Eric Cantona's extraordinary talents lit up the game of football in the 1990s. The man who achieved iconic status with both Manchester United and Les Bleus now devotes all his considerable passion to beach soccer. As the player-manager of an ambitious France team, 'King Eric' is in Rio de Janeiro to compete for yet more honours, and he spoke to at length about his love for the game.

An often controversial figure in his playing days, Cantona may seem a lot more composed now, but he has lost none of his infectious enthusiasm. Beach soccer is the subject closest to his heart nowadays, and he is not short of things to say about the sport he has done so much to promote. In the first part of this exclusive interview, the former France forward recalls his discovery of beach soccer, the growth of the discipline and how it differs from football - all with engaging pleasure.

Eric Cantona, when and how did you discover beach soccer?
It all began for me in 1997, when I retired from professional football. I quit in May and by December I was playing in my first beach tournament. My brother had come here to Rio to take part in one of the first world championships and he told me all about the game. As I'd played one sport or another all my life and left football at a very young age, I really wanted to continue being actively involved in something. And kicking a ball, well…that's what I do best (laughs).

What attracted you to it?
The novelty. There was so much to discover. We're always learning things in life, but with this we knew next to nothing to begin with. We were a long way behind Brazil. When you want to progress and help others progress, you need to spend time watching the best and that's exactly what we did. We had to adapt the Brazilian style to our own qualities.

In the early days, you relied a lot upon old footballers and friends to build the France team… 
To be honest, sometimes we used to enter competitions just for the fun of spending time together. We still enjoy ourselves today, but we hardly ever go out anymore. What good does it do? Going to a nightclub leaves you suffering the next day, and sometimes even making a fool of yourself. Staying out late at night is the one sure way of being inconsistent, and we wanted to compete with the best. So although we continue to get as much pleasure out of the sport itself, our approach has become a lot more serious.

It's easy to imagine how that first phase, with all your friends, did wonders for the popularity of beach soccer.
Of course! We needed big names to get people to come and watch the competitions. Little by little, we noticed that they came because of the famous names and left remembering beach soccer players like Jorginho, Amarelle and Samoun. That was the moment when the sport began to take on a life of its own.

How did the transition come about?
It happened bit by bit, depending on the different ambitions people had. We could have stayed as we were, satisfied with just enjoying ourselves. But we couldn't ignore the fact we had 25-year-olds at the top of their game who practised a lot and wanted to get better. Even if my friends were well-known, we had to make way so that the game could grow.

How do you go about building your team?
We scout, mostly in the south of France. We've built a training centre in the Marseilles region and Marseilles is such a great breeding ground, with lots of neighbourhood teams. Most of the players who come to us are eleven a-side footballers and we reach an agreement with their club to release them. On average, they train four times a week with their club and practice beach soccer twice. They're all top-level athletes and often they come out of youth academies regretting some of the wrong turns they took. Dedicating themselves to beach soccer becomes a way of making up for their mistakes. 

Everyone knows the career you had. Do the players hang on your every word?
Especially at the start (smiles). Then when they've heard me say two or three stupid things the myth begins to unravel (laughs). The most important thing for me, though, is helping them to win. They listen to me when they realise they're improving. They take a certain pride out of it, they feel good about themselves. It's always a pleasure to make progress, it inspires you to carry on.

What are the basics of training for beach soccer?
I can only really speak for us, because methods change from one team to another. But like I was saying earlier, our players train regularly with their clubs. So physically, they are top-notch. After that, the most important thing is familiarising them with what is a very tiring playing surface. In beach soccer, just working with the ball can be a fitness exercise. But, of course, it's their technique that we work on the most. We know how much difference that can make in a match.

What are the major differences between beach soccer and eleven-a-side football?
The fundamental skill in beach soccer is keeping the ball in the air as much and as well as possible, and being able to kick it without being dependent on a good or bad bounce. On grass, whether you pass or shoot it's rare you get a bad bounce. On the beach, it's the opposite: when the ball's on top of a mound of sand, it always ends up in a trough. So if you wait for the best time to shoot, it's already too late. You have to know how to hit the ball at the right moment. The other difficult skill to learn is playing very fast. A good opening can disappear in a matter of seconds. The Brazilians taught us that.

Tactics also seem to play a very important role…
We have to practice our routines a lot before we get the timing right. We know what works and what doesn't, but it all depends on the characteristics of each formation. The players always have to be in the right position and have to be moving in the right direction at the right time. It's the same in defence. As soon as you lose the ball, every player has to take up a very exact position. I think this France team today has managed to strike the right balance between inspiring forward play and good defensive positioning.

Even though Brazil remain the masters of beach soccer, the gap appears to be getting smaller and smaller. How do you explain that evolution?
For them it's an old sport, whereas for us it's brand new. You just have to walk down Copacabana beach for five minutes to see how many youngsters there are playing on the sand. Ultimately, however, I think their familiarity with it has become a disadvantage. I don't see them really making much progress, while we're getting better all the time. Let's not get carried away, though, they're still the best and we respect them a lot. But we know we can beat them now. And our last few games with them have all been very tight.

During this FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Rio, all the teams are staying in the same hotel. They cross each other's paths all day, talk together and eat together. Is the friendly side to the sport something you appreciate as well?
It's very pleasant. We've all known each other for years and true friendships have grown out of the game. But on the pitch, all that's forgotten. There's an enormous amount of commitment in a beach soccer match.