Mid-morning in Lisbon and Eric Cantona is standing on a sun-dappled terrace shouting at me in Chinese. ‘Take these children. I can’t look after them,’ he says in his finest Mandarin, throwing his arm back to show where his imaginary Chinese children are standing. ‘Take them from me. I cannot look after them. I am not Father Christmas.’
His voice has risen to such volume that the waitresses plumping cushions on sofas nearby glance at one another, trying not to stare at the large, bearded Frenchman who now has his hands on his hips, is scratching his chin and muttering to himself.
‘I didn’t get the music of the words right. I cannot remember the Chinese for Father Christmas. Anybody know?’
It turns out that none of the elegantly attired Portuguese folk enjoying coffee on the terrace this lazy morning knows how to say Father Christmas in Chinese, so he reverts to scratching his beard and considering all the possibilities.
Interviewing Cantona is like being taken on a fast-paced roller-coaster ride through the alleyways, cul-de-sacs and country roads of his mind. The 52-year-old admits that he finds it hard to stay on one topic of conversation for more than a few minutes.
‘When I start to talk I answer your question properly, then I go off here and here like a bumble bee, then I come back, then I go away again. This is how I talk — like a bumble bee.’
His earlier performance in Chinese was to demonstrate a scene from his recent film called ‘Magic’ that was shot over three months in Shanghai and Guizhou.
He had to speak in Chinese for almost a third of it and still has no idea why he decided to do it.
‘I did a film last year in which I spoke in Croatian and I said: “Eric, you must never do that again. Never do a film in another language.”
‘Then they come to me: “Hey, want to do a film in Chinese?” I can’t speak one word of Chinese. I should say no, then next thing I’ve said yes and I’m living in Shanghai.’
He has made more than 25 films since transferring his exuberant performances from pitch to screen, moving seamlessly from four Premier League titles, three FA Cups and 80 goals for Manchester United to standing centre stage in a range of languages and personas.
‘Acting and football — all the same. I can do both. I loved acting before I loved football, but I had good boots, so I did football. Being in a great film is wonderful; playing for Manchester United is wonderful.’
Not quite so wonderful today.
‘Well, no — not so good. But it is early in the season... too early to tell. Manchester United is a great club and will always be great. They will win things, I know they will.
‘But the way they play? Not good. The manager has them playing the wrong way for the fans. No fun, no creativity. I like Mourinho. He has a good personality but not for United — they should have [Pep] Guardiola as coach. He should be there, but he is doing magic with that other club. The club I cannot name.’
Cantona pauses, slowly dunking his tea bag into his cup while looking mournfully out into the distance as he speaks. ‘I can’t say the name,’ he repeats, as if talking about a great love who has left him. ‘It is too much pain for me to say the name.’
‘Manchester City,’ I say, because I can’t resist it, and he scrunches his face up, and tightens his fists at the name.
‘You have ruined my day now.’
He drops his tea bag heavily (green tea with peppermint, none of your common-or-garden English breakfast tea for Eric). ‘Listen. I joke about that club but they are playing great football. It’s just that I think Guardiola should be at United. He is the spiritual child of Johan Cruyff — he played under Cruyff at Barcelona and learned everything from him. He’s the only person who should be at United.’
The only one?
‘Well, except for me,’ says Cantona. ‘I would like to coach. If they called me, I would go. I would enjoy it. They know where I am. Then we would play creative football once again.
‘It would be great for the fans, like it was with Alex Ferguson — he allowed players to be creative, treated them as individuals. We all felt special with him. All felt loved. He was always praising. A good man. A good leader.’
Cantona has kept in touch with Ferguson since retiring, turning a master/pupil relationship into a friendship. He says he has spoken to his old mentor several times since Ferguson’s brain haemorrhage in May.
‘He is getting better. He sounds good. Sounds strong. I wish him to get completely better. I am sure he will. I feel he is stronger every day.’
He shakes his head when I ask whether he has mentioned his own desires to coach to Sir Alex. Perhaps even asked Ferguson to back him?
‘He’s great. Great coach,’ is all he says.
While Cantona is effusive with praise for the coaches he admires, he has no kind words at all for those he doesn’t. His feelings are particularly strong when I bring up the subject of international football.
‘The best managers are with the best clubs — not with national teams. That is the truth of it. Think about it.
‘At the World Cup the coach of Spain [Julen Lopetegui] was offered a job with Madrid and he took it, even though he could no longer be with Spain who were one of the favourites to win the Word Cup. He preferred to coach Madrid than Spain.
‘Why? Because the best clubs are where the best coaches want to be.
‘Look at England. I like Southgate but what did he do as a manager before? He was manager of Middlesbrough. What did he win? Nothing. Why do they have him as England coach? Because he was the only one not at a big club.
‘I say it as it is — the coaches of international teams are there because no club wants them.’
His words are delivered with warm smiles and Gallic shrugs but he is unafraid to attack when he feels the need. Age may have softened him, but he still looks as if he could break all your limbs just by looking at them.
When I ask him to cast his mind back and pick one moment that stands out in his career, his answer is fascinating.
‘It’s not the goals or the wins that stand out, it’s the moment when I left France to come to England. I’d never been before. England felt so far away, so different from what I was used to.
‘When I left France it was like there was a small explosion inside me — it was exciting. England was so different — people driving on the wrong side of the road...
‘And in Britain there is such creativity. You have brilliant writers, musicians, actors, directors — known all around the world.
‘How does England do this? Is it the education? We should try to work out why. Is it heritage, society? How has a country the size of Britain produced so many people who are so artistic?’
Cantona is fascinated by creativity. When I ask him to describe himself in three words, he says: ‘Creative, creative, creative.’ He adds: ‘I love to create things, whether it be beautiful football or beautiful characters on stage.’
He is coming to England next month to do a number of one-man performances including a show at the Hammersmith Apollo. ‘The people who come to see me at shows are like friends, they chant my name and sing to me. I have to stand there for a while to make it quiet for me to talk.’
He is well used to this level of fame.
‘I like it. It suits me. I am a good person to be famous, because I like it when people approach me and ask for selfies. I don’t need to be surrounded by people — I can spend a week in the middle of nowhere and be very happy, but also I like it when people come to me. They pretend to be sending a text and they take a sneaky photo, and I say ‘Hey, just ask.’
After his one-man shows, unless United call him and offer him an immediate position, he plans to star in a French TV series. ‘The acting is going well, but I am still learning to understand myself. The more acting I do, the better I get. I like to be in a range of different parts. For example, I was acting in a film about melancholy. I hate this emotion, but I loved to play it because I know I can separate myself from the emotion.
‘Oh, I should not have mentioned this. It hurts me. Melancholy is terrible. I think maybe I am afraid of it. I remember seeing an art exhibition in Paris about melancholia and I was depressed for a week afterwards.
‘And did I tell you I like to cry — it’s a liberation. I cry when I’m sad — yes I cry and it’s a relief, I feel better afterwards. There, see, you ask me about acting, I tell you I like to cry — my thoughts and words go all over the place.’
Today he lives in the centre of Lisbon, in the old section, in a big house with his actress wife Rachida Brakni and their two children Emir and Selma.
‘Did I tell you how I met my wife?’ he asks. ‘It was funny. You will like this. I played a fat, fat man in the film ‘The Overeater’. You know this film?’ I tell him I haven’t seen it. ‘You must go. It is funny,’ he says, rising to his feet, puffing his cheeks out to illustrate how fat he looked.
‘At the beginning they took a photograph of my face and put it on to the body of a very, very fat naked man sitting on a bed. Then I had to wear a big fat suit for the rest of the film when I had clothes on.
‘I was soooo fat. And that was how I met my wife. She was in the film too. She met me then and fell in love with me. So I know if I get fat from too much eating, she will love me still.’
Cantona says he has no plans now beyond his one-man shows and the series he is filming at the beginning of next year.
‘I don’t like too many plans. I like to be free, free as a bird in the sky. So I am available if Manchester United want to call me and make me their coach. I can come. I’m fit and healthy and I’m ready.’
He winks at this point, to illustrate that he is not entirely serious; but not entirely unserious either. Such is the way with the enigmatic Cantona.
He has to leave then, but advises me to watch The Overeater and tells me to come and see his show in London. I tell him I will, then he mumbles something that I don’t quite catch.
‘Sorry?’ I say.
‘Oh, tis nothing,’ he replies, with a smile. ‘Still trying to remember how you say Father Christmas in Chinese.’
How Manchester United could do with a bit of his swagger now. Eric Cantona was the spark that triggered United’s dominance in the Premier League era, ending their 26-year title drought in 1993 and famously captaining them to the Double in 1996.