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 is devoting 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 FIFA.com 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 second part of this exclusive interview, Cantona shares his thoughts on how he sees the game evolving, what FIFA's involvement could mean and his ambitions with the France team.
As one of the pioneers of beach soccer, what do you make of FIFA's recent arrival on the scene?
What's happened in the last two years has been fantastic. I don't know if any other sport has ever made such rapid progress in such a short space of time - both on the pitch and in the running of the game. Everyone has done an excellent job and the arrival of FIFA has been a very good thing. Of course, we mustn't forget what was achieved before and, in that respect, this collaboration is perfect. FIFA bring their experience in organising major events and they work hand-in-hand with Beach Soccer World Wide, which is recognition for everything BSWW has been doing. I hope we continue to grow, and with FIFA involved I have no doubt we will.
How do you see the game evolving in the future?
We need to work more with youngsters. You see that here in Brazil where there are tons of kids playing and practising all the time. In France, we organise tours pretty much all over the country and I think that the national team has become the perfect shop window for the sport. But the next step has to be licensed players.
A few federations already have beach soccer branches. Could that be a solution, particularly in France?
Over the past few years a lot of federations have signed agreements with promoters. They were the first ones to organise tournaments and we should never forget that. Now that FIFA are involved, I can see federations continuing to work with promoters, but taking on board more of the responsibility themselves. Everything that's happening on the world stage at the moment could very easily work at a national level. In France, there could definitely be more cooperation with the French Football Federation and I think it would be a good thing.
Getting back to the competition, what are your ambitions?
(Firmly) For us it's clear, we came here to win! It's extremely important to be ambitious, but it's also dangerous if your ambition doesn't match up with what you're really capable of achieving. And I know we can achieve our ambitions. After all, we're champions of Europe, which is a very strong continent in beach soccer. The Americas are stronger perhaps, but apart from Brazil I would say that the USA, Argentina and Uruguay are, at best, on the same level as us. Yes, the Seleçao are a peg higher, but we can beat them. And that's why we're here.
Was becoming European champions last year the realisation of a dream?
Of course. It was an ambition we'd had for quite a few years. We kept losing in the semi-finals, once on penalties even, then we let a final slip out of our hands to a golden goal. We were always missing a little something, it wasn't a question of bad luck. That's the kind of thing you say five minutes after a game, but real life's a test. When you set out to achieve something and you get close to it, there are always pitfalls to test you. Some people hit the brakes and others step on the gas. That's what we did and it got us where we wanted to go. The next step is to become world champions. If we don't do it this time round, we'll do it next time - but we'll never give up. By studying the best we can only get better, and our ambition is to be better than the best.
You stayed on the bench against Australia and Argentina. Is this a sign that you're turning the page?
I think so. I'll definitely play a few more games but for now I want to stay 100% focused on my job as coach. And the other guys are just so good. When you're player-manager, it's all-too-easy to give yourself some time out on the pitch (smiles), but you have to stay lucid and keep in mind your desire to contribute something. When I didn't feel I had players at my disposal who could do a better job than me, I kept playing. These days, though, I think they're better than me.
You give the impression that you love your squad…
I do love this squad because we've come such a long way together. The guys who were there at the beginning will always be the first ones, and that's very important to me. When you build something, others get to make the most of your experience but, whatever happens in the future, the pioneers never change.