The Nomad Footballer Series: Nicolas Anelka

Nomad: a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.

Clubs: Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool (loan), Manchester City, Fenerbahce, Bolton Wanderers, Chelsea, Shanghai Shenhua, Juventus (loan), West Bromwich Albion, Mumbai City

Countries played in: 7

Most professional footballers go through their whole career only having a handful of clubs. In fact, some manage to spend their whole career at one club. Being a one-club man is something than endears football players to a fan base and is generally seen as the ultimate display of loyalty. However, what about those players that don’t manage to settle. The players who don’t find a home in their short professional career and instead jump from club to club in a pursuit of challenges and success. This series looks at those players who are footballing nomads; wanderers.

Nicolas Anelka

Most nomadic players who play for a string of clubs have had a fair amount of controversy throughout their career. It is part and parcel of the frequent moving of clubs. However, Nicolas Anelka is a player whose career was marred with more controversy than most. Sent home early from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and being banned for making an anti-Semitic gesture while at West Bromwich Albion are two of the standout infamous moments from a career also glittered with achievements. Anelka is a figure of such contention that he was recently the subject of a Netflix documentary, entitled ‘Anelka: Misunderstood’, released in 2020.

When you look at Anelka’s long list of clubs his ability on the field is clear to see. Paris Saint-German, Arsenal, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Chelsea, to name a few. It was in Paris that Anelka’s senior career started. A product of the famed Claire Fontaine academy in France, Anelka was picked up by PSG in 1995, before making his debut the following year, aged just 16. The raw, pacey striker managed just the one goal in his ten Ligue 1 matches, but earned a move to Arsenal after only one season as a professional. This transfer caused some dispute between Arsenal and PSG, as Arsenal signed Anelka as a Bosman free transfer due to his contract expiry, while PSG felt this rule was only for players over 24 years of age. Arsenal Wenger and Arsenal were of the opinion that this rule only applied to domestic transfers. In the end Arsenal paid PSG £500,000 for the striker’s services.

After a debut season where opportunities were hard to come by for Anelka, he really came to the fore in the 1997/98 season, mainly due to a long-term injury to Ian Wright. Anelka didn’t look back, scoring his first goal in a 3-2 win over Manchester United in November, before ensuring he was a key member of the side in their run to a Premier League and FA Cup double. The following season Anelka was Arsenal’s highest goal scorer with 17 league goals and won the Premier League PFA Young Player of the Year award. However, Arsenal had a poor season and failed to defend their Premier League and FA Cup crowns, while also falling far short in the Champions League. Despite Anelka’s performances, Arsenal fans found him difficult to take to and even nicknamed the Frenchman ‘Le Sulk’, in reference to his perceived negative body language when things weren’t going well. Growing transfer speculation also didn’t help the relationship between player and fans.

The transfer speculation was accurate in this instance though, and Anelka was on the move to Spanish giants Real Madrid ahead of the 1999/2000 season. Anelka struggled to live up to his £22.3 million transfer fee in the Spanish capital and only lasted a year at the Bernabeau, scoring just twice in the league. He was mocked by Spanish newspaper Marca after playing FIFA on PlayStation with a member of their staff, with the headline the following day saying ‘Anelka finally scores a goal…on a video game’. Many fail to deal with the intense media spotlight when playing for Real Madrid and, without getting off to a good start, Anelka was always on the back foot.

After just a year at Madrid, Anelka returned to his first club, PSG. The move was met with a great deal of excitement by the club’s fans, especially due to the six-year contract which was signed. PSG had finished runners-up in Ligue 1 the previous season and had thus qualified for the Champions League. This move coincided with Anelka’s emergence as a key member of the French national team, having been left dismayed at his omission from France’s 1998 World Cup squad, meaning he missed out on winning the tournament in his home country.

After a positive start in his second spell at PSG, Anelka was soon made captain of the Parisian club. However, the club weren’t in the best of places in that period and were a far cry from the side that dominates French football today. After ten league goals in two and a half years, Anelka was headed back to the Premier League with a loan move to Liverpool in December 2001. He was relatively successful in his brief spell on Merseyside, contributing to the Reds finishing second in the league, and was expecting to be offered a permanent contract in the close season by compatriot, Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier. However, Houllier opted to sign forward El Hadji Diouf instead following a successful 2002 World Cup for the Senegal international.

Anelka would stay in England, signing for a relatively poor Manchester City side in the summer. He was a success at City and was their top scorer in his first two seasons at the club. He would end his three year stay in Manchester in 2008, to join Turkish side Fenerbahce, having scored 38 goals in 89 league appearances. It would not be long before Anelka was back on English soil however, as after one year in Turkey he agreed to sign for Bolton Wanderers. Anelka would rebuild his reputation at Bolton and scored some memorable goals, none more so than a 25-yard curling effort against former club Arsenal in a 3-1 win. In January 2007 Anelka admitted he would consider leaving Bolton to re-join the Gunners. However, he signed a new Bolton contract that summer, later admitting that he signed the deal so that the club would get more money when he inevitably left.

He did, of course, leave. In 2008 Anelka signed for Chelsea for £15 million, and this chapter of his career would be his most successful. It would also be the most settled period of his career, with Anelka spending four seasons at the London club, striking up a formidable partnership with club legend Didier Drogba. Anelka would go on to win the Premier League again at Chelsea, as well as two more FA Cups, but would suffer heartbreak in the Champions League as he missed the penalty in the final shootout against Manchester United in Moscow in 2008 to hand United the trophy. He would later blame manager Avram Grant for his miss in true Anelka fashion, claiming the manager had put him on too late to acclimatise to the game.

Anelka scored 38 league goals in 125 games for Chelsea. He also won the Premier League golden boot in his second season at the club, finding the net 19 times. Drogba was injured for the start of Anelka’s second campaign and he stepped up to be the main man with his goals. Upon Drogba’s return Anelka often found himself playing out wide, a position in which he was equally as potent. Chelsea stood by Anelka in the midst of the biggest scandal of a rollercoaster of a career and he repaid them with his most effective performances.

As alluded to, Anelka was sent home from the 2010 World Cup, as France embarrassingly struggled. Anelka reportedly abused French coach Raymond Domenech at half time of a 2-0 group stage loss to Mexico. Following the game Anelka would refuse the French football federation’s demand to publicly apologise and was subsequently sent home. The France squad went on strike and refused to train before crashing out of the tournament with just one point. An embarrassment to French football, especially when you consider the talent they had at their disposal. Anelka would be banned by the French football federation for 18 games; effectively retiring him from international football. An international career in which Anelka endured his fair share of harsh omissions and perceived disrespect was over. 14 goals in 69 international appearances was all he had to show for it, despite moments of brilliance to go with the bizarre. Perhaps scoring a brace against England in 1999 whilst wearing goalkeeper gloves to keep warm sums up Anelka’s enigmatic nature best.

Anelka would spend two more years at Chelsea before moving to Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua in 2012. A loan move to Juventus followed, before a brief move to West Bromwich Albion where more controversy ensued after Anelka celebrated a goal by performing what many viewed in France as an anti-Semitic gesture. Anelka claimed it was an anti-establishment gesture, but was given a five match ban by the FA, although the FA did state that they did not think Anelka intended to be anti-Semitic. West Brom would take stronger action however, terminating the 35 year old’s contract.

Anelka would squeeze one last move out of his long career, joining Indian side Mumbai City for a season before retiring in 2015. In total, Anelka played for 12 clubs in seven countries. His talents were clear for all to see, with the lightning fast forward never shy in front of goal. However, he just couldn’t keep himself out of trouble. The Netflix documentary intended to explain the controversial moments in his career did not necessarily paint him in any better a light than he was perceived prior to its release. A hot-headed character with bundles of self-confidence and seemingly little loyalty. Anelka’s 19 season career was one similar to many nomadic players in nature, however there has been some room for sentimentality upon reflection, perhaps even with a tinge of regret. When talking about his career, Anelka has expressed that he should never have left Arsenal and that he has a great deal of love for the club and former manager, Arsenal Wenger. How different could Anelka’s career have been had he settled in north London?

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