Manchester United team with Schmeichel and Cantona glowed the finest

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 9, 2013

ROUGHLY two decades later, no death of brain cells or overloading of memory can erase the images.

In the first, the shouting goalkeeper, in his box, resembles the warden of a small prison hectoring his guards. How did someone get in? How did they get off a shot? This is usually after he's performed an act of levitation to produce another improbable save. Gravity had a minimal hold on Peter Schmeichel.

In the second image, the other man, his collar turned up to signify his aristocracy, has just chipped in a goal. But he doesn't run to the wing or celebrate. He just poses, and turns slowly like a vain model, not so much dazzled by his own goal but asking if you were. This is the impudent wonder that was Eric Cantona.

As debate reignites on the respective merits of United teams under Alex Ferguson, these two images, of men who were apparently room-mates - genius reflected across a room - persist.

Sport is a nostalgic pastime and constantly we re-order mental lists of the fastest, smartest, strongest. New deeds and new faces force us to change our minds, but on them I won't. When they played, United glowed finest.

Cantona and Schmeichel are men of my youth and this matters. To be young is to be easily imprinted. It is also a time absent of cynicism and only later will the sportswriter discover that the hero on the screen is a flawed mortal in person. When Cantona came to Singapore, I opted not to interview him. To be fair, Pele was the alternative; to be sure, the myth of the Frenchman seemed too much fun to even mildly destroy.

Favouritism is often dependent on timing. Till the early 1990s, India was hostage to a decaying national TV broadcaster. Then Star Sports arrived. The world became "live", it was vast, it was Michael Jordan, it was Pete Sampras, and it was eventually a Dane with his star jumps learnt from handball and a Frenchman who was Rodin's Thinker come to booted life.

First loves are hard to beat. United till then were a history lesson: a plane crash, George Best and Sir Bobby. It was the past, it didn't belong to us. But this did. This was a team that relearnt winning - United's league title in 1993 was their first since 1967 - and it triggered an addiction.

Winning is imperative - Schmeichel and Cantona won nine trophies together at United - but it's not just winning that decides preference, especially at a club with 32 trophies since 1993. Sport is not just an efficiency contest. Why else do so many still embrace the beautifully inadequate play of France and Brazil at the 1982 World Cup? They were failures, yet they were irresistible.

And perhaps here lies one key to preference. Art. A team must shimmer, it must have effrontery, it must have artists. Brazil's Socrates looked as much the bearded philosopher as his Greek namesake. France's Platini-Giresse-Tigana were football's version of the Oscar Peterson jazz trio.

Sport craves characters like Cantona and Schmeichel, who own a charisma as distinct as their talents. It is not just about taking a skill to a field but imposing a personality too.

The present United team have no curious characters, no eccentric talent. No one demands the eye beyond Robin van Persie. They do not have a slick Cristiano Ronaldo nor the vigour of the young Beckham, Scholes, Giggs side. They are superb but without spark, accomplished not alluring.

Yet to demean the current side, so far ahead in a race, is unfair. To extol the Dane-French axis is more fun. Schmeichel was a bear of a man who once worked for the World Wildlife Fund. When he stood in goal, he offered the illusion that officials had mistakenly given him a smaller sized one.

The son of a pianist, there is a lovely moment in a Sky Sports feature when Paul Parker reveals that "the biggest crime against Pete was if you dared to try and chip him". Evidently, he hurled the ball at the offender's head.

The Frenchman, fuelled by his own fury and disciple of an unknown gongfu tutor, was a fascinating study on his first day. Taken on a tour by Ferguson, so recounts Philippe Auclair in his book Cantona, the manager challenged the Frenchman, "I wonder if you are good enough to play in this ground...". It brought this riposte: "I wonder if Manchester is good enough for me." His words, like his play, had a fine conceit.

Two decades or so after I first glimpsed them, they remain United's unforgettable standard. This current squad will bring trophies, but these men brought something less tangible. They had what actors speak of, the quality known as presence. On the field, teammates find reassurance from them, rivals are acutely aware of them, watchers search for them. Such men fill a screen and also - forever united - a memory.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 9, 2013

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