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Be more Cantona: King Eric on marching football into a kinder era of commercialisation

Before Kaepernick there was Cantona, the moralising, swaggering, occasionally Kung-Fu kicking king of Manchester United who had zero fear of saying no to deals he didn’t agree with. Now, he’s flexing his charisma to push the football industry – sponsors included – towards a new standard of collective philanthropy.

Eric Cantona believes in a lot of things. He believes in life, he believes in a higher energy and he believes in red wine, a glass of which he somehow managed to acquire during one of the very few dry periods in the speakers' lounge at this year's Web Summit.

He believes in radical activism against the financial establishment. He believes in the power of immigration. And he believes in Shakespeare, science and the immortality of the human race, all of which he impressively managed to shoehorn into his recent acceptance speech at the Uefa President’s Awards.

For those who have followed his career, the waffling address was bizarre but unsurprising: Cantona always had opinions in a time when footballers weren’t meant to have them.

His star ascended at Manchester United in the 90s, a time when the beautiful game began its process of strategic commercialisation. The sponsors began rapping harder on the doors of players in search of spokespeople that were recognisable but mute.

Cantona refused to be the latter.

“When I was playing football, I was the kind of guy who tried to be as free as possible in saying things,” he says. “If I wanted to say something I would.

“Around 10 years ago I signed a contract with a big brand. And they asked me in the contract to not speak about politics. You think I signed a contract like this? I said no, I don't intend to sign the contract. You work with me because you know the person I am. And I am the person I am because I am free.”

The brand relented and removed the gagging clause. Cantona went on to land a swathe of brand deals. They provided him with a stage where he could flex the acting muscle that he went on to use in his second career.

And today, 22 years since retiring from football, his face still gets printed on advertising posters and blasted into space.

The ease in which Cantona was able to traverse the commercial world as a "free" footballer means he still sees the world of sponsorship in black and white. He’ll take a job if he likes the company, the script, the director and the money. He won’t if the brand asks him to be anything other than a six-foot-two literary sports star from Marseilles.

This means he doesn’t understand why the decision would be any more complicated for players today – young footballers who, he says, are being asked “not to share their opinions” more and more by brands, clubs and agents.

“There are a lot of players now that have advisors that tell them to not say anything about politics or society, to just speak about football,” he says. “But we should help them look around. What I cannot understand is why they would close their eyes.”

So Cantona is – to extend his own metaphor – turning on the lights for those players too scared or apathetic to publicly support a cause. He’s signed up as the first 'mentor' to the non-profit Common Goal, which encourages football’s moneymakers to pledge 1% of their salaries or earnings to football-based NGOs.

The organisation is open to players, managers, supporters, agents and businesses. The 1% mechanic is a simple idea that should, in theory, unite the global game, providing a solution for players who have dabbled in the idea of charity but don’t have the resources to launch their own.

Additionally, the cash is spent on causes that are relatively apolitical and risk-free for reputation-minded footballers. Headline names such as Juan Mata and Megan Rapinoe have already pledged, among 133 more players and managers.

But why haven’t more?

“A lot has to do with actually having access to these people and being able to talk face to face,” says Thomas Preiss, Common Goal’s chief operating officer. “Once we sit together with a plan and are actually able to explain face to face what we're doing, there's actually a high percentage of players then make the decision to join. But it's not always easy to establish.

“Beyond that ... at the end of the day, it's 1% out of a player’s wages, which is in the same pot of money that agents get paid out of. So, sometimes, even agents that think it's a good idea in principle are afraid to bring this up in a conversation with a player, because their primary a reason for existing is to make money for the player.

“Also, if you're a professional football player at a very young age, everything is done for you. It's a very convenient life. So I think there's still a lot to improve on in terms of character development and the value of giving back being more prominent in that kind of upbringing.”

Player awareness of Common Goal will be critical in hurdling these issues. That’s what Cantona has arrived to do – highlight the existence of the initiative through his media presence and speak with his famous zeal to fellow footballers unsure about signing up.

Then, once more players sign up and more noise is made, Preiss hopes for the arrival of the second wave of big donors: corporations and associations.

“Ultimately, we want to apply this to the big competitions in football: the Uefa Champions League, the World Cup, the Europa League...” Preiss says. “We are now actively collaborating towards that ... by using the influence and power that comes with a collective of players who can have conversations with decision makers in football.

“[We want to] have the 1% applied as a social fair play standard to the big competitions and cash flows in football ... in terms of the prize money available and in terms of what's generated from broadcasters and sponsors. That's the vision that we’re working on in terms of businesses getting involved. And this is also, ultimately, where the big financial opportunity lies.”

That doesn’t mean smaller brands aren’t invited to join the fold. Common Goal has already inked deals with Santander and EA Sports, which integrated the initiative into its Fifa 19 videogame. It's also slowly ingratiating itself with the big sportswear companies (“It really helps to be able to say, OK Nike, or OK Adidas, we already have 20 of your athletes – come join us.”)

The team is positioning the opportunity as an authentic, plug-and-play way for companies to link their marketing to social responsibility efforts. But that’s not exactly the story the organisation itself is trying to tell.

For Preiss and his team, the ambition is to change the way the entire industry thinks as a whole. The idea is to break down the walls built around tussling commercial interests to socially reinvent the game as one functioning ecosystem made up of players, clubs, fans, media owners and corporate sponsors.

“We are increasingly realising that if we are to tackle the biggest challenges ... there's really only one thing that we have to do to: [allow for] participation and collaboration among many,” says Preiss.

“It's not that football is not giving back at all; there are initiatives out there and there is great work done by certain club foundations or individual player foundations. But they’re very isolated. They’re project based. It's really not a systemic contribution from football. And that's exactly what we want to change.

“We want to make giving back and purpose part of the business model and DNA of football.”

Cantona is therefore somewhat of a gift of a spokesperson for the project.

When he speaks, people listen, and among the puzzling philosophies he also comes out with cutting parables straight from the Common Goal script: “We have the power to help each other” and “it's important to be a good player, but it's even more important to be a good human being”.

But for all of King Eric’s charitable beliefs, he has, perhaps, an ulterior motive for supporting Common Goal.

He is depressed at what football has become. He compares going to a home game to visiting the Eiffel Tower (disappointing, expensive and soulless, presumably) and thinks the billionaires buying up today’s clubs are disinterested brats looking for toys to play with.

He believes tickets are too expensive and that Arsenal “lost everything” when they moved from Highbury to the Emirates.

He wants to somehow – anyhow – reignite life into the game, before the fans turn their backs on the commercial machine altogether. Common Goal’s mission is just one spark at his disposal.