SEVEN minutes is a very short time. But if Nicolas Anelka smiles for that duration, it seems like a very long one. If you were to add all the time that the former French international striker smiled on the pitch during his 19-year playing career, this probably would be greater than that. Branded ‘Le Sulk’ by the British press very early on in his career for his tendency to wear a haunted look while he played, it was a tag he never shook off. Until now. He broke into a laugh when it was mentioned during his interview with Dawn on Tuesday.
The 39-year-old then continued: “I was what I was. It’s my personality. I did what I had to do [at that time] and people didn’t accept that, saying I wasn’t smiling on the pitch. I smile when I want to smile. I don’t want to be forced. Because I wasn’t speaking with the press, people were saying things about me. Because I wasn’t talking, they started talking. But I did what I did on the pitch, and gave it my best.”
The mercurial Anelka could’ve been the best. He could’ve gone down in history as one of the greatest strikers to have played football. Supremely talented and skillful, he could’ve been bracketed alongside his contemporary French luminaries like Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. There were flashes of brilliance, yet there resides a feeling that there could’ve been more. For many, it was frustrating to see a player like him not reach his true potential. Was it the reason for that sullen look? “I was happy off the pitch and I was happy on it,” he added. “It’s not that because I wasn’t smiling I wasn’t happy.”
On his latest visit to Pakistan, Anelka was both smiling and happy. Anelka was in Islamabad for a day as part of promotions for the upcoming the World Soccer Stars event, which will see two exhibition matches being played next month. Wearing a hoodie over a black t-shirt in a small meeting hall where the air conditioner had been switched off because of the noise, his shaven forehead glistened as he sweat. Yet he was calm and suave as he braved one interview after the other. His career has seen rapid changes. Anelka played for 12 different clubs, including some of most storied ones in the world like Real Madrid, Juventus, Liverpool and Arsenal. But he rates the best time of his career at a relatively smaller one, Bolton Wanderers.
Bolton was the seventh club he featured for — a club low on finances but high on appetite. Signed for a club record fee in 2006, Anelka was the frontman Bolton coach Sam Allardyce wanted to build his team on in their push for European football. He helped them qualify for the UEFA Cup [now Europa League] in his very first season, scoring 23 goals in 61 matches, earning a recall to the France squad in the process before departing for Chelsea after Allardyce had left the club.
“Bolton was special because it was another kind of football with ‘Big Sam’ as the coach,” he recalled with a wide grin. “I enjoyed my time at the Reebok Stadium and it was very special. Bolton was a family club and I liked it. It took me a long time [11 matches] to get my first goal but after that I kept scoring. There was no pressure like at the big clubs where you have to score and where you have to keep winning all the time. When we won, we won, when we lost, it wasn’t a problem because we all were giving our best as one family.”
Chelsea, a club which has a penchant for rapid-fire managerial turnovers, was incidentally the club where Anelka had the longest spell. He won the Premier League again, 12 years after he’d won the English game’s biggest title for the first time with Arsenal in 1998. A season earlier, he was the Premier League’s top-scorer. Yet an enduring image of his time at Chelsea remains of not a goal but a miss. In the driving rain at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Anelka missed a decisive penalty in the 2008 Champions League final shootout against Manchester United.
Almost 10 years later, the Luzhniki played host to one of France’s greatest sporting triumphs. Two decades on from their maiden World Cup triumph on home soil, France won world football’s greatest trophy again. The triumph further embellished the reputation of Kylian Mbappe, France’s teenage sensation who Anelka had compared to Brazilian superstar Ronaldo in 2016. “He’s a top player,” Anelka said of Mbappe. “He’s scoring goals for France, for [Ligue 1] champions Paris St Germain and it’s great to see him come of age as a player. I’d very interested to see him go abroad and play, probably go to England and Spain to show he’s the best.”
Anelka was only 17 when he left PSG for Arsenal in 1997, showing a goal-scoring prowess and a footballing ability that saw Real Madrid sign him up after two seasons at Highbury. The ‘Le Sulk’ tag had already been given to him and a disciplinary issue at Real, that saw him banned for 45 days, further tarnished his reputation. On his return, though, he inspired Real to the 2000 Champions League final, scoring in both legs of their semi-final tie against Bayern Munich.
That summer was a trophy-laden one for Anelka as followed up the Champions League title with the Euro 2000 crown with France, a triumph that sort of made up for missing out on the 1998 World Cup-winning squad on the last-minute as Aime Jacquet preferred the two other exciting French strikers coming up at that time, Henry and David Trezeguet. The current French team has a similar abundance of talent it has Anelka gushing. “These are very exciting times for French football. They have the best players and they’re playing as a team and I think they can dominate world football for years.”
These are exciting times for another of Anelka’s former teams — Liverpool, even if the weekend’s result left them a point off Manchester City at the top of the Premier League with nine games to go as they seek their first title since 1990. “I have played for both teams,” said Anelka, who played for City for three years from 2002 to 2005, having played Liverpool for a year before joining the Manchester side. “But I would like Liverpool to win it because the fans have been waiting for the title for such a long time.” He, however, wants City to win the Champions League. “It’s the title they are craving for and that’s the aim of their Emirati owners and I’m certain [City coach] Pep Guardiola absolutely wants it.”
The title Anelka wanted most eluded him — the World Cup. He had a chance to win it, as France’s leading man, in 2010 yet the French campaign was tarnished after Anelka was part of a revolt against coach Raymond Domenech. It spelt the end of Anelka’s international career even though he would play on five more seasons, including stints in China and India. But he seems to have made peace with his past.
“It’s part of my life,” he said in retrospect. “You can’t come back. It was written like this, meant to be like this and you can’t change destiny. What happened was because it had to happen. I had great moments in my life and I’m happy with what I achieved.” And smiling as well.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2019