The Anelka affair

Nicolas Anelka is under withering fire not least from across the Channel in his native France for his supposedly anti-Semitic gesture, known in France as “la querelle”, after scoring one of his two goals for West Bromwich Albion at West Ham. By Brian Glanville.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the latest controversy to erupt around Nicolas Anelka. He is now 34 years old, but since he was half that age exactly, he has perpetually been involved in turmoil. Now he is under withering fire not least from across the Channel in his native France for his supposedly anti-Semitic gesture, known in France as “la querelle”, after scoring one of his two goals for West Bromwich Albion at West Ham. A gesture which involves clutching the biceps of the extended right arm with the left hand, in what has been described as an inverted Nazi salute.

The gesture, invented by his comedian friend Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, an undisguised holocaust denier and anti-Semitic, frequently condemned in court, has plain implications. Anelka himself denies them, but the wrath of French politicians quickly descended on him. Chantal Jouanno, Senator and former Sports Minister, declared, “The querelle is a Nazi gesture, clearly anti-Semitic and known as such…. He must be punished.” The current Sports Minister, Valérie Fourneyron, thundered, “Anelka’s gesture is a shocking, disgusting provocation. There is no place for anti-Semitism and incitement to hatred on the football pitch.” Just one day earlier, the French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, had threatened to ban Dieudonne from performing.

For his part, perhaps predictably, Anelka, who became a Muslim only in 2004, pleads innocence.

His gesture, he insisted was meant merely as “a special dedication” to Dieudonne. It was merely “anti system”, whatever that may mean. “With regard to the ministers who give their own interpretation, they are the ones who create the controversy without knowing what the gesture really means. I shall therefore ask the people not to be duped by the media. And of course, I am neither anti-Semitic nor racist.”

Yet from his teenaged years, controversy has surrounded him and his career. At 17 he was already a supremely precocious talent, but irredeemably headstrong. Incensed by the fact that he could not gain a regular place in the two-man Paris Saint Germain attack, where two experienced internationals stood in his way, he walked out and went to Arsenal: for nothing. The Gunners exploiting the anomalous French football rules of the time. When, after several turbulent but sporadically dazzling seasons, the Gunners sold him to Real Madrid for a colossal GBP23 million, Arsenal tossed a bone of consolation to PSG in the shape of a mere GBP50,000.

At Arsenal, Anelka had been by turns brilliant and dissident. Much of the sporadic trouble was plainly caused by the two brothers who accompanied him as his agents and constantly incited him to grievance. At one point he insisted that the two Dutch international stars Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars were cutting him out of the game. At Wembley in the FA Cup final of 1998, Anelka, who would be voted ‘Young Player of the Year’, dashed through the Newcastle United defence to score Arsenal’s second goal in a 2-0 victory. 1998 was indeed a memorable year for Anelka and Wembley a happy hunting ground, for it was there that he overwhelmed the defence playing against England, scoring two fine goals and having another ruled out for a non-existent offside.

The following season saw him score a hat-trick at Highbury in the 5-0 defeat of Leicester City, with a further fusillade of goals in the 6-1 crushing of Middlesbrough away from home. But, the eternal malcontent, he was off to Real Madrid at the end of that season, his place taken by a still more prolific Frenchman in Thierry Henry.

It took little time for things to go wrong at Real Madrid where for some time he refused even to train with the team and was suspended. He was destined to be a wanderer, playing for clubs all over Europe, and returning at times to England where Liverpool and Chelsea, where he was used on the wing and missed a Champions League final penalty, plus Bolton Wanderers, saw him perform. He even went to China briefly.

His relations with the French international team were characteristically volatile. Easily taking offence, there would be a period when he refused to play for them, while they won the World Cup of 1998 without him, though their team palpably lacked a valid centre forward. He was, however, a turbulent member of the French team which disgraced itself with its behaviour at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Raymond Domenech was the manager and he had also failed two years earlier in the European Championship finals.

His rebellious players had little respect for him and Anelka less than any of them. At halftime in a disastrous match versus Morocco he viciously abused Domenech over a substitution. It was too much even for the French football authorities, and he was immediately packed off home to France and subsequently banned by them for the next eighteen international matches, to which his typical response was, “I am killing myself laughing.”

This season, bald by now, he was surprisingly enlisted by West Bromwich Albion, the West Midlands Club. They were in dire trouble when they came to West Ham, had just sacked their manager, and had acquired Anelka on a free transfer. He had been out for several weeks when they surprisingly started him at West Ham, but he showed that there was life in the old legs yet, coolly scoring two goals, in what turned out to be a 3-3 draw. Plus the offensive gesture!

It was his misfortune that, on a day when the French Championship was suspended, the game was shown live on French television. In England, the offensive salute would probably have passed unnoticed, but across the Channel, the heavens opened. The least one can say is that Anelka’s gesture was wholly gratuitous, yet in its wanton and mindless manner, it was perhaps symptomatic of a career in which exceptional natural abilities were forever at the mercy of an explosive, confrontational temperament. Reportedly, he was already about to retire.