Gareth Southgate has spent much of the past fortnight telling us not to concern ourselves with the past. The future, he insists, is what counts. It is what we do next that is important, not what we once did. Most of his England squad were not even born when he missed that penalty against Germany in 1996, so why should its weight hang on their shoulders? Concentrate on making your own history, he tells his players.
It is a bright, breezy and so far successful approach he is taking: the past is another country, no point worrying about it now. But it is clearly not an attitude embraced by the British advertising industry. When we all tune in to watch ITV’s coverage of England’s semi-final on Wednesday, there will be no escaping the past. Particularly in the shape of one character who dominates the commercial activity blooming around the tournament. Never mind Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling, if the telly ads are to be believed the most significant presence in these Euros is Eric Cantona.
It is 24 years since the great Frenchman last kicked a football in anger. But, as millions of us glue ourselves to the screen when England take on Denmark, there he will be once again, the presiding figure on the commercial breaks that will pepper the screen. Just Eat, Hotels.com, Sports Direct: their commercials are built around him and his legend, as he raises a quizzical brow to the camera, elusive, sophisticated, cool. Or at least as elusive, sophisticated and cool as you can be when flogging Just Eat, Hotels.com and Sports Direct.
Clearly that’s the reason such corporations have employed him to promote their services to the football-obsessed market. Organisations with about as much cool as Matt Hancock pay to associate themselves with the coolest man ever to play the game in the hope some of his swagger will rub off on them.
And when it comes to what they are after, Cantona is very good at delivering (and not just takeaway food). From his days as a player, when his goal celebrations were works of performance art, he had an instinctive understanding of how to project an image of style and substance, leavened with self-awareness. He always knew precisely what he was doing. In the middle of delivering the lines that came to define him, he had to take a sip of water as he gave us his perambulations about seagulls, trawlers and sardines. He did it, he admitted later, largely to stop himself from bursting out laughing at the comical absurdity of his situation. That look to camera he employs so effectively in his commercials is one that suggests he knows that we know that he knows it is all still a giggle.
Yet while that might have resonance for those of us who relished his idiosyncrasies at the time, it is nearly a quarter of a century since he bestrode the footballing world. I have no recollection of what the adverts were back in July 1966. But I suspect in the era of Bobby Moore, Denis Law and George Best, they didn’t feature Stan Cullis or Charlie Mitten, the leading figures of 25 years earlier. But here is Cantona, telling the electrician who has cut off the electricity supply just as the England game gets underway in the Sports Direct advert: “It’s football Dave and it’s coming home”. And when he suggests to the delivery driver at the pay-off to his Just Eat commercial that he should lift the collar of his anorak, does anyone under the age of 30 have the first clue what he is doing?
Though if the Cantona precedent has lasting effect, should Southgate be proven right and the current generation of England players write their own history this week, when the 2044 Euros kick off the commercials on television will feature Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw. It is a prospect to which we might all look forward.
Just as long as they are not advertising pizza while wearing a paper bag over their head.