Interviewing Eric and going solo in South Africa

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I’ve just got back from Marseille after interviewing Eric Cantona ahead of the Beach Soccer World Cup, which starts in Eric’s hometown this week.

Without flights, I drove the 550 kilometres from Barcelona. It took five hours and nine pay tolls on a motorway via Girona, Perpignon, Beziers, Montpellier and Nimes.

Cantona’s grandmother made the same journey around the Mediterranean coast when the family was exiled after the Spanish Civil War. It took five days.

Without a confirmed time for the interview I met the photographer, a match-going Chester fan who had flown in from London. We sat in the Old Port, a beautiful, serene spot which looked very different when England fans fought with the police, local youths and the chairs outside McDonald’s during the 1998 World Cup finals.

Marseille's Old Port: Look at all them boats 

It was Bastille Day, the French national holiday, and the centre of the city was closed to traffic. It would have been good to have a proper look around, but I had to interview two former Old Firm players, Mark Hateley of Rangers and Darren Jackson of Celtic for a forthcoming piece on the Old Firm.

I was waiting on a phone call from the pair so settled into a quiet café. The call came… as the owner decided to try out his new speakers for the impending Bastille party. The interview was impossible to record but shorthand, which I hardly ever use now, came in useful. Both men were articulate and interesting.

And then it was Cantona, at least after an overnight delay it was. Despite defending him staunchly after his indiscretion at Selhurst Park, I’d never properly interviewed him. I don’t get nervous interviewing, but Eric was a hero and there’s the old saying about never meeting your heroes because you’ll be disappointed. So I asked Justyn Barnes, an editor who spent a day with him a few years ago for some pointers.

Eric gets stuck in at Selhurst Park 

“Eric was an absolute gentleman when we did the photo shoot with him for the United Opus and he gave Jim White a brilliant interview too, “ said Justyn. “He’s the only footballer who comes close to Maradona for charisma.

“He'll probably weigh you up a bit to start with because I think he's a bit suspicious by nature, but he seems to like people who are straight with him so I'm sure you'll do fine. I don't think you can control too much what he talks about - and you probably don't want to. If he goes off-piste from your line of questioning, I reckon you just roll with it and see where the conversation leads you and I'm sure you'll get loads of mad/brilliant quotes.

He takes himself and his work seriously (I remember him sitting me down before the Opus shoot and showing me pictures in a pile of books which he was using as inspiration, then he was totally in charge, directing the whole photo shoot for the next 12 hours. He's definitely a bit of a control freak), but I think he has a sense of humour about himself and is quite down to earth in other ways.”

Justyn was bang on the money. We were initially promised 25 minutes with Eric, which isn’t ideal for an in-depth interview. We ended up having an hour more than that, with him on fine form. Some of his lines were sublime; others will doubtless make headlines when the interview appears in FourFourTwo.

Cantona sizes up FourFourTwo's correspondent

He spoke about beach soccer, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Sartre, Camus, Morrissey, Beckham, Ronaldo, Ken Loach, acting, motivation, British beer, love, Barcelona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. And FC United fans will have a collective orgasm when they hear his thoughts. Eric also won over the photographer. “I was indifferent to him before I met him,” he texted earlier. “But he made all the waiting and getting home to my family at midnight worth it.”

I’ve got two days in Barcelona before I fly to South Africa for Man United’s tour. I’m meeting lots of people over there including a different (and quite superb) photographer who will fly in from Nairobi. She’s worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Romania and all over Africa… but I’ll basically be travelling alone.

After much research, I’ve decided to hire a car in the four cities I’ll visit, but wanted a bit more information on safety after reading about car-jackings and crime in South Africa, especially Johannesburg. One contact told me that she never drives at night because she fears for her safety. Another laughed at my question, saying: “There are bigger dangers from lions, elephants and locals practising witchcraft on unsuspecting English visitors in hire cars.”

It’s time to find out for myself.