There’s an old saying that has become fairly cliché in the English language: ‘calm before the storm’. Nicolas Anelka’s career was pretty much the polar opposite, and instead, it started as a stormy beginning hitting the highs of European football to a calm and mundane ending, where Anelka retired from the playing game as a villain off the field, and not a great player on it. To describe the ending as calm is probably to be misleading, as Anelka was subject to widespread debate, and despite his career going in the way of a stormy beginning followed by a slow ending, one moment was the opposite…
28 December 2013: West Ham 3-3 West Brom – French striker Nicolas Anelka scores a double to earn the Baggies a vital point at Upton Park. Anelka wheels off in celebration after his goal, with the commentator on the English broadcast – Darren Fletcher – raising his voice in typical commentator high-pitched fashion, to illustrate what Nicolas Anelka had just done. That’s right, he had just become the ninth player in history to score for six different clubs.
It was a great point for West Brom at a tricky away ground, thanks to Anelka’s double. All was calm in the English media, no mention of anything untoward. Over the Channel, this was far from the case. The media was far from calm. In fact, many were disgusted to report that Nicolas Anelka, in his celebration, had performed a ‘quenelle’ gesture.
The gesture is the trademark of the hugely controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who once said he would like to put a quenelle – a rugby-ball-shaped serving of fish or meat paste – up the backside of Zionists. It involves touching or gripping your shoulder with one hand while holding the palm of your other hand outstretched and pointing to the ground. Some describe it as a combination of the bras d’honneur with a bent arm (which means “up yours”) and the Nazi salute.
The comedian claimed that it was simply an anti-establishment symbol, but the French sports minister disagreed. Whether or not it is anti-semitic is up for debate, but there is little doubt it doesn’t belong in football. Anelka was banned for five matches and fined a substantial fee.
The question remains – why? Why did Anelka do this? The whole debacle is not worth a great amount of time, but symbolically, it signalled the end of a pretty illustrious career for Nicolas Anelka. Said career wasn’t as glittering as some of his team-mates over time, but it was certainly up there, and he ranks – statistically speaking – as the 21st best Premier League striker of all time. Let’s forget about the quenelle, and take you on a journey of the career of Nicolas Anelka.
The lightning pace and the early years
Nicolas Anelka, as pointed out by Michael Cox in his wonderful book The Mixer, can be directly compared to Michael Owen. Both won over the watching world with their pace and finishing abilities, both also had failed moves to Real Madrid, and both ultimately will be remembered as just another good goalscorer at every club they played at, rather than be recalled as a legend.
Their speed was particularly important. Pace has always been dangerous as a weapon for strikers, but none had quite lit up the league with their lighting speeds quite like these two. In an era where defenders were far from what we know now – they were big, tall, and designed to bully strikers off the ball. When players started to run in behind, the Premier League truly evolved to the entertaining product it is today.
His initial impact for Arsenal was impeccable. Originally arriving for a £500,000 fee from Paris St-Germain, which would set the tone for Arsenal’s transfer policy over the next decade, he started quite far down the pecking order at Highbury. Despite this, Anelka won the hearts of Gunners fans for his performances over the course of his first season, which was a double-winning campaign. The season after, he finished as the clubs top scorer, ahead of talisman Ian Wright. Pacy forwards such as Anthony Martial and Theo Walcott have cited Anelka as the man who inspired them.
It wasn’t just at Arsenal, Anelka was winning plaudits at his national team – France. After a long transfer saga, he joined Real Madrid for circa €23m – the money used to buy Arsenal’s iconic legend Thierry Henry. One game that will be remembered for the better is when Anelka scored a double at Wembley for the then world champions. Weirdly, Anelka wore goalkeeper gloves, for no given reason at all.
“I am bored in London – I don’t know anyone here, and I don’t want to.” Anelka had an introverted nature and never smiled – literally. A nickname that many gave to Anelka was ‘Le Sulk’ or even better, ‘Le Incredible Sulk’. He was never too shy of speaking his mind either. When at Arsenal, he verbally critiqued a section of the Highbury support, and this probably didn’t help his cause, as at the time he was being truly targeted by the media – a teenager who loved to moan. Later, at Madrid, he was suspended for 45 days for criticising his team-mates, saying they treated him ‘like a dog’.
Anelka’s career didn’t totally swindle away, but it never really reached the heights of what he did at Arsenal, at the turn of the millennium.
The failed reunion at Paris and subsequent return to England
The years that followed are best described as strange. Anelka moved from Madrid after a failed move back to PSG, but he blamed the surroundings – again – for a poor season or two. He said about his homecoming in Paris: “It was supposed to be a new start, with lots of players from the suburbs. It didn’t work because they changed the coach after just a few months. The policy for young players is why I went back, why I signed. Three months later, they changed the policy and changed all the players – so it was ridiculous.”
Next was a loan spell to Liverpool. The Frenchman scored some important goals, but manager Gerard Houllier declined to make the move permanent, instead opting for the services of El Hadji Diouf as the club’s new number 9. It was one of many ill-judged decisions that probably were the undoing of Houllier’s chances of winning a Premier League title at the club. He then became a ‘big fish in a small pond’ in a very average Manchester City team.
After a successful stint in Manchester, Anelka played for Fenerbahçe and then moved back to Bolton, where he somewhat forged himself a renaissance period in terms of his career, earning him a move to Chelsea, the only club Anelka made over 100 career appearances for.
The partnership Anelka formed with Didier Drogba will go down as one of the better duos in the history of strike partnerships. Trophies were won, memories were made, and for once, Anelka played with a smile on his face. He was loved at Stamford Bridge because unlike other clubs he had been at, Anelka showed love to the fans.
The downward spiral from 2010-onwards
Although Anelka had two more seasons at Stamford Bridge following the incident in South Africa, it was the first of a few events which spelt the end of his career at the top level of football. After a short stint at Shanghai Shenhua – and a loan at Juventus – Anelka moved back to West Brom, where he would go on to perform the infamous gesture that symbolically ended his career as a player, despite the fact he went on to feature for Mumbai City.
There have been many times where celebrations have caused mass controversy: Robbie Fowler’s ‘sniffing’ celebration, Luis Suárez’s dive at Goodison Park, Emanuel Adebayor goading his old fans, van Nistelrooy laughing in defenders faces, the list goes on. None of those have been quite as bad as Anelka*, who let politics and his beliefs cloud his judgements on the field. (* Giorgios Katidis went one further than Anelka, with his actual nazi salute, rather than the reverse salute).
Now, Nicolas Anelka is a youth coach at Lille. Hopefully, he can put his talents to use and help develop the games of young budding strikers.
It’s a weird situation to be in, when you are asked to summarise the career of Nicolas Anelka. On the one hand, you feel anger and frustration at how a single moment or two can undo all the hard work put in on the pitch in his early career, which it has certainly cast a shadow. On the other, one can’t forget the memories Anelka will have brought to the hearts of Arsenal fans in his early days, and later Manchester City and Chelsea supporters.
He may be remembered for being Le Sulk, but at least let’s give him the benefit of the name Le Incredible Sulk: on his day, Nicolas Anelka was absolutely incredible, and his pace and power in his early years was superhero-like. He may not have smiled, but he put smiles on the faces of his fans. Remember him for what he did then, not what he did to overshadow his career. Remember the storm of the first few years, not the calm of his slumped later seasons. Remember the name as one of the greatest Premier League forwards of his time: Nicolas Le Incredible Sulk Anelka.