(photo credit: )
Eric Cantona, coach of the French national beach soccer team, hadn't planned to participate himself in this week's Diamonds Challenge Tournament in Netanya.
"We are here to win, so I will not play," he'd said before the competition began on Thursday.
For a man who'd once declared, at the height of a glorious professional career, that "I am god" (He subsequently clarified, disarmingly: "I might have said that, but on the whole I talk a lot of rubbish."), this always seemed unduly modest.
The progress of the tournament confirmed that Cantona had been foolish, indeed, to initially consign himself to the bench.
Without him, in Thursday's match, France squandered a 3-2 lead to hand Germany victory in the final minutes.
On Friday, by contrast, when Cantona did take the field for the meaningless third-fourth place playoff match against Turkey, France dominated the entire game and triumphed 6-4 despite the heroics of Turkey's goalkeeper, and Cantona scored himself and created the goal that sealed the victory.
More than 10 years since he hung up his boots at Manchester United, Cantona, at 41, needless to say, is no longer anything like the endlessly inventive force that transformed Sir Alex Ferguson's side into the perennial English champions of the mid-to-late 1990s. But his play on Friday, still wearing the famed No. 7 shirt, was nonetheless a joy to behold.
Utilizing beach soccer's multiple substitution possibilities, Cantona deployed himself in short bursts only, but every minute he was on, the sandy pitch was replete with the familiar sublime anticipation and positioning, and the trademark silky touches. He brushed off the bullish marking tactics of his Turkish opponents, found teammates in space with almost every pass of the ball, and even attempted a couple of crowd-pleasing scissor kicks.
More surprising, and gratifying, was Cantona's demeanor. It was eye-wateringly, neck-burningly hot for the spectators, so it must have been almost unbearable out on the sand.
His team had already been bundled out of the tournament. Yet Cantona was the personification of committed, gentlemanly professionalism.
Every time - and there were plenty - that the announcer mentioned his name in the pre-match formalities, Cantona waved to the crowd. When the action began, he exhorted his players to give their maximum. He was solicitous when one of them was injured. He picked himself up and shook off the sand without a murmur when roughly felled by one of his Turkish markers.
And immediately after the game was over, rather than heading sensibly for a cooling shower, he submitted to a series of TV interviews and then walked over to sign autographs for a delighted scrum of local fans.
This, remember, was the man who, in his younger years, was a walking disciplinary nightmare.
Early in his career, in France, he was banned for throwing away his shirt after being substituted; he was banned for insulting the French national coach; he once threw his boots in another player's face; he threw the ball at a referee, and told each member of a subsequent disciplinary committee that he was an "idiot."
Most notoriously, while with Manchester United in 1995, he spectacularly kung-fu kicked a spectator who had insulted him after he had been sent off in a game against Crystal Palace - an attack for which he was punished by the British courts with 120 hours of community service.
(This was the incident which Cantona completed the following day with a press conference at which he came in, sat down, treated the assembled media to the memorably incomprehensible assertion that "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown in to the sea," got up, and left.)
My football-mad sons had both heard of Cantona but are far too young to have ever had the chance to see him play. Or at least, that's what I thought until Friday. That's when, improbably and delightfully, they got to see him parade his talents on the hot sands of an Israeli beach resort.
Oh, and they were in the midst of the scrum of autograph hunters, both thrusting into Cantona's sweaty hand the pictures of him they'd had the prescience to download. And, gentleman that he has become, of course he signed.
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