The 22nd January marked 20 years since Eric Cantona’s infamous ‘Kung-Fu Kick’ on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, for which he received a six month ban from football. Two weeks and 20 years later, Chelsea’s Diego Costa was charged by the FA with violent conduct for an alleged stamp on Emre Can, earning himself a three game ban. In the same mould is the infamous Luis Suarez, and if I had to write upon every controversy in which he embroiled himself at Liverpool since his transfer in January 2011, Microsoft Word would crash. Yet all three are loved by their fans, and hated by their opposition. They garner the most vitriol, their actions generate the most ubiquitous condemnation, every action diligently scrutinised. And yet, they make our game what it is.
Genius, thuggish, violent, breath-taking. But enough about my recent perfume advert. Let’s focus upon Eric Cantona. Arriving from local rivals Leeds United for a fee of £1.2m in 1992, Cantona settled quickly into a misfiring Manchester United team, replacing the personality-free and temperamental Dion Dublin. Endearing himself to fans by his unselfish play, powerful running, moments of improvisation and spitting at Leeds fans, Cantona scored nine goals as he helped United clinch their first Premier League title, ending a 27 year drought.
However, controversy was never far behind. His quick temper, and propensity for seeing red, meant it was only a matter of time before he snapped. After receiving a red card for a kick at Richard Shaw of Crystal Palace, Cantona was subjected to a torrent of abuse from the Palace fans as he walked off, culminating in launching a kick at a fan. Receiving a long-term ban and considering retiring from football or at least from England, Cantona ultimately stayed, winning a further three titles, before retiring to become an actor in 1998 (this did happen, you may see him on Kronenbourg adverts). Despite these offences, Cantona is widely regarded as one of the finest strikers of his generation. Affectionately referred to as ‘King Eric,’ he is worshipped as a hero by United fans, his moment of insanity only adds to his mythos.
Luis Suarez and Diego Costa are the current counterparts to Cantona. Depending on who you listen to, Suarez was a genius, a racist, a magician, a diver, an artist and/or a cheat. His list of offences spanned from his first bite on PSV’s Otman Bakkal when he was an Ajax player, and soon covered another bite of Branislav Ivanovic, which earned him a 10-game ban, allegedly racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, of which he maintained his innocence, prompting further derision, and another bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, for which he was punished with a move to Barcelona.
At the same time, he was scoring unbelievable goals which were spearheading Liverpool’s charge for the title, including 47 against Norwich. Diego Costa arrived with a reputation as a bully, but even his supposed aggression is exaggerated and pantomime. Putting his fingers around Pablo Zabaleta’s neck or tussling with Martin Skrtel, it’s all part of an act, to try and distract the opposition so much that they leave gaps or switch off. He’s currently leading the Premier League on goals, and the inspired chant of ‘Diego, Diego’ rings out across the Stamford Bridge faithful.
But why are fans drawn to these players, and why do they bring out such hate in the opposition? Rodgers for one is guilty of this hypocrisy, defending Suarez as a ‘magical player’ whilst deriding Costa. He’s a top-class player and he’s clever enough that the officials don’t see it. But it’s poor by him because he’s an outstanding player and he doesn’t need to do it.” Mourinho might as well add the same charge to his ever-growing list of offences, for his blind support of Costa for the same offences, claiming both his tamps were “absolutely accidental.”
These players; Costa, Suarez and Cantona, make life hard for the opposition, they are, or were, niggly, aggressive and aggravating. Compare this to Sergio Aguero. Although he represents the same, or even better goal scoring prowess as the three above, he isn’t dogged by their controversy. He isn’t outspoken, doesn’t make nor draw fouls, and the majority of his offences are swept under the table. Therefore, he is less interesting. As fans, we love a villain. For years, it’s been John Terry, the only man out of 40,000+ football fans to have ever cheated on his wife. When we can’t pick a player, we pick their team instead. Aguero isn’t controversial, but Manchester City and Chelsea making their success off ‘evil oil money’ is.
We do and always have loved controversy. Take Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Their dominance, between 1992 and 2013, was unmatched by any team in English football (even the greatest Liverpool teams didn’t have the longevity of Ferguson’s), playing, if not always great, simply efficient football. A never-say-die attitude, strength, speed, skill, blending a strong defence with a tireless midfield and a dangerous attack. Truly, a team of power, poise and beauty. How do they majority of opposition fans look back on that team? ‘The ref was on their side.’
It is part of being a fan that you believe that the ref is against you in almost all circumstances, that your team has fought from the bottom up, that your innate ability to back the winning team has been justified. These players demonstrate that perfectly. Luis Suarez and his agent constantly blamed the British press for launching a witch hunt against him, that he was fouled more often, carded more often, accused more often. Liverpool fans will echo his sentiment, he was victimised, and that all genius comes with a mean streak. Other fans will point to the Evra incident, the biting, and the diving. But, biting aside, was he worse than any other player for fouling or diving? Definitely not. Was he better than the majority of players? Undoubtedly. When the eyes of the world are on you, it’s much easier to lose control.
Add this to the fact that star players are often given more than a little leeway. Ferguson’s infamous hairdryer treatment was never used on Cantona after his Palace incident, according to ex-United defender David May. Suarez was vehemently defended by Dalglish, who asked his team to wear shirts of support after the Evra ruling, and then Rodgers, who supported and still supports him as a great player.
Mourinho has given his support to many of his unruly players, most notably Pepe, after the 8007th game against Barcelona that ended with a Real Madrid player being sent off. In fact, Mourinho’s outspoken belief during his Real Madrid career that there was a UEFA-wide conspiracy to let Barcelona win (that refereeing performance of Tom Henning Ovrebo convinced me of this for years), is clear proof that dominance equals contempt.
The dominance that these players create (Costa is top scorer in the Premier League, Suarez the key member of Liverpool’s challenge for the title, Cantona the most influential of that Manchester United side) means that they are hated by the opposition, and loved by their fans. Cantona, Costa, Suarez, all have that never-say-die attitude, they’re in the right place at the right time, you might depend on them for a moment of magic, but at the same time they’re always skirting the fine line which could get them sent off. They bring the entertainment, charisma and personality that your Jordan Hendersons and Fabian Delphs and again your Jordan Hendersons just can’t provide. On the other side of the coin, Mario Balotelli will be thought of for his extravagance and wild lifestyle, but hasn’t proved he has the ability to go with it. And they create a legacy for growing footballers to step into. They are the players that the game remembers.
Looking at these three players as a case study; they’re divisive, they’re violent, they’re controversial, and they’re a liability. And if you wouldn’t want them in your team, you’re insane.