Saturday, 12 November 2011

Mos Eisley Cantona

This piece records my frustrating and ultimately futile mission to get up close and personal with that great footballing enigma, Eric Cantona, when he journeyed to Thailand for a spot of beach football. It ran in the South African and Australian issues of Sports Illustrated, as well as in the South China Morning Post.

The trawler steamed through Thailand last week, but the seagulls went hungry. French football deity and Renaissance man Eric Cantona wasn't giving anything away. One of the many strings to his bow is that of philosopher. And arguably the most famous of his metaphysical utterances runs thus: 'When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think the sardines will be thrown into the sea.' The great man is the trawler and journalists the squawking, insatiable gulls.

If there was any lingering uncertainty about his attitude to the media, he cleared it up when he told two French sports journalists earlier this year: 'I p*** on all of you.'

But 'Cantona in Pattaya!', as the Bangkok free-sheet shrieked, sounded too good to miss. Little did I realise it was to prove an ill-starred mission that would end in much gnashing of teeth, intemperate language, vein-popping frustration and heat exhaustion.

'Former Manchester United star Eric Cantona will lead the French beach soccer team against local football heroes in Asia's first Pro Beach Soccer event,' the free-sheet said. And suddenly Cantona's seaside aphorism seemed fresh and piquant. Images swam before my eyes of flabby white Germans in g-strings fighting over loungers, sun-bleached sand, unlimited alcohol, hooligans with rampant libidos and, in the middle of it all, gazing magisterially over the maelstrom from under that granite-hewed brow, pigeon chest puffed out - ooh, aah Cantona.

The first disappointment arrives after a couple of phone calls. Cantona is to visit Pattaya, but only fleetingly. His primary destination is Muang Thong Thani, a soulless cluster of low-rent condos on the edge of Bangkok's sprawl and home to the Impact Arena. It is here the inaugural Tipco Pro Beach Soccer match will unfold, despite its distance from any of Thailand's beaches.

I contact organiser Paul-Dominique Vachirasindhu, who has smouldering Eurasian looks, an expensive collection of suits and a shaky grasp of what journalists hoping to cover his event would consider pertinent.

'Allo? Yes, the match is on Saturday. Fax my office and they will put your name down.' With that, he hangs up. I try to call back, but get an answering service. Oh well, I think, Cantona mustn't be arriving for a day or two or he would have said something.

Later I turn on the evening news to see scenes of chaos at the airport as that familiar form towers over a red sea of screaming fans, each sporting enough pirated Manchester United clobber to give Sir Alex Ferguson apoplexy. I may be the only person in Bangkok who isn't at the airport.

My mood doesn't improve the next morning when I learn Vachirasindhu failed to apprise me of the previous day's press conference. Not that I appear to have missed too much. Cantona, it is reported, seems tired. 'I am living in sport. That is the most exciting thing,' he says, after repeating his explanation for quitting top-level football: 'I lost the passion.'

Asked whether he wants to succeed Sir Alex at Old Trafford, he knits his mono-brow gnomically for a moment then says: 'No. But maybe 'yes' tomorrow.' It's all downhill from there. Who else could take on Sir Alex's mantle? 'John Woo.' Which players should the club consider purchasing to bolster its ranks? 'John Woo.'

He does divulge, despite his obvious affection for Hong Kong action fare, that he's lost interest in acting following a string of minor roles because there's 'too much hanging around'. He still dabbles in painting and poetry, however.

I set off for Pattaya the next day, hoping Cantona will be more forthcoming once he's unwinding by the beach. Bangkok's lunch-hour traffic means I don't reach the resort until well after sundown. This means I've missed Cantona being handed the keys to the city. I've also missed him ploughing into a lissome Thai liaison officer with his jet ski. The mass circulation Thai Rath splashes the next morning with pictures of a bedraggled Cantona, 35, being helped to shore as the liaison officer is taken off to be treated for minor injuries. The jet ski operator is paid 4000 baht (HK$680) compensation. Another local paper has concocted a wild and implausible tale in which Cantona rams the woman's jet ski in a jealous rage because he's besotted with her and can't tolerate her flirting with other members of the French team.

My timing is impeccable. I finally track down the team and Cantona's in a world-class funk, refusing to say anything to the press and threatening to cancel the rest of his programme if the media prints another word about the accident. Organisers make clucking noises and smile sadly when I ask if there's any chance of an interview today.
Back to Bangkok.

I trek out to the stadium. It's mid-afternoon and there is no air-conditioning inside the arena. Conditions are somewhere between a sauna and a steam bath. and the Thai team is practising on the 'beach'. There's no sign of the French, who are still back at the Oriental hotel. A scan through the French team doesn't ring any bells, apart from Cantona's younger brother, Joel, who played for Marseilles. The Pro Beach Soccer Web site says the sport is 'fun, healthy and very, very spectacular', with a shot on goal every 30 seconds on average, a goal scored every 3.4 minutes, live music during the tournament, and regulated by FIFA rules of fair play.

             YOU MUST BE THE
The pitch measures 28 metres by 37 metres of soft sand. There are five players aside, including the goalkeeper. The game is divided into three periods of 12 minutes, with unlimited substitutions. Yellow cards mean a three-minute sit-out, free kicks are always direct and there are no draws. France are the current world number one team.

It's after 4pm when the French team arrives. Cantona leads them out in a white singlet, looking a tad over his fighting weight of 87kgs. Women with rakes scurry about the pitch, faced with the Sisyphean task of keeping the sand level. Cantona lazily swings his leg back and 'thump', a bright orange ball crashes over the crossbar and into the PA system.

With a chorus of Gallic grunts and shouts, they go through their paces. It's fast and furious, the balls zipping about like tracer rounds. They divide into two teams, blue singlets versus white, for a practice match. It is relentless, compelling, but far from elegant. When the ball hits the sand, it lands not with a bounce but a deadened splat.

Dribbling is an ankle-twisting ordeal, so volleys are the favoured method of attack. There are no boots or shin-pads, and the sickening crack of bone on bone accompanies most tackles. Former Thai national team striker and Bangkok celebrity Piyapon Piew-on is watching from the stands. He will captain the Thai team, who have only been practising for three weeks. He looks shell-shocked. 'Do you think we have a chance?' he asks, not really expecting an answer.

The teams are tied when the time is up. 'Golden goal,' yells Cantona. Just before the added minutes run out, the other team scores. His face darkens and he storms toward the sideline. This is my moment. There are no other journalists about. I've got the great man to myself. I step forward, tape recorder at the ready. 'Merde,' he snarls, kicking a plastic water bottle into the stands as he marches past and into the dressing room. I try to follow, but grim-faced security men with big sticks bar the way. 'Never mind,' consoles Vachir-asindhu. 'He'll definitely be talking to the press tomorrow.' When? 'The best time will be in the afternoon. You should get here around three or four.'

Match day dawns, hot and sticky. After lunch and I'm about to head out to the stadium but decide to call Vachirasindhu just to confirm the previous day's instructions. I've been pestering the man for days, but he's making noises like he has no idea who I am I jog his memory. 'Ah yes. You will be able to talk to him after the match, for sure. There will be a press conference,' he says and hangs up.

The match starts around 8pm, so I figure leaving around 6.30pm should get me there in plenty of time. I figure wrong. There may be clear afternoon skies over the middle of Bangkok, but above Muang Thong Thani, a fierce storm is dumping the heaviest rainfall of the year.

They've already kicked off by the time I get there. There's a crowd of about 3,000 - far fewer than expected, with many deterred by the storm. The game is being beamed live across Thailand and the local media are out in force, determined to give beach soccer, ahem, blanket coverage. The score is 2-2 at the start of the second phase and the Thais seem to be holding their own against the vastly more experienced French side.

Cantona is strutting around the midfield like a colossus, blue shirt emblazoned with his famed number seven. Something doesn't look right, then I realise it's his collar - he's got it folded in the normal manner rather than turned up. He hasn't scored but each time he touches the ball the crowd goes berserk. There's a furious beating of bongo drums and the stands bleed red.

Chants of 'Eric, Eric' vie with 'Ooh, aah, Eric Cantona' sung to the tune of the Village People's Go West. 'Me, I love to caress, stroke, tease and make love to the ball,' Cantona wrote in his autobiography. But this is ugly, more like rape; a grunting, grubby tumble in the dirt-brown sand. He's getting frustrated, as the tenacious Thais cling to his legs like limpets. It's not until the third, er, third that Cantona's array of flicks and trickery actually lands a ball in the back of the net. The roar is deafening.

               IT DID WONDERS FOR
The score is five apiece. A draw would be a major upset for the favoured French. But Cantona reverts to match-winning type after his slow start and heads in the deciding goal with 11 seconds left on the clock. Pandemonium ensues, naturally. A local television type named 'Green Bean' is dressed up, pantomime style, as Napoleon and his horse. He careens around like a dervish on his spindly legs until four French players crash-tackle him. That seems to be the sign for the pitch invasion. Cantona fumes and glowers when one upstart grabs a signed ball from his hands. The security staff seem hopelessly outnumbered and the crowd are baying for autographs. The guards form a human chain around Cantona, as posters and scarves and shirts and postcards and picture books and even bared chests and bellies are proffered.

The successful few who managed to snare his moniker look like they've just had multiple orgasms. The chaos is brought under control just long enough for Cantona and his team to watch a lip-synced number by local chanteuse Ya-Ya Ying. No sooner has she put her ya-yas away, however, and things are going seriously pear-shaped again. Cantona's shooting savage glances at his minders, as hundreds of wild-eyed fans press ever closer. A speech drones on and on, some doddering football luminary oblivious to the anarchy all around.

Suddenly Cantona's had enough. He grabs the trophy, holds it aloft and then, followed by his teammates and a phalanx of minders, sprints for the dressing rooms. A quick change and they file on to the bus, then go haring off into the Bangkok night. With them go all hopes of a quote. I'm despondently kicking sand about as a keen young thing from one of the Thai television stations bowls up, cameraman in tow. 'So, when's the press conference with Eric Cantona going to be?' she asks me brightly.

I point over to the shiny black knot of Hugo Boss and Armani, which unravels slightly to reveal Vachirasindhu and his cronies deep in mutual congratulations, and I mutter: 'Ask them.'


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