With parts of the UK still facing extreme lockdown restrictions I thought I would recommend a Netflix documentary I watched on Arsenal’s former player, Nicholas Anelka.
Whether it’s his brothers negotiating for him, going on strike at Real Madrid, his fall out with his national team, or being sacked by West Brom, I knew there was enough controversy to make this decent viewing.
Like anything though there are 2 sides to every story but with the 41-year-old selective about who in the media he speaks to, this was the first time he went into detail. This release was a big deal back in his own country.
Sometimes we are guilty of only caring about what happens in our own world. Imagine if England went to a World Cup and Rashford was accused of swearing at Southgate, with Kane leading a protest of the whole squad refusing to train. Imagine how the fallout would dominate social media, phone ins, papers, etc. That’s what happened to France in 2010.
A bad attitude?
That’s up to the viewers to decide. Yet to understand anyone’s flaws and problems, it’s best to work out who they really are and where they come from.
Thierry Henry, perhaps because he had a similar upbringing and grew up in an equally rough suburb of France defends his friend, saying: ‘For me, there is a world of difference between what people think of Nico and Nico himself.’
Maybe that’s why Henry can call Anelka one of the ‘greatest strikers ever’ because he truly knows him? Mr Wenger has made no secret he believes the striker was tapped up, but has never given up on Anelka the person, explaining that he Sees him as ‘loyal, honest and faithful’ but bottles a lot up, and when he expresses himself people see the wrong side.
My perception of Anelka was different after watching this than it was before, and that to me is a sign of a good documentary, when you think you know a lot about the subject but learn new things.
Here are 10 Things I learnt Watching Anelka – Misunderstood
10 – Arsenal Take On The French Football System
Arsenal have often preached their disappointment in how Real Madrid and Anelka’s brothers conducted themselves in forcing a move away from Highbury. Yet Arsenal were not innocent themselves when they brought the striker. They supported the 17-year-old in challenging French rules that anyone signing their first professional contract should be with the club who developed that talent (PSG). This law had been in place to protect France’s domestic game from losing their top prospects abroad. This transfer was the start of several young French players moving to England as teenagers.
9- Misses France 98.
Anelka said, ‘I was honoured to wear the France shirt but …. there was always a but’.
Anelka’s first and not last moment in clashing with the French FA was when he missed out on France 98. Despite his breakthrough season with Arsenal the striker didn’t make the 22-man squad. When he was being told the reasons why, he claims his manager simply said ‘This is normal’.
The likes of Pires and Petit remember seeing the other 5 players omitted in tears as they left the hotel, so were bemused to see how relaxed Anelka was about the snub, even claiming he could now spend the summer getting his driving test.
Senior players interpreted this as the youngster not caring about missing a World Cup in his own country yet in reality he had felt so disrespected by his coach’s vague explanation, he was now focused on proving him wrong, as that’s how he had been taught was the best way to handle disappointment, not showing your sadness but using it as inspiration.
8- I Hated It
Call it pride, call it stubbornness; Anelka was not willing to do what he had to do to fit into the Real Madrid system. On his first day he realised he would struggle to fit in when players were telling him he was sitting in their spot and he was expected to appease media. This seemed to trigger insecurities from his childhood where he felt the need to not be disrespected or seen as weak more important than doing whatever it took to succeed.
When his manager refused to speak to him before training, he went on strike. Whether you agree with his stance or not, he was putting his principles above money or his career. He felt he was being mistreated because senior players didn’t like Raul being on the bench, so decided to do what he knew best …. fight!
He didn’t like how he was being treated and wasn’t going to tolerate it. He did kiss and make up in time to win the Champions League, scoring twice in the Semi- Final. He admits only when he got to 30 did he realise how lucky he was to be able to say he won the Champions League, but something tells me even if was older when he had joined the Bernabeau he wouldn’t have played their political games just for the sake of staying there.
7- Take This Medal Away
It again shows his complexity that if there was one medal, he would have taken away from him it would be the one he won at Euro 2000. Where most would be proud of winning anything with their country Anelka says he didn’t feel he contributed enough, because he didn’t score in the tournament and was dropped for the Final. Where some would accept playing the last 5 mins of a Final, it gives a further insight into the man’s mind. Winning clearly wasn’t everything to him. It wasn’t a win at all costs. If he were to win something, he had a vision of how he wanted to win it.
6-Wanted To Stay At Liverpool
Anelka has in the past made it clear he regretted leaving Highbury and was even open to returning before he joined Bolton. In this documentary though he wanted to stress to Liverpool fans he never wanted to leave and couldn’t understand why his loan move in 2002 wasn’t made permanent. Like a lot of things in his life, there is claim and counterclaim, with Gerard Houllier blaming his brothers for negotiating with other clubs. Having given the player an opportunity, those at Anfield felt disrespected that they were being used as a stepping stone for another lucrative move.
5- You Don’t Know What I Do?
In 2003/2004 Anelka was now scoring goals for Man City. He hadn’t been in the French squad for a couple of years though due to his frequent moving of clubs, so Jacques Santini invited him to play in a friendly to prove himself. Again, Anelka’s defence mechanism set in and he saw it as disrespect that a man who had scored goals for Arsenal, Real Madrid, PSG and Liverpool was being asked to play in a team to show what he could offer. Again, whether you agree or not, Anelka put his principles ahead of possibly playing at Euro 2004. (Encouraged by Vieira and Henry, eventually Anelka would apologize for refusing the call up.)
4- It Killed My Chelsea Career
Despite winning the Domestic Double and Golden Boot at Chelsea, Anelka says he feels ‘hurt til the end’ because of his penalty miss in the Champions League Final loss to Man United. Having joined half way through that season and scored 1 goal Anelka says he felt like a ‘traitor’ even being in Moscow that night. He claims it ‘killed his Chelsea career’. It’s a sad reflection of his outlook that he focuses more on what he didn’t do than what he did do at Stamford Bridge.
3 Defending Henry
While no one could have envisaged the scale of the fall-out in the 2010 World Cup, Anelka gave an early indication that the relationship with the French Squad and the media was at boiling point. Anelka was outspoken in his defence of Thierry Henry who was being crucified for his handball against Ireland which sealed qualification. Anelka has always pointed to the support Argentina gave Maradona for ‘the hand of god’ and how it became a source of endearment, and questioned why his own country were not as forgiving.
He said, before and after, it was a campaign by the French press to force out the old guard as they were campaigning for some youngsters to be blooded instead.
2- South Africa 2010
Perhaps the most anticipated moment of this documentary was Anelka’s version of events of what happened in South Africa in 2010 to cause him to be sent home, the rest of the squad to go on strike and the French President condemn their actions. The striker had just won the Premiership Golden boot by playing on the right hand side, but when he told Raymond Domenech he wasn’t suited to the lone striker role he wasn’t listened to and that’s the position he started the opening two games of the World Cup. At half time against Mexico he felt his manager was singling him out so swore at his boss.
The next day, though, the context of what he said, was according to several players, greatly exaggerated by the French Press, yet management refused to clarify this. So, when Anelka was sent home for refusing to apologize, the rest of the squad made a protest by publicly staying on the bus when it was time for training. 8 years later in another documentary Domenech admits that the L’EQUIPE headlines were false.
1- The Quenelle
Anelka agreed to join West Brom based on having a chance to work with Steve Clarke again, his coach at Chelsea. With his debut goalless after 70 minutes, the striker felt his manager was sending a message by subbing him off. Anelka admits he took great glee watching the side lose their next 4 games (he didn’t play) that would lead to Clarke’s sacking.
In his first game back Anelka scored for the Baggies and feeling he had proven a point, he celebrated with a quenelle gesture claiming its meaning is aimed at the establishment (so in this case towards his ex-manager). The only problem being that this coincided with his comedian friend Dieudonne Mbala Mbala causing controversy back in France by using the symbol which some felt was anti-semitic. Anelka didn’t understand the FA contradiction of him ‘not being anti-Semitic or intending to promote anti-Semitism’ but still getting a fine and banned for 5 matches due to its offence.
Maybe one of the reasons he regretted leaving Arsenal was that Arsene Wenger had the patience to get to know Anelka the person. That though was because he was 17 when he moved to North London, so it was only natural that your boss who speaks your language would become a father figure of sorts. As he got older though, clubs only cared about Anelka the footballer, the asset, the employee, what he could offer their brand. Anelka didn’t like that. In that sense you could argue, did he ever grow up?
A Premiership winner by 19, a Champions League winner by 20, a European Championship winner by 21, did he simply achieve too much too soon? He admits to not appreciating the magnitude of those achievements till he was older, yet you sense football wasn’t everything to Anelka?
He loved playing and he loved what came with it, but where some will do whatever it takes to succeed, to win that extra trophy, to get as many caps as possible, Anelka wouldn’t. To him sucking up to his peers, compromising, picking his battles was a sign of weakness.
You have to find the balance though. Taking that attitude away from him might have made him a more co-operative person to be around, but it’s that chip on his shoulder, that stubbornness, that ‘me against the world’ mindset which made him the player he was.
Yet not everyone can be wrong. If enough people make enough noises there is some truth somewhere. If you’re getting to the point where you feel disrespected for being subbed, then that’s someone who hasn’t moved on from the fighting mentality he grew up with. Yes, he needed that to become a professional, to stand out in Clairefontaine, but needed to snap out of maybe the older he got.
If this was a Hollywood movie, Anelka is the kid from the working-class family who marries into a rich family but no matter how much money he has, no matter the lifestyle, he never forgets who he is or where he came from.