Patrick Vieira won the ball and headed it to Ray Parlour. The ‘Romford Pele’ took a look up and played the ball first time to Nicolas Anelka as he broke through the offside trap. Anelka chested it, took the ball in his stride, ran through on goal and put the ball past Shay Given. In that moment, he has sealed Arsenal’s double of the FA Cup and League in Arsene Wenger’s first full season in English football. As the fresh faced Frenchman runs to the corner flag to celebrate and mouth something to the camera, it’s evident he’s all on his own. None of his teammates join him in celebrating. It’s a telling image.
Ian Wright, the ex Arsenal striker made an interesting point in a
television interview filmed for the FA Cup final “I remember him (Arsene
Wenger) saying I don’t think Nicolas Anelka loves the game as much as
he should love the game”. Anelka is famed for being a sullen character
as embodied by the fact that his nickname at Arsenal was “Le Sulk”. The
journalist, Richard Williams speaks of being commissioned to take a trip
to Paris to find an answer as to why the teenage striker who had scored
a first half hat trick in a game against Leicester looked like it was
the end of the world as he knew it. Anelka is one of those types who
view football as nothing other than a job: an opportunity for him to
transcend from the lower to upper class imposed from his growing up in
the immigrant infested banlieues of Paris.
Anelka was lucky and unlucky in a sense to be born during France’s
Golden Generation. He was born two years after Thierry Henry (France’s
record goalscorer) and the also prolific David Trezeguet. Anelka had
been been in the class directly below them at Clairefontaine
(The French national academy). The three of them were part of the French
U21 team at the 1997 World Championship. Throw Sidney Govou and Louis
Saha who were also born around the same time into the mix and it is
evident the French were not lacking. Anelka, supposedly the most highly
rated. In 1999, after he scored a brace against England at Wembley,
Didier Deschamps declared “We have our Ronaldo”. France’s 1998 World Cup
win had been predicated on a non scoring striker: Stéphane Guivarc’h .
Their highest goal scorer; a winger. Anelka had been the first to move
outside France of the lot hinting at how highly regarded he was and
becoming the poster boy for Arsene Wenger’s youth policy in the process.
However, that had not been enough to win him a place in the World Cup
winning squad. Perhaps, a stage too soon. As his friends won the World
Cup on home soil that summer, Anelka watched on.
It is here, sense must be made of the trajectory of Anelka’s career.
Why did he leave Paris Saint Germain for Arsenal so early on? This
wasn’t in the age where the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique were
being ‘kidnapped’ from La Masia after all. Why did he spend
only two years at Arsenal before moving to Real Madrid? Why did he spend
just a year at Real Madrid before ending up back at PSG on loan?
If you ask Laurent Perpere, the PSG President when Anelka left, he
would say “In football the people who advise players are terribly
important and I feel that although Nicolas is perfectly straight, he
finds he’s the victim of circumstances that are somehow larger than his
desire to play football, which is probably very sincere”. If you ask
David Dein, the ex Arsenal vice chairman under whose helm Anelka
threatened to change the legal implications of the football contract, he
would speak of people cut from the “wrong, illegal and immoral cloth”
who “regard players as a lump of meat”.
The answers to this question: Claude and Didier Anelka. As is wont to
happen with those from deprived backgrounds when one of their own shows
signs of talent or promise, the rest become entourage members without
portfolio. In Anelka’s case, his big brothers played this part. His move
to Arsenal had been made possible by a legal loophole: At the time, the
law in France stipulated that a young player would have to sign his
first senior contract with the team he had represented as a Junior.
However, this didn’t apply to foreign clubs so Arsenal were able to
bypass it and pay as little as £500,000. This obviously left a sour
taste with the Parisians who felt Claude and Didier had engineered the
move. When he joined Arsenal, the Anelka brothers were seen as the
blight on his time in North London: he made no effort to learn the
language or relate with fans and teammates. He picked fights with Marc
Overmars and spent most of his time holed up in an Edgware flat with
them. Claude and Didier, effectively enabled his anti socialism. When
compared with the legacies of his fellow Frenchmen: Gilles Grimandi,
Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Manu Petit and Patrick Vieira, it’s even
more galling. Vieira’s image is plastered outside the Emirates, Henry
marks his appearance in statue form. Pires is an Ambassador for the club
and still trains at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground. Grimandi
plays an important scouting role scouring France for fresh talent. It
can’t be said that any of these players were infinitely more talented
than Anelka, but they were willing to do what he wouldn’t: Familiarize
themselves with the Arsenal ethos. The Anelka brothers did succeed in
one regard: They made their brother the most cumulatively expensive
player in the history of the game. On the other hand, it is rare to hear
anyone who has anything good to say about them. When Nicolas moved to
Istanbul and gained a more religious grounding, their influence
diminished. Claude Anelka, even managed to snag himself a role as a
Manager and prime position on any future worst Football Managers list.
In 2004, he was appointed Manager of the Scottish lower league side,
Raith Rovers. His record? 8 games managed, 1 drawn, 7 lost. And how did
he earn this job? By making a six figure “investment” into the club. The
fact that he held talks with Queen’sPark Rangers and Barnet over the
same terms pierces the veil for what this is: A bribe to poor clubs to
hand a power hungry and poorly qualified man the opportunity to fulfill
his Football Manager fantasy.
The move to Madrid was protracted as his brothers were hell bent on
seeing him move despite there being no obvious need for him to. Arsenal
obviously dug their heels in. Arsenal were successful at the time and he
was their main striker, having pushed then record goalscorer Ian Wright
out of the way. He hadn’t long shed his teenage years so it is not
outrageous to suggest that he would have improved and earned himself a
big move anyway. Those negotiations are famed for the vitriol that
accompanied them. When he popped up in Madrid, Anelka didn’t pass up the
opportunity to take some shots at his old club. He said “I’ve come here
because Real Madrid is a much bigger and more important club than
Arsenal”. Kindly file in the “Stating the Obvious” cabinet. He then went
on to complain about the British press for the way in which he was
perceived. Whilst there might be some displeasure at the way it was
achieved, it is unlikely Wenger and Dein regret selling. They made a £20
million plus profit which went towards buying Thierry Henry and
building a new training ground.
Anelka’s time at Real would prove to be a categorical failure. On his
first day there, the Cameroonian duo of Geremi and Samuel Eto’o warned
“Some senior players have already gone to the President to ask why
you’ve been signed when Fernando Morientes is already here”. When the
man who bought him, the Welsh legend John Toshack was fired he should
have known the end was nigh. Vicente del Bosque found him difficult to
handle and when he skipped training as a protest mechanism (something it
is believed his brothers put him up to), he earned himself a 45 day ban
with no one particularly sympathetic to his plight. In no time, he was
sent back on loan to his boyhood club.
On the international stage, the greatest impact Anelka made was at
the 2010 World Cup when he allegedly said to French coach, Raymond
Domenech “Go get fucked up the arse, you dirty son of a whore”. He was
sent home in disgrace and this precipitated the meltdown of the French
side with the players taking his side and going on strike. At Chelsea,
he fell out with Andre Villas Boas and was made to train with the kids.
(In fairness, the Portuguese has a propensity to alienate star players
so that says less about Anelka than Villas Boas). His last club, West
Bromwich Albion terminated his contract when he performed the anti
Semitic gesture La Quenelle in solidarity with a famously tasteless comic friend.
Anelka is the original football nomad. The list of clubs he has
played for Post 2000 include: PSG (again), Liverpool, Manchester City,
Fenerbahce, Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea, Shanghai Shenhua, Juventus and
West Bromwich Albion. He has spent time at every club to finish in last
season’s top 4 but his career is still relatively unfulfilled. He never
surpassed the 17 goals he scored in his last season at Arsenal until
2009 when he scored 19 for Chelsea. A full decade later. Anelka is one
of those players who despite being high profile would be forgotten as
soon as they leave the game. He never had those iconic moments of genius
that his peers did: Thierry Henry would be remembered for some amazing
goals against Tottenham and Liverpool and being one of the most prolific
strikers in the Premier League era. Didier Drogba left Chelsea after
leading them to a Champions League victory. In 2008′s final in Moscow,
Nico missed the decisive penalty. In 2000 when France won the European
championship, Pires (Anelka’s friend) laid the ball to Trezeguet for the
winning goal. Anelka watched from the bench. He has played for some of
the biggest clubs in the world and is nothing other than a forgettable
footnote in their collective history. He’s won almost everything there
is but is viewed as one of the more underwhelming players of his age.
His legacy is odious to say the least and beneath that air of cool
nonchalance and indifference must lie some regret.
Originally published by Culture Custodian