BY PIERS BARBER
Innocent ignorance is one of the few explanations that come anywhere close to justifying Nicolas Anelka’s decision to have made the deeply inappropriate and highly offensive ‘quenelle’ gesture in a game against West Ham in December 2013.
Such a rationalisation, however, falls down somewhat upon a closer examination of the French striker’s troubled career. The story of Nicholas Anelka is one of an individualistic and highly selfish footballer, who has never been afraid of confrontation and is certainly no stranger to controversy. Consistently cold and calculating, he is no fool: this is a man who was surely fully aware of the implications of his actions.
Anelka has played for some of Europe’s finest clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Juventus, winning both the Champions League with Madrid and the European Championship with France. He is also one of a select group of players to have won the Premier League with two different clubs, and has twice been chosen in the PFA Team of the Year.
And yet, thanks to managerial disputes, petulant sulks and propensity for a controversial quip, his career has been a substantial disappointment, a tale of relentless money-chasing and considerable wasted talent. Indeed, despite having built up an aggregate transfer cost of almost £90 million, his footballing life essentially remains stillborn.
Anelka has persistently suffered from an inability to retain interest in the fate of a particular club. Despite being a key player in Arsenal’s 1997/8 double season and the club’s top scorer the following season, the Frenchman still managed to quickly grow into the object of fan resentment following a succession of both transfer rumours and performances seemingly devoid of any particular enthusiasm. “The one thing I can’t stand is the English press, who cause me enormous problems on a personal level” he whinged a few months before his departure. He left England with his own nickname: ‘Le Sulk’.
It was the start of a long series of high-profile and expensive moves, none of which have ultimately yielded particularly gratifying results. At Real Madrid, his next club, Anelka started brightly, but was handed a 45 day suspension by manager Vincente del Bosque after missing three days of training. He would also fall out with his next manager, Luis Fernandez at PSG, where he had signed in 2000 in a move worth £22 million.
A loan move to Liverpool soon followed, although the club declined to make his half season loan into a permanent deal. The stumbling block was apparently manager Gérard Houllier’s doubts about the player’s temperament. For his part, Anelka would later claim Houllier declined to sign him because “it bothers him to have someone around who could stand up to him”. The fact that Anelka was ultimately ditched in favour of Senegalese striker El Hadji Diouf – no stranger to his own particular brand of ridiculous controversy – was indicative of the player’s worryingly disruptive reputation.
2002 brought another move and another massive transfer fee: £13 million to Manchester City, then a club record. His spell at the City of Manchester Stadium broke down after he claimed he wanted to move to a “big club.” More lucrative transfers quickly followed: there was a £7 million move to Fenerbahçe in 2005, an £8 million transfer to Bolton in 2006, and then a £15 million trip down to Chelsea in 2008. Anelka enjoyed the most prosperous years of his career at the Reebok Stadium and then at Stamford Bridge, where he scored 25 goals in his first season and remained a key figure in Chelsea’s side despite the formidable presence of Didier Drogba.
And yet this period still did not pass without mishap. Whilst at Bolton he claimed he would consider a move back to Arsenal, a relationship he had declared in 1999 was “finished forever.” Elsewhere, he deemed it appropriate to blame manager Avram Grant for his meek missed penalty which lost Chelsea the 2008 Champions League final.
Inevitably, Anelka’s seemingly settled character was little more than a ticking time bomb. After submitting a transfer request in December 2011, he was forced to use separate training rooms and made to train with the youth team. Anelka, it emerged, had all but agreed a deal with Shanghai Shenhua worth a reported €12 million in wages.
Unsurprisingly, though, the move was a comprehensive failure, in sporting terms at least. Following a 1-0 loss to a Qingdao Jonoon side rooted to the bottom of the league table, Anelka refused to bow in front of his teammates after the game, a customary ritual in China seen as an important way of thanking fans or their support. He was subsequently confronted by an angry fan in the dressing room after the match, although could only muster the classy retort “I don’t care” in response to the affronted man’s accusations. Some fans had travelled over 700 miles to see the fixture.
Yet, few of Anelka’s disputes at club level compare to the turmoil he persistently created within his national team. The decline of what could potentially have been a highly prosperous international career began when the player snubbed an international call-up from Jacques Santini in November 2002, his first for seven months. Ever the diplomat, the striker responded by claiming he would never play for France again. The next year, he told Santini he would have to “kneel down and apologise” if he was to ever consider a return, although by March 2004, the striker had himself apologised.
And then, of course, there was South Africa. Before December’s quenelle incident, Anelka’s defining moment came during half-time of France’s 2010 World Cup group game with Mexico. After being criticised by coach Raymond Domenech, Anelka reportedly told his manager to “go fuck yourself, dirty son of a whore”. The striker refused to apologise for the outburst and was asked to leave the squad, which subsequently limped pathetically to a bottom place finish in their group. “These people are clowns. I’m dying with laughter,” was Anelka’s measured response to his 18 game ban, which acrimoniously terminated his international career in all but name.
It says a lot that, even without the quenelle, Anelka’s career would go down in the history books as one characterised by ugly controversy and harmful confrontations. It seems ignorance over the meaning of the gesture can be no justification for a man who has proved continuously adept at scheming his way through a consistently lucrative career. Indeed, in Anelka’s case, many of those he has come across in football could be forgiven for keenly anticipating his inevitable final downfall.
Piers is a regular football blogger who often writes for Dream Team Fantasy Football.