Has there ever been a more awkward individual than Nicolas Anelka? Awkward to manage, to classify, to appreciate and to play against? Talent – it’s there in bucketloads, but this is a man that never settles in one place very long and attracts publicity almost as much as David Beckham. The difference is, while Beckham carefully stage-manages his life, Anelka seems to have a self-destructive streak that may finally end his playing career.
Whether or not the “quenelle” salute was meant to be a symbolic gesture, it was clumsy. I was actually at the game in question, and nobody noticed it. The complaint came from France and since then, well, it’s been back page news both ends of the Eurostar track.
This is just the latest controversy for the 34 year-old. He’s never been a “team player” and has often been quick to criticize team-mates, something that very few professional footballers do publicly. He has left behind more scorched earth than Smaug the dragon (J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit) on a footballing odyssey that has taken in no less than six Premier clubs. He’s a very highly-priced journeyman, the epitome of player power, largely thanks to his agents, of which his brother Claude was one.
When Arsenal signed the young Anelka, he was seen as an awesome talent that would dominate the Premier for years. He was, seemingly, among friends – the manager was Arsene Wenger and his team-mates included a group of talented Frenchmen who helped change the face of Arsenal. It should have been home from home. But he was said to have accused Marc Overmars of being greedy and then fell out with the club, refusing to return from pre-season training and threatening legal action in order to have his contract terminated. He was soon on his way to Real Madrid, yielding Arsenal £ 22 million-plus in an on-off transfer saga. Anelka was so coveted that Real gave him a seven-year contract.
A year later, in 2000, Anelka was at odds with Real coach Vincente del Bosque and received a 45-day suspension. He returned to Paris St. Germain, the club that sold him to Arsenal, for another £ 22 million fee. He wanted to return to England, though and went on loan to Liverpool in a bid to revive his World Cup 2002 hopes. But Liverpool’s manager Gerard Houllier and Anelka had history. When Houllier managed the French under-17 team, he selected David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry ahead of Anelka, and this had not been forgotten! Liverpool didn’t try and sign Anelka, largely because Wenger contacted his old friend Houllier and informed him that the player’s brothers has been on the telephone to Arsenal and asked the Gunners’ manager to take his protégé back. “That was the end,” said Houllier.
It didn’t deter Kevin Keegan, then boss of Manchester City. He paid £18 million for Anelka in 2002. It was a successful stint for Anelka, 37 goals in 89 games, but ended in tears as he declared he wanted to play for a “big club” (he obviously didn’t read the tea leaves). But Turkish football was cash rich and Fenerbache willingly paid City £7 million for his services. He was soon back in England, though, Bolton Wanderers paying £ 8 million and putting him on a four-year deal, although at the time, the Guardian commented: “It will be a rare achievement if manager Sam Allardyce persuades him to play out more than two years of it.”
The newspaper’s words rang true and in 2008, Anelka joined Chelsea, turning a good profit for Bolton, who sold him for £ 15 million. He was never particularly popular at Stamford Bridge, although he pulled his weight with goals. Refusing to be a penalty-taker in the Champions League final, although he did get roped-in during the “sudden death” session, did not endear him to many fans. Avram Grant, Chelsea’s manager in those post-Mourinho days, said Anelka was a rare talent: “He’s got everything – he’s quick, can beat players and score goals….but it is a pity he doesn’t have the right mentality.”
After leaving Chelsea, his longest spell at a single club, Anelka went to China and after a brief soujorn in Italy with Juventus, ended up at West Bromwich Albion. The “quenelle” was not the first hint of problems with the maverick striker as in August he suddenly left training when he heard one of his agents had died (how many has he got?). The Football Association have now charged him, which probably places him [yet again] at the crossroads. But he’s running out of places to go.
Anelka will go down in football history as an unfulfilled talent, despite scoring over 200 goals in 650 games and commanding £90 million in transfer fees. A little stability to add to his undoubted ability would not have gone amiss. It’s too late to change now.