Nicolas Anelka: Le Sulk who was a Bloody Good Striker
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 bucket loads, but this is a man that never settles in one place very long and attracts publicity almost as much as Joey Barton. Anelka seems to have a self-destructive streak that may finally end his playing career.
Despite the constant reminders to avoid it, we treat our footballers as if they are identical to us. How couldn’t you be happy to the point of delirium at getting paid for kicking a ball around, when we would kill to do what you do? The smile is flimsy proof that they understand how much it all means. Nicolas Anelka scored goals freely for Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea in England, but he was never as appreciated as perhaps he should have been.
Twenty years ago this week, Arsenal signed a 17-year-old striker from Paris Saint-Germain. Nicolas Anelka would light up the Premier League at an astonishingly young age, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year and the Premier League title, scoring in an FA Cup final victory at Wembley, scoring a Premier League hat-trick, and leaving for Real Madrid for a record fee of £22.3million. All within three months of turning 20.
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.
Anelka’s career was extraordinarily successful. He is the 14th top scorer in Premier League history, won the Premier League and FA Cup double with two different clubs, won league titles in three different countries, gained 69 international caps for France and sits just outside their top 20 international goal scorers. He won the European Cup and European Championship and moved for more than £10million five times in his career and more than £20million twice.
Most impressive of all was Anelka’s longevity at the highest level. He was named in the Premier League team of the season twice, a decade apart. He scored 17 Premier League goals in 1998-99 and then won the Golden Boot in 2008-09.
Yet the lasting image of Anelka is not of his goals, nor his titles, but his frown. He was nicknamed Le Sulk as early as 1999 for a perceived lack of enthusiasm, labelled as moody, unfriendly, disruptive and subdued. It was a reputation he would never shake. Anelka’s nickname came partly from his unhappiness during his last season at Arsenal. He says he felt under-appreciated by a set of supporters who he suspected were displeased at him replacing Ian Wright in the team, and was abused when he agreed a move to Madrid.
Anelka told to Daily Mail in an exclusive interview with Matt Lowton
“When Michael Owen went to Real Madrid it was okay. When David Beckham went to Real Madrid no one turned on him. But when I went it was like I had killed someone, and yet one year later Petit and Overmars went to Barcelona and nothing like that happened to them. And remember, Arsenal bought me for £500,000 and sold me for £23million.”
Anelka’s point are valid ones, although there is no doubt that his reputation was damaged by the poor career advice regularly offered by the two brothers who acted as his agents. As with Dimitri Seluk and Yaya Toure, the words of an associate can easily ebb away at a player’s goodwill. Negative reputations are far harder to shift than establish.
When he joined Chelsea weeks before turning 29, everyone assumed Anelka was a short-term mistake having already played for Bolton and Fenerbahce. He would go on to play 184 times for Chelsea.
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 sojourn in Italy with Juventus, ended up at West Bromwich Albion and then a stint in Indian Soccer League. Former team-mates of Anelka describe him as quiet and reserved, shy and even a loner but rarely disruptive and certainly not disrespectful. Nobody who prefers to keep his own counsel deserves to have it count against them.
If Anelka was not liked by all, he was appreciated by many. Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard both regret Anelka’s departure from Liverpool as a mark of their club stepping in the wrong direction, while at Chelsea Ray Wilkins described Anelka as “a joy to work with”. Certainly Anelka was not afraid to speak his mind – he once called France national team coach Raymond Domenech a “dirty son of a whore” – but his rap sheet barely justifies the character assassination.
What is true is that Anelka’s career waned after leaving England for the first time. He played for multiple elite clubs during his career – Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Liverpool, and Manchester City – but too often existed on the periphery. He became a footballing nomad through necessity rather than desire, and scoring for six different Premier league clubs is a record tinged with negative connotations. The four years spent at Chelsea were a result of a striker finding a natural home after seeking, and long failing to find, solace. This nomadic lifestyle was as a result of his reputation for moodiness, not a cause. Wherever Anelka went, his perceived personality went before him. Playing catch-up from day one is an unappetising pursuit. Anelka has regularly spoke of his unhappiness at being shunted around European football, and his contentment at Stamford Bridge.
Perhaps part of Anelka’s damaged reputation focuses on what he might have been in comparison with what he was. The accusation is that, after shining so brightly at Arsenal, the rest of his career was a futile attempt to recapture that early morning sunshine.
Yet Anelka’s biggest task was never scoring goals nor winning trophies, but making friends along the way. He would, and will, forever be burdened by the nickname given to him at the age of just 20: Le Sulk
“That is the perception of me, but it is the perception of people who don’t know me.”
A little stability to add to his undoubted ability would not have gone amiss. It’s too late to change now. That may well be true, but perceptions stick like an unpleasant odour in a small room. It’s easy to wonder what difference a few smiles might have made.