Eric Cantona says Mario Balotelli should be held up as an "example" to all of Italy, a country the Frenchman believes is only now adequately addressing the issue of immigration.
Balotelli was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents but was placed into foster care at the age of 3 and subsequently raised by an Italian couple.
Despite facing racism at regular intervals during his career, he has established himself as one of the country's star players, a feat Cantona feels should be used in Italy's attempts to promote diversity and multiculturalism within the country.
"[Balotelli is] a great player," the former France international said. "You can see his talent in the goals he scores. But he also has a lot of mental strength to support the enormous media pressure. He's an example for a country that is starting only now to deal with immigration. All of this is what makes him special."
Cantona, of course, has long been labeled as one of the game's great mavericks, so it was hardly surprising that he was chosen to present and narrate a five-part documentary called "Football Rebels."
However, the forward-turned-actor says that he does not warrant comparison with the subjects of the production, Carlos Caszely, Socrates, Predrag Pasic, Didier Drogba and Rachid Mekloufi, men he believes define the true meaning of the word "rebel."
"It's not enough to be covered in tattoos and put gel in your hair to be a rebel," he said. "Unfortunately, it means finding yourself in extreme situations. The people in this documentary risked their lives and their careers to defend, values, ideas, freedom. We instead cannot complain about anything.
"We are nothing compared to the Chilean Caszely, whose mother was tortured because he opposed a dictator, just as Socrates did in Brazil. Or the Bosnian Pasic, who remained in Sarajevo to teach football to kids [while the city was] under bombardment. Or Drogba, who opposed the war in Cote d'Ivoire. Or Mekloufi, who renounced France to found the nation of Algerian rebels."
Cantona also had his say on the contentious issue of players' wages. Some find the money being paid to top players excessive but the Manchester United icon counters, "There are those crazy Qataris to pay it. We [in France] should roll out the red carpet seeing as they pay 75 percent tax. That's money that finishes in the hands of the state. The [economic] crisis is a result of unscrupulous policies, not the fault of footballers."
Furthermore, Cantona argued that many players, such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are driven solely by their love of the game.
"Messi and Ronaldo transmit the joy of the game," he said. "Watching them, you understand that, like me years ago, that they would also pay to to play the game."
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