‘The great god of football’

The Cannes Film Festival’s latest contenders are a cinematic odd couple — British director Ken Loach and French soccer legend Eric Cantona, who stars in Loach’s festival entry Looking for Eric.

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CANNES, France — The Cannes Film Festival’s latest contenders are a cinematic odd couple — British director Ken Loach and French soccer legend Eric Cantona, who stars in Loach’s festival entry Looking for Eric.

It turns out that Loach — an unflinching social realist whose subjects have ranged from troubled teens (Kes) to illegal immigrants (It’s a Free World) to the Irish war of independence (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) — is a passionate believer in what one character in the film calls “the great god of football.”

Loach puts his love of soccer on-screen in Looking for Eric, his sweetest, funniest film in years. It’s the story of a depressed mailman (Steve Evets) who turns to his sporting idol, Cantona, for guidance.

The director said Monday that soccer played a vital role in many people’s lives.

“People, particularly men, find it hard to express their feelings, often,” Loach said. “But at the game you go from despair to hope to triumph to sadness to elation within an hour and three quarters.

“If a film could achieve that, it’d be some film.”

Loach’s movie is one of 20 competing for Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, an award the 72-year-old director won three years ago for The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Looking for Eric earned warm applause at a screening Monday — and Cantona’s appearance at a news conference sent journalists scrambling for autographs and photos.

Cantona, 42, is more than a soccer star. He’s a demigod to fans, especially in Britain, where he spent five years in the 1990s playing for Manchester United. His status comes both from his skill on the pitch and his reputation as a sporting sage.

“When the seagulls follow a trawler,” Cantona once told reporters, “it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” By seagulls, he apparently meant journalists, with him being the trawler.

He also was a passionate and volatile player who was suspended for nine months in 1995 for karate-kicking a fan who heckled him.

In the film, Cantona plays himself, as a sort of imaginary spiritual guide conjured up by Evets’ character Eric, a Manchester United fan driven to breakdown by guilt over the wife and child he abandoned 30 years before.

With Cantona’s help, Eric gains the courage to confront the ghosts of his past as well as an external threat posed by his stepson’s involvement with a local gangster.

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