The buzzcut, the unibrow, the face of a weather beaten medieval warrior, the absolutely beautiful red Manchester United 1990s home shirt by Umbro with the Sharp sponsorship on the chest, the iconic 7 in white on the back, long sleeves, and the world’s most simultaneously elegant and intimidating popped collar –– Eric Cantona was already an icon before he even touched the ball or opened his mouth.

Eric Cantona
Eric Cantona No. 7.

Of course, it helped that he went on to score 64 goals in 143 appearances for United (featuring maybe the greatest goal celebration of all time), captain the French national team in the mid-90s, become a symbol of anti-hooliganism in the Premier League for landing a flying karate kick and overhand right on a maladjusted Crystal Palace fan, star in some of Nike Football’s most iconic ads as well as a Liam Gallagher video and a couple films that premiered at Cannes, and generally move through the world with the presence and wisdom of a wandering mystic.

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Cantona infamously kicking a Crystal Palace fan.

Born and raised in Marseille, Cantona joined United as a 26-year-old forward early in the 1992-1993 season, the first season of the modern Premier League. Cantona made an immediate impact, leading United to four league titles and two FA Cups in his five seasons at Old Trafford. As English football also transitioned from a league of physicality and violence to one built on beautiful attacking play and giant clubs led by global superstars, Cantona’s blend of ferocious competitiveness and technical elegance, combined with his personality and general aura made him not only an icon but a symbol of the transition that defined the Premier League in the 1990s.

Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson
Eric Cantona and Sir Alex Ferguson

Before Cantona, the famed number 7 shirt at United was worn by Bryan Robson, a classic English box-to-box midfielder. After Cantona, the shirt was worn by David Beckham and then Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Eric Cantona on the French National Team.

In 2019, UEFA presented Cantona with a lifetime award for all of his contributions to the game during the year’s Champions League draw. In front of all the tuxedoed dignitaries of modern world football––the game and wealth that he helped create––Cantona strode on stage in casual attire with a thick gray beard and while appearing to be on the verge of tears, offered his view on it all.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. 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.”