, has a car accident after driving around and around a large UK roundabout – the sort of situation tourists can appreciate.

His only outlet is, along with his workmates, a passion for Manchester United and a belief that Cantona was their greatest ever player. Eric (the postman) finds some pot his son has hidden, smokes it and Eric (Cantona) appears to him. From then on Cantona appears periodically to give him advice sometimes in French and sometimes in English although at times it is hard to tell the two apart.

The closest things Australian Rules has probably ever had to Cantona are former Richmond player and Essendon coach, Kevin Sheedy; and, former Geelong star Gary Ablett Snr. Sheedy was never managerialist in language, and generally comprehensible, while Ablett was the full deal in the enigmatic stakes. Boxing had Muhammad Ali although he was more about poetry and rap than philosopher.

But Eric Cantona is the Wittgenstein of sport