There’s an old saying that everything that can be interpreted can also, by design, be misinterpreted. Which camp the oft-besieged figure of striker Nicolas Anelka falls into is a matter of opinion.
Throughout his career, the mercurial Frenchman has specialised in two things. The first is apparently polarising almost everyone he comes into contact with: managers, team-mates, high-ranking football officials. The second is displaying a streak in front of goal so prolific that, were it not for his troubled image, would place him within the upper echelons of the greatest attacking talents that the game has ever seen.
Anelka, like so many French stars of his generation and ones past, endured a loving yet potentially fractious childhood. The son of immigrants, Anelka grew up in the Parisian suburb of Trappes, an economically challenged area that he has acknowledged as not being “the loveliest of places.” His steadfast refusal to credit his upbringing – free from the trappings of fame and fortune he would soon come to enjoy – as providing any motivation betrays his unwavering belief in his own natural ability, even at a young age.
Anelka had begun his career in the youth ranks of Paris Saint-Germain, and even in one of French football’s most storied and productive academies, he had shone. His signing for Arsenal in 1997, aged just 17, for £500,000 set the tone for the Gunners’ transfer policy under Arsène Wenger for the next decade-and-a-half. Given the impact he had at Highbury, it’s hardly a surprise that Wenger has continued to persevere with the approach.
His first full season in England saw the emergence of a startling talent as he scored six times and immediately established himself as a player who fit in well with Wenger’s philosophy of free-flowing football. For Anelka, no occasion was too big, no opponent too daunting, as Arsenal won a domestic league and cup double. The next season burnished his reputation further, establishing Anelka as a true star as he finished the campaign as the club’s top scorer, firmly taking up the mantle from all-time top goalscorer Ian Wright, who he had displaced the previous season.
However, the media often cannot resist constructing a narrative around a player to make their accounts more compelling, and the English media is guiltier of this than any other. Before his breakout season had even ended, rumours were rampant that Anelka was angling after a move from Highbury, with his most likely destination Marseille.
The tabloids approached a crossroads, faced with the decision to portray Anelka as a simple 18-year-old who was missing the solid family unit and the familiarities of home in an intimidating new city, or as a sullen, sulking, spoilt footballer who embodied everything wrong with the growing wealth in the Premier League. They chose the latter.
For the rest of his career, while Thierry Henry came to be associated with va-va-voom cool and Zinedine Zidane with swashbuckling acts of remarkable genius, Anelka became the enfant terrible of French football, an undeniable talent squandered by a disposition that saw him christened “Le Incredible Sulk.”
A highly publicised move to Real Madrid failed to truly showcase his talent, with his signing criticised internally by several of the team’s established Spanish stars due to the Frenchman’s arrival being perceived as a slight against Fernando Morientes.
His time at the Bernabéu is best remembered for him scoring in both legs of the club’s Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich, as well as his first truly public spat with a club’s hierarchy. Anelka was suspended for 45 days after criticising the team and his team-mates, who he claimed treated him “like a dog”. Anelka’s words may have demonstrated a penchant for the hyperbolic but his marginal role and the hostility of certain team-mates hardly squared with the club record £23 million that Real had paid for him.
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Read | Thierry Henry: the striking blueprint
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The next two seasons saw a failed homecoming at PSG. Anelka said of his time in Paris: “It was supposed to be a new start, with lots of players from the suburbs. It didn’t work because they changed the coach after just a few months. The policy for young players is why I went back, why I signed. Three months later, they changed the policy and changed all the players – so it was ridiculous.”
Following an ultimately unsuccessful bid to join Liverpool after a productive loan spell, Anelka’s failure to find a home during the opening salvo of his career furnished the tabloids with countless column inches on his unfulfilled potential and gave them another string to their bow with which to pillar him, accusing him of being a mercenary. The fact he simply hadn’t found a club that could keep their initial promises to him – of success combined with Anelka as the team’s attacking focal point – was an inconvenient truth that the media were all too happy to overlook.
That he eventually found a home as a relatively big fish in a small pond isn’t particularly surprising. At pre-Mansour Manchester City, Anelka thrived in a team of limited ability but plenty of industry that was all too happy to make him the main man. The same was true for his next move, to Turkish giants Fenerbahçe, that many took to mean the ultimate extinguishing of his ambition to be a major player in one of Europe’s biggest leagues.
His career renaissance in England began in somewhat unlikely surroundings, mere miles from where he had last graced a British football field. Bolton Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium had played host to numerous luminaries over the previous seasons – Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Fernando Hierro to name a few – but the club were typically a last port of call for ageing stars, not the place for a 28-year-old attempting to prove himself.
Eleven league outings without a goal had the full venom of the British press ready to be unleashed, but he found his footing in spectacular fashion against former club Arsenal. Such was his form over the next season-and-a-half that a move to Chelsea for nearly double what Sam Allardyce’s side had paid had a sense of inevitability.
Even more remarkably, Anelka’s form in the Premier League, under the most intense microscope of all, forced him back into the reckoning for the French national team, with whom he’d endured a tumultuous relationship since victory in Euro 2000.
Despite national team failure in Euro 2008 and missing the decisive penalty in the shootout in the 2008 Champions League final, Anelka’s time at Chelsea was the success that his career had always threatened to produce. He once again eschewed the image of being a moody prima donna, forming a lethal partnership with Didier Drogba, winning the Golden Boot and replicating the league and FA Cup double he’d won over 10 years earlier with Arsenal.
Anelka hasn’t been entirely innocent throughout his career. It takes two to tango, and just as the media have revelled in building him up only to knock him down, so has Anelka given them plenty of ammunition.
His international retirement was effectively forced after he played a key role in the player revolt at the 2010 World Cup, allegedly verbally haranguing coach Raymond Domenech. His time in English football came to a close under a cloud when he was accused of making an anti-semitic gesture after scoring for West Bromwich Albion. Two lucrative playing spells out East, at Shanghai Shenhua and Mumbai FC, did little to combat his image of a mercenary. The ever-popular Didier Drogba’s signing for the Chinese club mere months after Anelka failed to garner quite the same response in the British press.
Some players have a romantic, rebellious image thrust upon them while others are cast in the role of the sullen outcast for whom unimaginable fame and wealth apparently bring nothing but gloom. Which category Nicolas Anelka falls into is a matter of opinion, an opinion the media made up long ago. As for Anelka himself, he’ll probably be content to let his what he achieved on the pitch do the talking.
By Matt Clough. Follow @MattJClough