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What was Eric Cantona talking about after winning the UEFA President’s Award?

UEFA European Club Football Season Kick-Off 2019/2020 - UCL Draw Photo by Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

After receiving the UEFA President’s Award before the Champions League draw, Eric Cantona gave an unexpected speech that left many in the room and the watching audience confused:

Here, in conversation, we try to make sense of of Cantona’s speech and the themes he referenced in it.

Zito: First of all, I want to say that his opening is incredibly poetic. I have a feeling that it’s a reference to some literature or some myth. It sounds like something that would have been in The Iliad. I’ve been repeating it to myself since I first saw the video. “As flies to wanton boys, we are for the gods. They kill us for the sport.” There’s actually a series of books, “The Complete Book of Swords” that has that premise that the gods do toy with human lives for the sport of it.

Graham: It’s Lear. Gloucester after he’s been blinded, wandering the heaths, lamenting his fate. His wings torn off.

Zito: You’re right!

”I’ th’ last night’s storm I such a fellow saw,

Which made me think a man a worm. My son

Came then into my mind, and yet my mind

Was then scarce friends with him. I have heard more


As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,

They kill us for their sport.”

Graham: A fantastic cold opening to a speech.

Zito: Yes! I was trying to figure out why it sounded so familiar, but what an opening to receiving a football award.

Graham: So there I think Cantona is complaining about it being human nature to wither and die. Which is what segues him into immortality and science. Essentially the whole thing is a meditation on death and humanity.

Zito: Which makes his part about immortality not being able to stop the corruption of humans in the form of crimes and wars more understandable. That even if we are eternal, or when we become eternal, we will still be victims of human greed.

Graham: Right. But it’s not exactly profound, is it? It’s the sort of thing you might say when drunk around a campfire. It’s certainly weird and poetic and sort of interesting, but it’s interesting mostly because he chose to say it for a speech at the Champions League draw.

Zito: And then ending it with “I love football” as if he ran out of time.

Graham: I like the idea of adding ‘I love football’ to totally unrelated speeches:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

I love football.

Zito: What is interesting about it to me, isn’t even what he said, but that idea of immortality. Which has been the central human fear since day one.

Graham: His purely biological conception of immortality might be worth unpacking. His understanding seems to be that aging comes through the slow failure of cells. Look, I’m not an expert on aging and I don’t think the science is even close to settled, but treating it as the result of the failure of individual cells is really reductive and treats humans like a static system. Which they are not. But it’s also interesting because immortality is inherently a static system.

Zito: I think that’s the type of reduction that comes when the enemy is so absurd. Otherwise, you have to acknowledge the futility of it all. It’s like the rich people who think injecting themselves with the blood of young people can reverse aging.

Graham: A healthy, young body replaces and recycles its cells as they fail. You could abstract that model, if you like, to humanity as a whole. Do we need the cycle of death to keep growing as a people? Not that there is, right now, much evidence of recent growth, but I think the general point still stands: Cantona seems to be treating elements of a system as analogous to the whole.

Zito: From The Iliad: “Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.”

Graham: That’s one of the Trojans fighting Dio[medes], right? Which translation?

Zito: That’s Glaucus to Dio in the 1999 Penguins Classics version.

Though I’m sympathetic to it, I find the search for immortality so amusing. It also reminds me of something I read from Simone de Beauvoir a while ago:

”Whether you think of it as heavenly or earthly, if you love life, immortality is no consolation for death.”

Though in that context, she was talking about immortal life after death.

Graham: Is there any version of the hunt for earthly immortality which isn’t a worn out old trope at this point? Not that I begrudge Cantona musing on it.

Zito: I don’t think so, simply because it seems to be central to every human struggle. Every fear that we have is a refashioned form of the initial fear of death.

Graham: Right. So I think the more interesting question is why Cantona brought it up at all. Even if the thinking behind the speech wasn’t original, the venue was startling. “I love football.”

Zito: I thought the “I love football” part was sudden. It seemed like as if it was supposed to to be an argument that football is one of the things that bring joy in the endless chaos of life, but came too soon.

Graham: So let’s maybe look at the speech line by line:

As flies to wanton boys, we are for the gods. They kill us for their sport.

Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the aging of the cells – soon the science will fix the cells to the state.

And so we will become eternal.

Only accidents, crimes, wars will still kill us, but unfortunately crimes and wars will multiply.

I love football. Thank you.

I don’t see anything about endless chaos, even obliquely. Cantona’s eternity is one of order. “Fix the cells to the state’ reminds me of butterflies pinned under glass.

Zito: Is it? After saying we would become eternal, he says that though aging won’t kill us, the things that still can, crimes and wars, will only multiply. Eternal life allows us to focus more on our self-imposed deaths.

Graham: So I think you can have a utopian vision and contrast it with your non-utopian ‘reality’. Cantona is painting a picture of a world in which everything is, if you like, crystallised. And then saying crimes and wars, which will multiply, are an impediment to that.

Zito: Then “I love football. Thank you.”

Graham: It makes me wish he’d had about three times as long to speak. He was only talking for about a minute.

Zito: It feels like there’s missing lines there, but he might have just needed a way to close the speech.

Graham: I also wonder how this would have been taken if it wasn’t Cantona talking.

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”

Zito: He has a reputation. Though it seems that the idea of him as a crazed eccentric has more to do with the sport not being used to someone who speaks like him, more than it does with what he says.

Graham: Right. I do like his quote about racists though: ”Because arguing with racist people is like playing chess with a pigeon: It doesn’t matter how good you are! The pigeon is going to knock all the pieces down and shit on the board and parade around like he’s won.”

Zito: He is a remarkable man, and if nothing else, I appreciate that he seems to live in a world of his own. A poetic man from Marseille, I never would have expected it.

Graham: I’m not even going to try to pretend that I can think of any poets whom I know are from Marseilles. Has Cantona talked about immortality before? I’m still curious as to why he’s talking about it now. Is he feeling old?

Zito: He has. In this interview, he begins the answer to the question of whether he still has ambition with, “I’m sure I will not die.”

“I’m not afraid of death, but I love so much life.”

Graham: And the same sort of themes: ‘we will find a solution’.

Zito: It’s a bit in contrast with him then saying that he’s not afraid of it.

Graham: It’s almost religious, but as faith in bioengineering instead.

Zito: Scientism, which promises the same eternal life that some religions do, but in this world rather than the next.

Graham: So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

I find the epistles fairly boring but they’re also pretty quotable.

Zito: This is actually one of the most interesting things to me when it comes to trans-humanism movement. The effort to free ourselves from the human shell, because it’s a constant reminder of the finality of existence. So if we can transcend it, we can hopefully transcend death, through science. But that also comes from the reductive idea that the body and the spirit are separate and a human being can exist immortally without a body.

Graham: Can you imagine how boring that would get though?

Zito: You don’t want to transfer your mind into a computer?

Graham: Well, right now I do because I’m extremely tired and it would be cool being disembodied. Also, would computerised brains get bored?

Zito: I don’t see what would be exciting about being detached from the sensations of the body. In gaining immortality that way, it seems you lose what makes mortal life worthwhile to begin with.

Graham: Well, yes, but you’re a hedonist. That version of immortality is the conceit of the life of the mind taken to silly levels. Also, I’ve seen how people treat computers. Who would want to inhabit one?

Zito: I guess for some any existence is better than none at all.

Graham: Also “I don’t see what would be exciting about being detached from the sensations of the body” goes back to some concepts of heaven too.

Zito: That’s why my favorite circle of hell in the Divine Comedy is the seventh, or the second ring of the seventh. For what the punishment of turning the suicides into trees implies.

Graham: Is it the birds shitting on you?

Zito: That’s awful, but also the idea that the full person on judgment day brings the body and spirit together (except for those who have treated their bodies as if it was material to be discarded).

Graham: I love football.