The whole of 1984 saw Cantona's footballing career put on hold as he carried out his national service. After his discharge he was loaned out to Martigues in the French Second Division. Rejoining Auxerre and signing a professional contract in 1986, his performances in the First Division were good enough to earn him his first full international cap. However, the first of his disciplinary problems had already begun when in 1987 he was fined for punching team mate Bruno Martini in the face
The following year Cantona was again in trouble because of a dangerous tackle on Nantes player, Michel Der Zakarian, resulting in a three games suspension from the game, later reduced to two, as his club Auxerre threatened to make the player unavailable for selection in the national team. He was part of the French under-21 side that won the 1988 U21 European Championship and shortly after that success, he transferred to Marseille, the club he supported as a boy, for a French record fee (FF22m). Cantona had quite often shown signs of being 'short tempered' in his career to date, and in January 1989 during a friendly game against Torpedo Moscow he kicked the ball at the crowd and ripped off and threw away his jersey after being substituted. His club responded by banning him for a month. Just a few months earlier, he had been banned from international matches for one year after insulting the national coach on TV.
Having struggled to settle at Marseille, Cantona moved to Bordeaux on a six-month loan and then to Montpellier on a year-long loan. At Montpellier, he was involved in a fight with team-mate Jean-Claude Lemoult and threw his boots in Lemoult's face. The incident led to six players demanding that Cantona be sacked. However, with the support of team-mates such as Laurent Blanc and Carlos Valderrama, the club retained his services though banned him for ten days . Cantona was instrumental as the team went on to win the French Cup and his form persuaded Marseille to take him back.
Back at Marseille, Cantona initially played well under coach Gerard Gili and his successor Franz Beckenbauer. However, the Marseille chairman Bernard Tapie was not satisfied with the results, and replaced Beckenbauer with Raymond Goethals with whom Cantona did not see eye-to-eye. Cantona was also continually at odds with Tapie and despite helping the team win the French Division 1 title, he was transferred to Nîmes the following season.
In December 1991, during a match for Nîmes he threw the ball at the referee, having been angered by one of his decisions. He was summoned to a disciplinary hearing by the French Football Federation and was banned for one month. Cantona responded by walking up to each member of the hearing committee in turn and calling him an "idiot". His ban was increased to 3 months. For Cantona this was the last straw and he announced his retirement from football in December 1991.
The French national team coach Michel Platini was a keen fan of Cantona, and persuaded him to make a comeback because he admired his talent. On the advice of Gérard Houllier, he moved to England to restart his career.
He left Leeds before the end of the 1992-93 season, which saw them finishing 17th out of 22 in the newly formed Premier League, moving to Manchester United in November 1992 for the relatively small fee of £1.2 million, although at the time his record and level of performance didn't suggest this was a small fee. Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds United manager, was eager for him to leave. He was sold after Howard Wilkinson telephoned Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson to ask about the availability of defender Dennis Irwin; he was rebuffed & Ferguson in turn asked about the availability of Cantona.
United's season had been disappointing up to Cantona's signing. They had had problems scoring goals: Brian McClair and Mark Hughes were off form, and summer signing Dion Dublin had broken his leg early in the season. However, Cantona quickly settled into the team, not only scoring many goals but also creating chances for the other players. His first United goal came in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on 19 December 1992. It was against Tottenham Hotspur on 9 January 1993, that Cantona really showed his class, scoring one and having a hand in the other goals in a 4-1 victory. However, controversy was never far away and on his return to Elland Road to play Leeds he spat at a fan and was fined £1,000 by the FA .
For the next two years, United went on an amazing run, winning the inaugural Premiership in 1993. By winning that title, Cantona became the only player ever to win back-to-back titles with different clubs. They retained the Premiership and with Cantona's two penalties helping them to a 4-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. Cantona was voted PFA Player Of The Year in 1994. However, his serious disciplinary problem had not dissipated, being sent off a record 4 times in the Premier league season.
In the following season, Cantona became infamous for an incident that occurred on 25 January 1995. In an away match against Crystal Palace, Cantona was sent off by the referee for a vengeful kick on Palace defender Richard Shaw after Shaw had pulled his shirt. As he was being escorted from the pitch by United kit man Norman Davies, Cantona broke away and launched a 'kung-fu' style kick into the crowd, directed at Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons, followed by a series of punches.
Simmons was later tried for threatening language and behaviour, and attacked the prosecution counsel after being found guilty, leaping over a bench and executing a flying kick of his own. He was sentenced to seven days in jail, but only served 24 hours of his sentence. At a press conference called later, Cantona gave what is perhaps his most famous quotation. Referring to how journalists would constantly monitor his behaviour, Cantona said, in a slow and deliberate manner:
When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown in to the sea.
He then got up from his seat and left, leaving many of the assembled crowd bemused. He was sentenced to 120 hours of community service after an appeal court overturned a two-week prison sentence for assault. In accordance with the Football Association's wishes, Manchester United suspended Cantona for the remaining three months of the 1994–95 season, but the suspension was later increased by the FA to a nine-month ban from world football, in conjunction with a fine of £10,000. The FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly described his attack as "a stain on our game" that brought shame on football . Manchester United also fined Cantona two weeks wages and he was stripped of the French captaincy; his club eventually lost the Premiership title to Blackburn.
There had been much speculation that Cantona would leave English football when his ban finished, but Alex Ferguson persuaded him to stay in Manchester and Cantona was once again inspirational. United had sold several key players at the start of the season and replaced them with players from the club's youth team and their prospects of winning the league were not looking good. Much hype surrounded Cantona's return game, against Liverpool on 1 October 1995. In the match, Cantona set up a goal for Nicky Butt inside 2 minutes, and then scored a penalty after Ryan Giggs had been upended. Eight months without competitive football had inevitably taken its toll and Cantona struggled for form prior to Christmas. Things then changed, however, with his goals helping United to recapture the league having been twelve points behind Newcastle United in January 1996. There was a spate of important 1-0 wins for United, with Cantona the goal scorer, but a 0-3 victory against Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium decided the title. Fittingly, it was the same 1-0 scoreline, and the same scorer, in that year's FA Cup Final against Liverpool, with Cantona becoming the first foreign player to lift the FA Cup as captain. The strike of that match happened with 5 minutes remaining and was perhaps Eric Cantona's most famous goal of his career. A corner from the left side troubled Liverpool keeper David James who attempted to fist the ball out of the box. Instead, the ball was deflected down the middle to the top of the box. Cantona, who had backed away when the corner was sent, lined up and took an extremely athletic twisting volley with his right foot firing the ball through a sea of defenders into the net. The game was won. His redemption was complete after the scandals and lows of a year earlier. Cantona gave a post-match interview saying: "You know that's life. Up and down." Manchester United became the first team to win "the double" twice.
Cantona galvanised the United team to greater success with the likes of Ryan Giggs and youngsters David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville emerging under his influence. As United retained the league in the 1996-97 season, Cantona had won four league titles in five years with United (six in seven years including those won with Marseille and Leeds United), the exception being the 1995 season which he had largely missed through suspension. At the end of an admittedly lacklustre season by his standards, which was fuelled by United's elimination at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, he announced that he was retiring from football at the age of 30 which came as a surprise, and was met with great dismay by United fans. His final competitive game came against West Ham on 11 May 1997, and his final appearance before retiring was five days later on Friday 16 May in a testimonial for David Busst against Coventry City at Highfield Road, in which Eric scored twice in a 2-2 draw. Cantona scored a total of 64 league goals for Manchester United, 11 in domestic cup competitions, and 5 in The Champions League.
In 2004 Cantona was quoted as saying, "I'm so proud the fans still sing my name, but I fear tomorrow they will stop. I fear it because I love it. And everything you love, you fear you will lose."
In 2006 The Sun newspaper reported Cantona as saying that Manchester United had lost their soul and that the current players were a bunch of sheep. The Old Trafford idol reckoned the days of maverick entertainers like himself and George Best were gone and feared the Red Devils were betraying their past by putting out boring, functional teams. However on the Contrary he was interviewed in the Number 7's issue of 'United Magazine' in August 2006 stating he will only come back to Manchester United as 'Number 1' (meaning not return as assistant manager or coach) and would create a team like no other and play the way he thinks football should be played.
Cantona opposed the Malcolm Glazer takeover of Manchester United, and has stated that he will not return to the club, even as a manager, while the Glazer family is in charge. This came as a disappointment to the many United fans who voted him as their choice for United's next manager in survey over the summer of 2000.
However, in July 2008 it was reported in the Sunday Express that Eric has been having second thoughts, with a close friend of Cantona revealing: “Eric does fancy the idea of helping out with the coaching at a club like Manchester United. “He has been enjoying himself appearing in and directing films and being involved in beach soccer but has always wanted to help produce a team in his style and knows that Sir Alex Ferguson would encourage him.”
Despite his vow that he would never return while the Glazers remained in control of Manchester United it appears that he has mellowed over that stance.
The new coach was Michel Platini and one of his first acts was to recall Cantona who was a favourite of his. He claimed that Cantona would be selected as long as he was playing competitive top-class football; Platini had initiated Cantona's move to England to restart his career. France qualified for the 1992 European Football Championship held in Sweden, but failed to win a single game despite the striking partnership of Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin. Platini resigned after the finals to be replaced by Gérard Houllier.
Under Houllier, France then failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. after losing the final game 2:1 at home to Bulgaria when a draw would have sufficed. David Ginola gave away possession in the game which led to Bulgaria's winning goal by Emil Kostadinov. Cantona was reportedly angry with Ginola after the game. Houllier resigned and Aimé Jacquet took over.
Jacquet began to rebuild the national team in preparation for Euro 96 (the 1996 European Championship) and appointed Cantona as the captain. Cantona remained the captain until the Selhurst Park incident in January 1995. The suspension which resulted from this incident also prevented him from playing in international matches.
By the time Cantona's suspension had been completed, he had lost his role as the team's playmaker to another star, Zinédine Zidane, as Jacquet had revamped the squad with some new blood and built it around Zidane. With the inclusion of young new talents such as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and David Trézéguet, Cantona, Papin and Ginola lost their place were never again selected for the French team, thus missing Euro 96. Though there was criticism about Cantona's omission, as he was playing his best football in the FA Premier League, Jacquet himself stated that the team had done well without Cantona, and that he wanted to keep faith with the players who had taken them so far. The decision was vindicated as Les Bleus subsequently won the World Cup in 1998.
To this day, Cantona still harbours resentment for the people at the head of his national team but also admiration for his adopted football country; at Euro 2004 and the 2006 FIFA World Cup, he supported England and not France.
Since retiring from professional football Cantona has appeared in numerous European television advertisements, especially for Nike. Cantona made cameos in two memorable commercials, one starring the Brazilian national team playing football in an airport, and another involving the national teams of both Brazil and Portugal. In a worldwide advertising campaign during the run-up to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, he starred as the organiser of "underground" games (branded by Nike as "Scorpion KO") between football players like Thierry Henry, Hidetoshi Nakata, Francesco Totti, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Luís Figo. In an earlier UK Nike commercial, he appeared playing "amateur" football on Hackney Marshes with other stars including Ian Wright, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler. In a Nike campaign in the advance of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, nearly ten years after his retirement, Cantona appears as the lead spokesman for the "Joga Bonito" organization, an association attempting to eliminate acting and fake play from football. He also starred in an Irish EuroMillions advertisement. He has gained a considerable amount of weight since retiring from professional football, and now sports a beard, rendering him almost unrecognizable from his playing days.
Shortly after his departure from Manchester United, Cantona became captain of the French National Beach Football team. Cantona has continued his interest in beach soccer games in southern Asia and at the Inaugural Kronenbourg beach soccer in 2002, in the city of Brighton. He managed the French Team which won the inaugural FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in 2005 in Rio de Janeiro. He also coached the 2006 FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup French National Team, which finished in third place. In the 2007 world cup Cantona was again successful, taking France to fourth place. The cup came to France for the first time in the 2008 world cup, however Cantona was unable to make the top four after losing to Italy in the quarter finals.
Cantona's achievements in the English League were further marked in 2002 when he was made an Inaugural Inductee of the English Football Hall of Fame.
Cantona was married to Isabelle Ferrer, they have two children. He is now married to actress Rachida Brakni. He has two other close relations that play professional football: his brother Joël Cantona played for Olympique de Marseille, Újpesti TE and Stockport County (and is also now an actor), whilst his nephew Sacha Opinel currently plays for Ebbsfleet United F.C.