Anelka: Enfant terrible

The Frenchman was a prodigy. Only 17 years old when he excelled on the occasions that he was allowed to lead the attack of Paris Saint Germain. The striker is now player-manager of ISL side Mumbai City FC.

Anelka (second from left) with Mumbai City FC co-owner Ranbir Kapoor (centre) and team-mates Subrata Paul (left), Sunil Chhetri (second right) and Brazil's Andre Mortiz at the unveiling of the team's new home kit.   -  PTI

Now Nicolas Anelka, that rolling stone, that enfant terrible, that explosive, inventive, fascinating talent, finds himself a player-coach in India. Bald, now 36 years old, he has found his way to Mumbai. This after a profusion if not a plethora of clubs in England — Arsenal, Liverpool, Bolton, West Bromwich Albion, a mutinous spell at Real Madrid, a combustible relationship with the French national team, which won the 1998 World Cup in Paris without a decent centre forward, which Anelka would have been in spades, had he not ruled himself out of the national team with typical intransigence.

Have France ever had a better centre forward, even Thierry Henry, so gloriously prolific at Arsenal, where Anelka himself had so precociously and rebelliously gone before?

So different in style, so marvellously effective at their best! It was Henry’s blatant hand ball which enabled France to slink their way at the expense of the Irish into the Finals of the 2010 World Cup in the playoff game in Paris against Ireland.

It was Anelka who, in South Africa, would disgrace himself with his foul-mouthed outburst against the hapless and ineffective manager, Raymond Domenech.

Anelka was a prodigy. Only 17 years old when he excelled on the occasions that he was allowed to lead the attack of Paris Saint Germain; from whom Arsenal picked him up for nothing, to the rage of the Parisian team. This because at the age of 17, the confused rulings at the time had it that he could not sign a professional contract. Anelka was glad to go because for some time he had been chomping at the bit. PSG at that point had two able, experienced strikers who were their first choice; to the fury of Anelka who believed, perhaps with some justice, that he was better than either of them.

So it was to Highbury and to Arsenal that he went and with him alas came his two brothers, acting as his abrasive and demanding agents, consistently playing on his rebellious tendencies. From his very first days in London there was no doubt of his tremendous talents, pace, control, flair, penetration. Arriving in London he didn’t make his League debut for the Gunners till the last game of the season in May 1997. Arsenal lost 1-0 at Highbury to Newcastle United. The following season, Anelka would help the Gunners to do the League and FA Cup double.

The Championship seemed a distant mirage at the turnover of the year with Manchester United 12 points ahead, even though the Gunners had beaten them at Highbury with Anelka beating Peter Schmeichel in goal to put Arsenal ahead. But in the return game at Old Trafford in March with Arsenal still nine points behind United, Anelka headed the ball through to the speedy Dutch left-winger Marc Overmars, who raced through to beat Schmeichel for the winner. Arsenal soared on to win the League and in the FA Cup final at Wembley — a ground where Anelka could excel — he scored Arsenal’s second goal against Newcastle United, taking a pass from Ray Parlour to dash on and shoot into the corner of the net.

The following season saw Anelka score a hat-trick when Leicester City were beaten 5-0 at Highbury. He missed a 5-1 win at home to Wimbledon, was back when Middlesbrough were thrashed on their own ground 6-1 but storm clouds were gathering. For all his prowess, all his goals, Anelka’s attitude had not made him a popular player, with his two agent brothers known to be inciting him from the background.

After success at Middlesbrough, he complained vociferously that he wasn’t being treated fairly by the sporting press, who he had said emphasised his absence from the Wimbledon game but failed to appreciate his prowess at Middlesbrough. He also complained that the two Dutch internationals Overmars and the masterly Dennis Bergkamp were starving him of the ball.

The following season, Arsenal played their European Cup home matches at Wembley, but even Anelka failed to inspire them there, though he had a fine game for France against Russia in Moscow. But his complaints about Overmars and Bergkamp suggested that he would before long be on his way. Though, this didn’t prevent him giving super performances away to Panathinaikos, helping Arsenal, to a win, despite the team having only three regular first-teamers, Anelka being one of them. Against England at Wembley in February 1998, Anelka was irresistible, far too fast and clever for the ponderous English defence, scoring twice and breaking through the middle to get a perfectly legitimate third, only to be given quite wrongly offside. What might he have done for the French team in the ensuing World Cup Finals!

At the end of that season, perhaps inevitably, he left for a GBP23million fee, all pure profit for Arsenal, from Real Madrid, the Gunners tossing PSG GBP500,000 out of the kindness of their hearts. But at Real, things went wrong from the very first. Anelka refused to train, and it was some time before he could be persuaded to do so and to play. He would be on his travels again.

Fast forward to France’s disastrous World Cup Finals in South Africa in 2010. Things looked dubious for France from the first, quite apart from the fact that they were lucky to be there at all. Their appointment of Raymond Domenech as the manager after he failed catastrophically two years earlier at the European Championships seemed baffling and he had no command over his dissident team.

When at half time Domenech in the dressing room of the match against Mexico asked Anelka to play more centrally, Anelka responded with a volley of abuse. The French hierarchy not surprisingly declared that Anelka should be packed off home.

Generously, Domenech gave Anelka the opportunity to apologise and stay, but Anelka bluntly refused and departed. Whereupon, the other French players decided to go on strike! It should be said that while Anelka’s behaviour in this episode was appalling, he was never in fact known as a violent player himself.

The 2013/14 season saw him briefly with West Bromwich Albion, scoring just two goals in half a dozen appearances. Disgracing himself at West Ham by giving a salute known as an anti-Semitic gesture deployed by a comedian he knew. Huge controversy followed, but Anelka insisted he didn’t know what the gesture meant.