Cantona kicked it all off. At first there was only blanket incomprehension. Then a trickle that became an unstoppable tide, a benevolent tsunami washing over Britain. First Britain. Arguably for not the most altruistic of motives, though Janet, a Red through and through, was certainly having none of that, a retired Liverpool legend decided he had to at least match the former Manchester United star: one-all in that derby. A current United player responded in kind: two-one; two-all; two-three. And so on. Then, totally out of character, a Chelsea star renowned for his sneering lack of sportsmanship went for it too, and the floodgates were really open. Competiveness and ego were spurs to compassion, whether for the best or the worst of reasons no-one in dire need gave a sliding tackle! A famous manager opened his ample mansion door, and a big-big club chipped in with a massive donation, though much less than the cost of an on-form striker.
Not that giving money was the point: it was bigger than that, more radical than cash for a game that had become all about cash. It was the mass of players themselves who really went for it. Perhaps because, well, who wouldn’t want your name up there in lights with a world-class act like Cantona? To line up alongside Éric Daniel Pierre Cantona in a dream team; to receive the perfect pass from the pass master, the man Sir Alec Ferguson held in the highest esteem of all. Even Janet, who despised the belligerent old sot, had to concede that in this case at least Sir Alec had got it right. ‘Ooh Ahh, Cantona!’
There are some six hundred and forty Premier League footballers earning in excess of £30,000 per week on average. The highest paid earn almost ten times that amount, wages of more than a quarter of a million pounds. Of course not everyone opened their houses up, but enough did. And then there were offers from millionaire former players, celebrity pundits, lower league players, more managers, and then the fans. The fans. That’s when it went beyond wealth and truly showed the power of the football family. Before you could do a Cruyff turn, football was doing more than government.
And it wasn’t just in Britain that Cantona caused a sea-change. French footballers went for it big-time, of course, many from the Bundesliga, a cautious response at first from Serie A but then, Mama Mia how could they resist ya! La Liga players responded differently across Spain depending on their region’s political history. Cantona’s family had themselves been Republican refugees from the civil war and Franco. His maternal grandparents crossed the Pyrenees on foot, finding sanctuary in France. Barcelona players all extended invitations, the whole first team squad, many others in the club. Fans too, of course. Janet purred.
Then, a game changer: Real Madrid’s superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, like Cantona also formerly of Manchester United, met the son of a Syrian refugee who had infamously been tripped by a Hungarian camerawoman while fleeing Serbian police. (Janet felt ashamed for Petra Laszlo, the heartless camerawoman: more women should go to watch football, she thought.) Ronaldo hosted Zaid Abdul Mohsen on a tour of the hallowed Bernabeu stadium. Meanwhile, Zaid’s father, Osama, who had been a coach for a first division club in Syria, was offered a job by Spain’s national coaching centre.
Enigmatic as ever, Cantona offered a timely quote: ‘When the trawler anchors to pull ship-wrecked people from the water, the seagulls bring sardines.’
The football pundit and ex Liverpool centre-back Mark Lawrenson commented that, as per, Cantona had his opponents on toast! Then he too announced that, exactly like the maestro, he was making room to house and feed a refugee family for at least two years. Hearing that, Janet experienced an ecstatic moment of revelation. She realised that football was a way of getting a lot more people involved in politics: a new politics, driven and sustained by morality and values. Many people sneered at football supporters, but they were good people on the whole, united by their love of something beautiful: the game. And, if they recognised beauty there, well… An untapped power, football fans were suddenly a tidal wave of resistance. Football could mean revolution.
And so it was. Responding to the refugee crisis was just the beginning. Once the football family woke up, its demands for justice knew no bounds. Every week in Britain around 650,000 people watch football live. Many more than that support clubs and follow the game. The Tory Party has a membership of less than 150,000. Mobilising the political potential of football quickly swept away the old stale system of political parties in Britain. Internationally too, a flash flood. Now, it was all about clubs, clubbing together. Cantona had changed the game.
Janet’s Pamela Barnes Ewing Dallas shower scene moment came when she woke from dozing fitfully to find that Match of the Day on TV had ended and the news was on. It was Cameron not Cantona on screen. And he was troughing on about taking advantage of the refugee crisis to leverage his renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. Then Sepp Blatter came on, continuing to deny corruption in FIFA. And Janet knew the awful truth: Cantona hadn’t changed the game at all. As usual, he was just way ahead of it.
Thanks to Janet Bennet for the nucleus of the idea, and of course to Éric Cantona for being Cantona. Come on football, step up! Whether you like, hate or are apathetic about this story, you could consider offering to accommodate a refugee family if you have space. You might also encourage your Local Authority to find places for people, and lobby your MP to get Britain to opt in to EU quotas. Follow this link to donate to the Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal.