Nicolas Anelka is organizing an awards ceremony soon. He wants to hand an accolade to the journalist in France that has upset more players than anyone else. He is currently polling his former team-mates for votes and says it will be a close call. “The problem is,” he laughed, “there are just so many candidates…”
Anelka has never been popular with the French press and his reputation as a trouble-maker was set in stone when his clash with France coach Raymond Domenech set in progress the players’ strike and his subsequent expulsion from France’s 2010 World Cup squad. Note on that occasion, just like wherever else he has played, Anelka had his team-mates onside.
(It’s just coaches, though, and usually those of the France national team, that he rubs up the wrong way: he has claimed the press agenda against him is because he was young, black, rich and from les banlieues, the suburbs, of Paris: “If I drive a Ferrari, it’s frowned upon, and if I drive a Twingo, people say I’m trying to hide my money,” he once told Paris Match. “They are jealous of my success.”)
The reason this is relevant now is because Shanghai Shenhua owner Zhu Jun has reportedly confirmed that Anelka, via his agent, has indicated that he wants to leave the club halfway through his two-year deal, though no termination agreement has been reached. The rumour-mill has gone into frenzy: QPR, West Ham, LA Galaxy, even Liverpool, have been linked with a January move for Anelka (and that’s not including teams from Italy, Brazil, and the Gulf, who wanted Anelka 12 months ago).
One man who won’t want Anelka to leave is Didier Drogba, and not just because Anelka assisted on six of Drogba’s nine goals last season. “You have to be brave to come here first and to be honest I don’t know if I could have done that,” Drogba told France Football last week. “Nico is a true pioneer, which is why he is so respected in the dressing-room, and not just because he’s captain.”
That respect extends to the training-ground, where team-mates were nervous to tackle the two star players; when they did, they apologised five minutes later. “It’s a bit of a change from Chelsea,” Anelka remarked drily. The pair are allowed to turn up to training late because they are often up until four in the morning speaking to their families online.
Anelka’s situation was not made any easier when, within five games of arriving, the club had sacked Jean Tigana as coach and appointed their new French talisman. “It was difficult to manage because I held three positions: coach, player and captain,” he told Le Parisien. “Before taking over, I spoke to each of my players telling them that everyone would have his chance. I kept my word. I used the whole squad, except for one player. My best achievement? Bringing through a youth-teamer who had never played at a high level.”
Anelka has given only one hint behind his possible reasons for wanting to leave, and that is about matters on the pitch. He says of life before Drogba: “When I played in the middle, there was no-one to give the ball to, and when I was forward, I couldn’t get the ball.”
And while his move has encouraged others, like Seydou Keita and Frederic Kanoute, to follow his path, frustrations about the quality of football remains. “Shanghai is the future,” he said. “The city is amazing, modern, vibrant, energetic, joyful. I came to China to open my eyes. I am an adventurer. My visit was a gamble, a publicity stunt to attract other big names. But it will take a long time to improve the quality of play.”
The money is a bonus—he earns a staggering €230,000 per week—but Anelka does not apologise for it. “I’ve worked for a long time to earn my living, made sacrifices when I was young and now it’s paying off,” he said. “When I started out, salaries were not high, but luckily I came in at the right time.” Anelka does not throw his money around: he bought his parents a house when he signed his first Arsenal contract and is building them a property on the island of Martinique to mark their 40th wedding anniversary. He has a wife and two children in London, and has set up a charity, Declic People, to help disabled kids. “When I do good things, I don’t talk about it,” he told Paris Match. “I do it for myself and not to show others what I’m like. Anelka is not just the Ferrari: there’s also a heart in the motor.”
For someone with his reputation, the fact that so many clubs are interested in signing Anelka in January suggests that something is off-kilter. Maybe those clubs are desperate (and in some cases, that might be true) but on the other hand, Anelka is a good professional, who causes no more problems than a typical English player (France aside; and even at Chelsea, where he was a victim of Andre Villas-Boas’s man-management master-class in alienating the dressing-room).
“His image of being anti-social has counted against him,” Emmanuel Petit, his former team-mate at Arsenal (1997-1999) and France (1998-2003), told L’Equipe magazine. “All the stories about him since his time at Real Madrid [in 2001] worked against him and led to all sorts of misconceptions,” added Bernard Diomede, another ex-France colleague. “For way too long people had a false image of who he really is. You’ll never have any problem with him. He’s the kind to take blows but to never respond.”
The worry for Chinese football is what message Anelka’s departure sends out to those that followed ‘the pioneer’. As Drogba said: “Without Nico, my integration would have been much tougher.” Without Anelka, will Drogba even want to stay in Shanghai?