You finished your football career 10 years ago, at only 30. Do you feel any nostalgia for the time when you were playing?
It happens, yes. Nostalgia can be a pleasant feeling. Childhood memories, music, a smell can make us nostalgic. In football it is more an overall ambience than a game or a special stadium. The game, the dressing room, the field . . . When I went back on the pitch at Old Trafford for [the French television station] Canal+, it reminded me of memorable moments that I cannot live any more. However, we must not talk about that forever. There are other things in life.
What memories do you have of your last official game, on May 11, 1997?
It was against West Ham. I had swapped my jersey with a guy. I heard that he sold it at an auction, probably for a charity. (He smiles.)
What did you feel when you left the field?
Nothing. Because I wanted to quit. I had had enough. And I was telling myself that I could come back if I wanted. I thought, 'You are young. You train two months and you are back'. I kept on thinking that for a long time. Then, six months ago, I realised that even if I trained for two months, it would not be enough.
Why had you had enough of the game?
I did not have the flame any more. Football was my life, my childhood passion. When the flame disappears, why continue? To go to the Middle East for €300 billion? I was not interested in that.
Did you ever think of staying in football, becoming a coach, an agent or a TV commentator?
For a long time, thinking I could come back as a player helped me. So today I think I can come back as a coach. I know the doors are still open. Therefore I will never come back. If they were closed, it would probably make me want to break them down.
When the flame was blown out, was it because of the game or the environment?
The environment contributed a lot. Manchester was a lot about merchandising. Sometimes they need you to do a tape, give interviews, write books, take pictures . . . To avoid my image and name being used all over the place, I signed precise contracts with the club. I gave them the exclusivity on my pictures. However, they did not respect it. I went to see [Sir Alex] Ferguson, then the chairman [Martin Edwards] to talk about it. I told them: beware, things are happening.
One morning before a game, on my way to eat breakfast, I saw myself on the front page of a paper. Some people do not care being on a tabloid's front page. They are even proud of it. Well, it destroys me, even if I am on my way to play, it becomes more important than the game. I live it as treason. So on the day I said I was quitting, I told the club: "Okay, I quit, but you should know that I am still suing the merchandising."
Did you go to court?
Of course. And I won.
What room do you leave for football in your life today?
None. The only room is in my head and memories.
What do you think of Manchester United now?
There is the football Manchester and the merchandising Manchester. These two worlds coexist, but for me Manchester United is the club, it is football. A culture of the "beau jeu", a philosophy that has been existing for years. How to win with class. I am still madly in love with it.
What do you think about your successor in the legendary No 7 shirt, Cristiano Ronaldo. Is he worthy of it?
Last season he did not score any goals. We had the impression he did not care. Something was missing. Now he scores and he is a new player. World class. One of the 10 best players on the planet. In modern football, playing as a team is very important, but we always need that kind of player who is going to strike out, to provoke.
Like Ronaldinho at Barcelona?
Exactly. If the opposition can control your tactics, you need to be able to count on one individual who can make the difference.
Is Ronaldo a different No 7 from the one you were?
Yes and no. For me, it was important to score, but I did not look for it at all costs. If I had a 51% chance to score, I would give it a go. If the team had a 51% chance to score, I would pass the ball. Because it is a pleasure to pass a good ball, it is like a gift. On that, Ronaldo and I are not very different. But we are different in the style. He carries more the ball.
Did you have favourite teammates to pass the ball to?
No. There are players who are better than others at owning the space. Mark Hughes liked to receive the ball with his back to the goal and put it back in. You could mix different techniques in small spaces. Guys like [Ryan] Giggs or [Andrei] Kanchelskis loved to own all the space. United's tactic was: we rely on Mark Hughes. I get the ball and, before I even receive it, the two others go.
What do you retain from your experience in Manchester? For example, do you take inspiration from Ferguson's speeches when you are coaching your beach football team?
Ferguson did not really speak about our style in his speeches. Our game tactic was well-honed, we did not have to adapt to the opposition. He spoke more about the details. If the goalkeeper did not like low balls, on what side a defender would get in trouble . . . But most of all, he always ended saying: "And now enjoy the game. Have fun." It is a brilliant speech because you have worked all week and everything is here for you to enjoy. You have fun when you have worked well.
How did you feel after you karate-kicked the spectator at Crystal Palace? Did you feel guilty?
The next morning I did not really analyse the situation. I did not know what happened or what was going to happen. I was not really aware of things. Of course I was not proud of myself. We are just men, with a fragile side. It does not matter if a man suffers. It does not matter if a man cries. That highly strung sensibility might enable you to move mountains later.
Did you need to create these breaks to go forward?
When the hooligan called me "a French son of a bitch" . . . I had heard it 50 billion times before. However, on that day I did not react as I used to. Why? I never found any answer to that.
What would you want people to say about Eric Cantona the football player in 50 years?
I lived football as it is supposed to be lived. Like a game you have to play honestly. The first thing is to work hard, without losing the notion of pleasure. I hope that is what people will retain from me. With my dark sides as well.