In the aftermath of the recent match between Manchester United and Manchester City, Ricardo "Ricky" Vernardi was summoned before the Football Association's disciplinary panel. After a few hearings, Ricky received a 10-match ban from the Football Association under the charges of reckless tackling (3 matches) and use of abusive words (7 matches) that included "a reference to the gender of Nana Mishima." The Argentine then wrote on social media that he was very disappointed by the authorities' decision, but also that he would not appeal it. Nevertheless, the statement issued by the disciplinary panel criticized Ricky for not understanding "the seriousness" of the incident when he was arguing against a lengthy ban. Furthermore, Ricky was fined hefty fees by both the League and his club. To add insult to injury on Ricky's ego, Nana refused whatever apology that came from him.
Back to Manchester United, the team drew 1-1 at Old Trafford against Ajax in what was the final match in the group stages (December 6). The result didn't mean much since United had already earned the top spot in their group. However, people noticed that the United team looked somewhat flat at times because of Kakeru's absence. Fears of disruption in the team's dynamics during matches were confirmed 3 days later when West Bromwich Albion inflicted a first home defeat to Manchester United by a score of 1-2 (December 9). Then United came out of an away fixture in Wales with a 1-1 scoreline against Swansea City (December 12). After that string of poor results, Arsenal managed to lead at the top of the table by 3 points in front of Manchester United.
Since he got injured, Kakeru spent more time at hospitals as part of his clinical affiliation work. Although he was very professional with his patients on the surface, something was eating Kakeru from deep inside. The team's last 3 results also didn't help to cheer Kakeru up.
Wednesday December 13
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
8:14 PM GMT
"So, how was your day in the department?" Noriko asked.
"It was decent. The kids were not too difficult to deal with." Kakeru replied.
"I guess they asked plenty of questions about when you will come back." Noriko said.
"I politely asked them not to; I really didn't want to think about it. But we talked about plenty of other things though."
"It has been 10 days since that incident. What's bothering you?" Nana asked.
"When I look back at what happened back then, I partly blame myself for what happened." Kakeru replied.
"Why? We all know Vernardi was going for blood. He got banned for that, and also for what he said to Nana." Noriko asked.
"It's because I wanted to push the ball past him that I put my right leg in there. I knew he was there, I knew there was a risk, and yet I disregarded it like a fool." Kakeru replied.
"Kakeru..." Nana couldn't find a reply.
"And after the last 3 results, I feel even sillier for risking everything on a random play when I could have avoided the danger. We would have had a better chance to win those matches if I could get at least a few minutes out there. Sometimes, I feel like I let everyone down. Anyway, I'm just ranting. I just need some time off reading my stuff for tomorrow."
Then Nana helped Kakeru going up the stairs to his bedroom.
"I only wish I could at least walk without crutches for a change." Kakeru said.
"That is going to come soon. Please be patient a little longer." Nana replied.
"I have to be."
A few seconds later, Nana left Kakeru working alone. Back downstairs to the living room, Nana talked with Noriko about her concerns.
"Perhaps I'm worried over nothing if it is a normal part of the psychological recovery process, but I must admit I really don't like to see Kakeru like that. The last time he saw a nasty injury on the pitch from such a close range, he was the one who inflicted it. We all know what happened after that." Nana said.
"But Kakeru was only a child back then. Am I right?" Noriko asked.
"Yeah, he was. I know Kakeru has become stronger and more confident over the years, but he has always been a very sensitive person. One doesn't totally shake off an old personality."
"Mmm, I really wouldn't like to see him with that mindset by the time he starts his rehab work at Carrington supposedly next week. So what's the plan?" Noriko asked.
"Doc McNally told me to make appointments with the sports psychologist if Kakeru needs his help. However, I feel Kakeru needs to talk with someone else... an ex-player who probably felt he let his teammates down because of an injury or an incident. Have a clue on who?"
"Good question, Nana. I'm not sure who to think about in particular."
"There has to be someone with lots of experiences to share. Kakeru could get some good advice."
"Well, there's Sir Bobby Charlton, who is a survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster, and who has done it all. He is still around the club, but I'm not exactly sure what it would look like to have Sir Bobby and Kakeru talking together, separated by 2 generations." Noriko said.
"No, you're right. That would be awkward. Who else is there?”
"Well, there are former players like Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister, and Andy Cole who stick around with the club because they work for MUTV. However, I can't tell exactly what they would say since I don't know that much about them personally." Noriko said.
"No... I think we need someone who can get close to players of our generation, someone charismatic, colorful, and... what about that superstar from the 1990s who became an actor?" Nana asked.
"The King? I never met him, but he's quite an amazing guy based on all videos I saw about him. He can talk about his past experiences and about life in general, and you wouldn't be bored. He's my father's favorite player." Noriko replied.
"I'll give it a shot then."
"How will you reach him though, Nana?"
"When I go to Carrington tomorrow, I will ask the communications people at the club to help me getting in touch with him."
"Will you just ask for his advice?" Noriko asked.
"I will try to get Kakeru to meet him in person if that's possible." Nana replied. "Where does the King live these days?"
"In Marseille, I think. But I'm sure he would like to go back to Manchester if you make a good case to him." Noriko finished.
Saturday December 16
Aon Training Complex, Carrington, UK
10:30 AM GMT
On that Saturday morning, Nana drove Kakeru towards Carrington. As the team's next match was set to be played in 2 days, players were only supposed to do optional training at the most. However, Kakeru didn't know why he had to come to Carrington. Nevertheless, Nana convinced Kakeru to go with her for this particular day.
"So, what is this about?" Kakeru asked.
"I can't tell you about it now. But trust me: it's a surprise." Nana replied.
"I hope it's not the sports psychologist. But... what am I talking about? The psychologist doesn't work on weekends."
"There will be some psychology, but a unique kind of psychology though. You can expect philosophy as well, Kakeru."
"Philosophy? What for?"
"You'll see, Kakeru." Nana finished.
A few minutes later, Kakeru and Nana moved their way through the main entrance, through the block, and finally on the edge of one of the training pitches.
"So here we are. What's next on the program?" Kakeru asked, standing with a crutch in each hand.
"He must be here any minute now." Nana said.
"I'm glad you finally came." a voice said behind Kakeru and Nana.
"Ah, here you are." Nana greeted the mystery guest.
When Kakeru turned back, he finally saw the mystery guest. The stocky man in his early 50s was around 188 cm (6 ft 2) tall, sporting a greyish beard, and dark hair. After a few seconds, Kakeru finally recognized the man that is affectionately nicknamed by Manchester United fans as "King Eric."
"What the... Are you Eric Cantona?" Kakeru asked.
"Le seul et l'unique (The one and only), yes." Eric Cantona replied with his distinctive French accent.
"I... I don't know what to say, really. I heard so many great stories about you from the older folks who work here in Carrington. I also saw those old videos of your goals and tricks after people told me about you. You really are a Legend." Kakeru said.
"Well, thank you."
"So what brings you to Carrington today?" Kakeru asked.
"Tu ne lui as pas dit? (You haven't told him?)" the Frenchman then asked Nana.
"Je voulais garder la surprise (I wanted to keep it a surprise)."
"Ah, OK." Eric Cantona replied to Nana before he turned towards Kakeru. "Nana called me on Thursday, and told me that you probably wanted some advice."
"Since I made the travel, I would really enjoy having a talk with you."
"I'll take a chance. Let's talk, M. Cantona." Kakeru said.
"I saw what happened in the Manchester derby. That was a nasty tackle, no doubt. However, I was told that you put some blame on yourself. Why do you think like that?"
Kakeru looked for a few seconds at Nana, who then nodded her approval in reply.
"It's because I took one unnecessary risk on a routine play. I knew the defender was there, I knew there was a risk I would get hurt, and yet I went in there without protecting myself. What an idiot I am." Kakeru said.
"Celui qui anticipe tous les dangers ne prendra jamais la mer." Eric Cantona pulled out one of his many philosophical quotes in French, in a typical Marseille accent.
"What does that mean?" Kakeru asked.
"He that forecasts all perils will never sail the seas." Eric Cantona replied. "If you think about the risks so much that you don't take them, you wouldn't be able to enjoy football at all. You started enjoying football because you love going into the unknown, having the chance to write the script yourself. Right?"
"I guess you're right. Did you always take risks in your playing career, and then after that?"
"It depends what you consider to be a risk. For me, life as a whole is all about taking risks. Being spontaneous and creative is an uncalculated risk in itself. That's why I talk about doing stuff like painting, acting, or playing on a football pitch. It's about having fun just like when we used to be kids. There is no better feeling for anyone than when you do something that even surprises yourself."
"I sure know that feeling about surprising myself. But tell me: was there a time when you took a risk and then regretted taking it? Would things have been different if you didn't take that risk?" Kakeru asked.
'This is going to be interesting now.' Nana thought.
"Sometimes, things don't work the way we want. However, you must not regret... because you wouldn't be able to think about how to get through if you start having regrets." Eric Cantona replied. "You can recognize it was a mistake, but don't regret. That's how I think of what I did at Crystal Palace."
"What happened back then?" Kakeru asked.
"Well..." the Frenchman started telling his story.
Flashback – January 25, 1995.
Crystal Palace F.C. vs. Manchester United.
Selhurst Park, London, UK
Knowing that Eric Cantona was United's best player, Crystal Palace's main approach was to go hard on him with several tackles. Defender Richard Shaw was the player who marked the Frenchman tightly in that match. After several clashes with Palace defenders, one altercation too many took place in the second half. As Cantona ran forward, Richard Shaw grabbed his shirt. The Frenchman then retaliated with a kick.
Clive Tyldesley: Cantona trying to get on his way, and a little kick at Shaw there in frustration. And the linesman had a very, very good view of it.
As the Palace players wanted a piece of Cantona while the United players came to defend their talisman, the crowd roared in expectation of what would come next.
Clive Tyldesley: Now temperatures rising, and there comes the red card. Here's your morning headline: Eric Cantona. Four times he walked last season... Three times he walked last season, once more in a preseason game. And now for the fifth time in his Manchester United career, Eric Cantona is sent off.
Eric Cantona then walked off the pitch and on his way towards the tunnel, escorted by the Manchester United kit man. Everything appeared to be normal... until a Crystal Palace supporter ran down 11 rows of stairs to get the closest he could be to the Frenchman.
"**** off back to France, you French mother******!" the supporter shouted.
Those infamous words were the straws that broke the camel's back. Despite the kit man's best efforts to prevent an incident, the Frenchman launched a kung-fu style kick to the supporter's chest. A series of punches was then thrown by Eric Cantona as well.
Clive Tyldesley: Oh, what's going on here? Cantona is getting involved with some supporters. Oh, this is outrageous.
Norman Davies, the Manchester United kit man at the time, then got help from a steward and from goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel to pull Eric Cantona away and back towards the tunnel. Meanwhile, the crazy supporter stood with his arms across to claim his innocence.
Clive Tyldesley: It's got wildly out of hand. And once more, Eric Cantona is the man at the center of a dramatic controversy.
As all remaining Manchester United players came to confront the crazy supporter, stewards, and police officers had to stand between the belligerent parties to prevent a full-scale brawl.
In the aftermath of the incident, Eric Cantona received disciplinary action from his club and from the Football Association, faced a criminal charge of assault, was given a 2-week prison sentence, then saw the prison sentence overturned into 120 hours of community service after an appeal, and finally got banned from all football activities for both club and country during 9 months.
"If there was any regret, it would be that I didn't punch the hooligan strong enough."
Then Kakeru and Nana laughed at the last part Eric Cantona just said.
"I guess it felt good just for that moment." Nana said.
"It felt good, but it ended up being a mistake time because Manchester United ended up losing the title and the FA Cup final while I was banned for 9 months. That was a time when I felt I let my teammates down."
"It must have been tough on you when you got banned. How did you keep yourself going during the ban?" Kakeru asked.
"I had to work hard, dig deep inside. I needed something to fill me up when I was on my own, something to aim for." the Frenchman replied. "Nana told me how much she and you enjoy learning to become doctors. You two are lucky to already have something outside of football. In my day, I had to look for something new to keep going."
"Which was..." Nana said.
"I learned to play trumpet."
"An artist at heart, I see." Kakeru said.
"As to the other question about whether things would have been different if I didn't take that risk, maybe. We'll never know. Still, in French, there is something we call a 'merveilleux malheur'."
"What does that mean?" Kakeru asked.
"Sometimes there's something bad that happens to you, but you use it. And by using it, you become better than how you would take on life if it didn't happen. For me, I could have quit Manchester United. But instead, I chose to learn how to control my anger, become more mature, and be more responsible. With the many young players coming through the academy like Beckham, Scholes, Butt, and the Nevilles, it was worth it. At the end of the following season, we won the double – League and FA Cup."
"How could I use my injury to make it a... well, just as you said?" Kakeru asked.
"You can learn how to make yourself less vulnerable the next time you do a similar play. You become stronger, you are not afraid of going in there, and you know what to do. There is always a risk, but without danger you cannot get beyond danger." Eric Cantona replied.
"You're right. Sometimes, I forget how dangerous my path has been before I got here." Kakeru said.
"Your situation is not the worst, trust me. You pay the price of one mistake only for one month, but nobody will ever say you let your teammates down. Never. I let my teammates down, and paid the price of my mistake for 9 months." Eric Cantona said. "What matters is how you come back. Make sure people will see a better player when you come back."
"I... I will." Kakeru said.
"There is also one last thing that is very important both in football and in life: On a toujours plus de choix qu'on le pense."
"I guess I might have to learn French one day if I want to enjoy our conversations more than I already do." Kakeru said with a smile.
"We always have more choices than we think. More possibilities. Different possibilities. Different things. You try something. If it doesn't work, then try something else always. In the end, something will work out well, and you may even surprise yourself." Eric Cantona replied.
"I promise to remember those words." Kakeru said.
"I guess I can leave you two together for now. I will get warmed up to take some free kicks." Nana said.
Nana then walked inside the training center. While Kakeru and Eric Cantona continued talking about other things and interests in life, Nana got changed, warmed up in the gym, and then performed her stretching routine outside before taking out the free kick wall dummies and a bag full of footballs. As Nana took her shots for several minutes, Kakeru and the Frenchman turned their attention towards her.
"She is special, your fiancée. I like this woman." Eric Cantona said.
"What would I do without her? I can't imagine anyone else being able to understand me as much as she does, even when I try pretending something else." Kakeru said.
"Whether it's about just you two or about a team with 11 players, same principles apply, you know. You have to trust your teammates. Always. If not, we are lost." Eric Cantona replied.
'I agree. She is the perfect teammate.' Kakeru thought.
At that moment, a footballer stepped forward with his training kit on. The man, 195 cm (6 ft 5) tall, was sporting a little beard and a mustache while his hair was tied as a bun. He was still working to regain fitness after a serious knee injury ended his season months ago. Nevertheless, he was on the verge of being fit enough as a substitute before looking to become available again as a potential starter. The man was none other than the Swedish striker and one of the best players of his generation, Zlatan Ibrahimović.
"Hi, Knight!" Zlatan greeted Kakeru.
"I didn't expect to see you here. What brings you in Carrington today?" Zlatan asked.
"Nana came here to train her free kicks while she set me up for a philosophical conversation with this man here." Kakeru replied.
"Eric Cantona, it's a pleasure to meet you at last." Zlatan said.
"All pleasure is mine, Zlatan." Eric Cantona shook hands with Zlatan.
"How is training today, Ibra?" Kakeru asked.
"It's great. I've been doing extra work with the lads out there, but I want to work with Nana on her indirect free kicks." Zlatan replied.
"I really can't wait to see you in the squad soon."
"Don't worry, Knight. I have been waiting for almost 8 months now, and I will enjoy every minute I'll get out there." Zlatan said.
Then Nana came back from her shooting practice.
"Hi there, Ibra." Nana said.
"Think you have time for practicing indirect free kicks?" Zlatan asked. "I'll be the target man."
"Sure! That would work well for both of us." Nana replied.
For a few minutes, Nana practiced shooting indirect free kicks while Zlatan stood at the end of the shots in order to practice deflections on goal from such situations. After Nana finished training with Zlatan, she walked back to Kakeru and Eric Cantona.
"I can really see why Alex Ferguson had faith in you a few years ago. You have the skills and the right attitude to play at this club." the Frenchman said.
"Thanks. I try to make the most of it." Nana replied.
"I read somewhere that your first name means 'seven' in Japanese. Am I right?"
"It's one way to pronounce 'seven', yes." Nana said.
"I see. The number 7 fits you well at Manchester United." Eric Cantona said.
"By the time I'll be done playing, I only hope people will remember me for wearing it as proudly as Cristiano Ronaldo did before he left many years ago." Nana replied.
"Looks like you're on the right path so far. There can be only one king in Manchester... me, but I never said there could not be a queen. If you become the queen of football in Manchester someday, then the number 7 will rightfully be yours forever."
"Well, I'm flattered." Nana said.
"So what are you doing for the rest of your time in Manchester, M. Cantona?" Kakeru asked.
"I thought of paying a visit to my old Boss, Alex Ferguson, in the afternoon. Other than that, I don't have anything planned before flying back to France tomorrow."
"There's a very good friend of mine who would love to meet you. She was a little too young to see you play back in the days, but her father was a huge fan of yours." Nana said.
"We can arrange something." the Frenchman said.
"You think what I'm thinking?" Kakeru asked Nana.
"This is going to be great." Kakeru finished.
West Didsbury, Manchester, UK
6:14 PM GMT
In the early evening, Noriko was the last one to come home after some shopping with Yusuke, Kakeru and Nana were already at the apartment. Since Noriko knew about Eric Cantona's presence at Carrington a couple of days in advance, that was the first thing that came in the discussion, in the kitchen.
"So how was the meeting with King Eric?" Noriko asked.
"It went really well. We talked about some of his life and career experiences, about philosophy, etc." Kakeru replied.
"As for me, he said that the number 7 fits me well at United." Nana added her own reply.
"It sure does." Noriko said.
"That sounds interesting, Kakeru. Did he give you something particular of an advice?" Yusuke asked.
"There were a few, but the biggest one was when he said that the thing that matters is how I will come back. It's about coming back even stronger." Kakeru replied.
"We can acknowledge some actions as mistakes, but never let regrets take too much space." Nana added before her smartphone vibrated, urging her to leave for a few seconds. "Sorry, guys. I have to reply."
"That's really good advice, Kakeru. What will you do now?" Noriko asked.
"Stay positive and focus on coming back stronger. My sensitive nature sometimes pushes me to feel bad about a lot of things, but I won't let myself stray on that path after what he said. He told me how he felt as if he let his teammates down while he was banned for 9 months. My situation is nothing compared to what he went through in 1995." Kakeru replied.
"Spot on. With a good mentality, it will be easier for you to get through rehab." Noriko said.
"What did Cantona do exactly to get that ban?" Yusuke asked.
"He kicked and punched a xenophobic hooligan after getting sent off in a match." Noriko replied to the question.
"Ouch! That's extreme."
"In my opinion, that pig of a hooligan deserved it anyway. He was found guilty many years later of punching the coach of his son's team, in a youth football match. Can you believe that?" Noriko said.
A few seconds later, Nana came back into the kitchen.
"Well, I didn't expect someone to come and visit us tonight. But... he said he was available to have a moment with us." Nana said.
At that moment, someone opened the kitchen's door. Noriko and Yusuke were then quite pleasantly surprised when they recognized Eric Cantona as the guest who just came in. Noriko even laughed on top of being surprised.
"So the two of them are our friends: Noriko and Yusuke." Nana made the introductions. "This is Eric Cantona."
"Nice to meet you, M. Cantona." Yusuke shook hands with the Frenchman.
"Nice to meet you, M. Saeki."
"Fantastic! Nice to meet you. It's an absolute pleasure to meet you." Noriko also shook hands with Eric Cantona.
"My pleasure as well."
"Monsieur Cantona in our kitchen... wow! I was too young when you played for United, so I couldn't have live memories of your time. Still, my father was one of your biggest fans back in the days. He used to wear the French beret and carry the French flag around when he went to see you play at Old Trafford. He told me lots of stories about you, showed me all the videos of your goals, passes, and tricks. You still are his favorite player." Noriko said.
"Well, I'm really honored. Nana Mishima told me a little about you and your father. It's great to see the passion being passed into young women as well as with young men." Eric Cantona replied.
"Thanks. Speaking of passion, I think many of the United supporters at the derby were singing something that sounded close to what people used to sing for you. That was outside of the Etihad Stadium after the match." Noriko replied before she browsed for the video she recorded 13 days ago on her smartphone.
"Let's look and listen to that." Yusuke said.
When Noriko played the video, what was then heard was the crowd chanting "OOH-AH, NANA MISHIMA" 4 times under a specific tune.
"It's the same tune as in 'Ooh-Ah, Eric Cantona'." Noriko said.
"You're right, Noriko." Kakeru replied.
"Being the one who is named king by the supporters of Manchester United, I approve. People adore you, Nana Mishima. You're on the right path to become the queen of Manchester." Eric Cantona said to Nana, who then blushed in embarrassment.
"Still, whenever I think about what happened in 1995, I have to say that's quite a script I would never have imagined. You were close of quitting Manchester United, then Fergie went to Paris to meet you and convince you to stay, then you worked hard, and you became the leader of the team for good... that's a great story about going against all the odds, really." Noriko said.
"Un merveilleux malheur. A very bad thing happens and then you use it to find a way to become a much better and happier person." Eric Cantona said.
"Merveilleux malheur." Kakeru and Nana said altogether.
"Would you like to stay with us for dinner? We would really appreciate if you are our guest so we can hear a few more stories." Noriko said.
"Certes (Certainly). It would be my pleasure. The hotel can wait for a few hours." Eric Cantona replied.
Then the 5 people spent the evening sharing all kinds of stories and anecdotes about football and about life in general. It was a very good time for the 4 Japanese youngsters who had the privilege of meeting the colorful character that is Eric Cantona before his return to France.
Sunday December 17
11:03 AM GMT
On the following day, Nana and Yusuke had their bags ready as they prepared to join the team at a specific location later in the day. After that, the team would take a 2.5-hour bus drive towards the city of Leicester, in the East Midlands. Meanwhile, Kakeru was set to stay home in West Didsbury and watch the match on television with Noriko on Monday night. Before Nana and Yusuke left on their way out, they had one last talk with Kakeru and Noriko.
"This is going to a tough game, but I know we can get a result out there." Kakeru said.
"Yeah, I expect Leicester City to put up a fight as they often do. Still, there's nothing we can't do out there to win the match. We have to win this now that Arsenal won their game yesterday." Nana replied.
"How do you feel, Yusuke?"
"I'm quite excited, Kakeru. I used to play on the same side as Ukyo and Takajo-san at Kamakura High School for one year, and then with the National Team. It will be the first time I play against them. I expect them to be up for the challenge as well."
"Just make sure to play your game with the same intensity. Everything will be fine." Noriko said.
"Thanks, Noriko." Yusuke replied before he kissed her.
Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana had one last talk.
"Ukyo Sera will try to give you a hard time out there. Be careful of what he might do to take you out of your game." Kakeru said.
"I will, Kakeru. I have seen worse with players who tried to take me out of the game." Nana replied.
"Well, I will see you when you come back then."
"See you later, Kakeru." Nana replied. Then she pushed herself up to kiss Kakeru.
"We're off now!" Nana and Yusuke said altogether as they turned on their heels, and got on the move towards their respective vehicles.
'Good luck, Seven.' Kakeru thought.
"Trust your teammates, always. It will be fine, you'll see." Noriko said.
"Of course." Kakeru replied. "It's just that I feel the excitement as if I were about to play against the former Kamakura High duo myself."
"We'll see tomorrow night."
"I'm touching wood for this one, Noriko." Kakeru finished.