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Sport

Anelka: Gifted, black, but not misunderstood



THE PEOPLE'S GAME The global football column by Marcela Mora y Araujo

For many, a first World Cup at 31 is the kind of tale of redemption dreams are made of. A second (third and fourth even in this case) chance is rare in football - a game which is about making the most of a single opportunity in a split second, or paying the price. Nicolas Anelka appears to have thrown it all away.

This week, the French Football Federation issued Anelka - widely perceived as the real cause for France's downfall in South Africa - an 18-match ban. In all likelihood, given his age, he'll not return to international football.

Anelka emerged as one of the most promising forces in world football from the prestigious Clairefontaine Academy, still referred to by some as the best training facility for youngsters in the world, in the scheme set up by Gerard Houllier. As a teenager, Anelka lived here, just outside Paris, breathing football with the elite.

With contemporaries of the ilk of Thierry Henry, the young forward won the European under-18 championship in 1996. But he was already forging a name for himself due to his temper. Andre Merelle, who coached a young Anelka at Clairefontaine, described him as "some sort of a rebel. Not a bad boy. But during the three years he was here, I never had the impression he was listening to me. "

The boy was undoubtedly gifted, though: according to Houllier at the time "the most talented player in his position ever seen". The 17-year-old joined Arsenal in 1997 under the newly appointed French manager Arsene Wenger, after a brief stint at Paris St Germain. The following year he was voted PFA Player of the Year with crucial performances in Arsenal's 'double' triumph, and embraced by fans as the natural heir to much-loved departing hero Ian Wright. But the love was shortlived. As the club's fortunes turned the following season, Anelka made no secret of his demand for higher wages. He moved to Real Madrid, with his brother brokering his transfer, and was soon dubbed Le Sulk by Arsenal fans - a nickname which stuck.

His club-hopping no doubt played a big part in his reputation as a volatile young mercenary, and the fact that his brother managed his affairs was also frowned upon within the industry. He scored in the Champions League final with Real Madrid, won the trophy and moved back to PSG before moving to Liverpool, with Houllier at the helm.

He wasn't held on to by the club when wage demands became once again central to negotiations. He moved to Manchester City, then to Fenerbahce, and then to Bolton Wanderers.

Anelka joined Chelsea in 2008 racking up a staggering total transfer revenue throughout his career which is believed to be the highest spent on transferring a single player in football history. He was also the top scorer in English football that season, with one more than Cristiano Ronaldo.

Le Sulk is the image that sticks, albeit amid nostalgia among French fans who still claim the prevailing memory for them is "centered on a reminiscence of that night in Wembley all those years ago, when young Nic scored a hat-trick (yes, it was 2-0 in the end, but the 3rd had bounced over the line) of a historic defeat of England in 1999". The image stays partly no doubt, because Anelka does appear to sulk a lot particularly when dealing with the press.

With his brother as an ally Anelka has sought out the best contract and the highest wage bill at every point.

Furthermore, he has often enough been outspokenly critical of managers who have not used him. He publicly converted to Islam some years ago, and is probably the highest-profile Muslim player in the Premiership.

Despite his staggering promise in the French youth sides, Anelka didn't make the cut for the 1998 World Cup squad, and was excluded from the 2002 and 2006 squads as well. So South Africa was his final chance. True to form though, Nic didn't kick off his World Cup full of sentimental gratitude or aspiring to redeem himself.

Arguably, his outburst against Domenech did little more than voice what most of the squad, fans in France and sympathisers the world over were privately thinking about the manager. Yet the blatant lack of diplomacy - characteristic of course - was the catalyst for the debacle.

In the PR age of image marketing and sponsored values it is difficult to elicit sympathy for the sulking talent, but there is something slightly refreshing about his intransigence. He may be a maverick, a loose cannon and may have amassed fortunes with his club moves rather than bank on the spurious notion of loyalty to a strip. But he is also a product of the Western values of individual choice and free market: born black, gifted and poor in a society with little regard for the like, he has carved his way and chosen his religion, imposed his worth and kept it all in the family.

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