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Nicolas Anelka: New Netflix documentary to shine light on football’s most controversial career

‘Misunderstood’ is the title of the new Netflix documentary looking at the life and career of Nicolas Anelka. 

Including interviews with Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Arsene Wenger, it airs on Wednesday and promises to be a fascinating watch and depiction of one of football’s most interesting characters over the past 25 years.

Anelka will always be remembered as a sublime finisher with devastating power and speed but also as somebody who didn’t achieve what he could have because of problems away from the pitch. 

The Frenchman is the definition of a nomadic figure. His career has taken him to almost every corner of the globe, starting in Paris and ending in Mumbai.

There has been no shortage of controversy, too. 

After coming through France’s national football centre at Clairefontaine, Anelka signed for Paris Saint-Germain as a 16-year-old. Just a year later he was brought to England by Arsenal, in a deal worth around £500,000.

He exploded onto the scene under Arsene Wenger. In just three years in north London, Anelka won the PFA Young Player of the Year award and the Premier League title. 

He also scored in an FA Cup final and netted a Premier League hat-trick. Everything was going perfectly until reports surfaced that Real Madrid had set their sights on the promising striker.

Links to the Spanish giants muddied Anelka’s relationship with the Arsenal fans and he was nicknamed ‘Le Sulk’ for his downbeat attitude and lack of enthusiasm. 

Anelka thought he was worthy of more adoration than the Arsenal fans were giving and sealed a move to the Bernabeu for £22.3million. 

‘When Michael Owen went to Real Madrid it was okay. When David Beckham went to Real Madrid no one turned on him. But when I went it was like I had killed someone,’ Anelka once told Sportsmail.

‘And yet one year later [Emmanuel] Petit and [Marc] Overmars went to Barcelona and nothing like that happened to them. And remember, Arsenal bought me for £500,000 and sold me for £23million.’ 

Despite Real’s huge outlay on Anelka, he only stayed in the Spanish capital for one season. He found it tough in front of goal, taking five months to score his first, and then in March he was suspended for refusing to train after a row with manager Vicente Del Bosque.

Anelka managed to work his way back into contention just in time for the business end of that season’s Champions League, scoring twice in the semi-final victory over Bayern Munich.

Fittingly the final was held at the Stade de France in Paris and Anelka started as Real ran out winners against Valencia. The damage had been done when he picked a fight with Del Bosque though and Anelka was sold back to PSG in the summer of 2000. 

There was delight that the prodigal son had returned to the French capital and his first few months were promising before things were flipped on their head again.

PSG’s performances quickly deteriorated in his first season back in France and manager Philippe Bergeroo was sacked mid-season. Anelka didn’t take too well to his replacement, Luis Fernandez, and they had a falling out.  

Despite signing a six-year deal in July 2000, he was shipped out on loan to Liverpool in December 2001. He scored five goals in 22 appearances for the Reds but left at the end of that season. 

Gerard Houllier decided not to make his loan move permanent, opting instead to sign El Hadji Diouf after his impressive form for Senegal at the 2002 World Cup. 

Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have both since admitted their despair at the club for allowing Anelka to get away and the Frenchman recently described leaving Anfield as ‘my biggest regret’.

‘This is my biggest regret as well because I knew it was the perfect match,’ Anelka recently told the Liverpool Echo. ‘Everything was perfect! I loved everything about the club.

‘I had an amazing relationship with the fans. I loved them and I think it was reciprocal.

‘Looking back, I am proud to have worn the jersey of this legendary club and to have known this stadium and these amazing fans.’

Instead, Anelka moved just down the M62 and signed for Kevin Keegan at Manchester City. He found a home at City, playing the second highest amount of games for any club in his career.

Anelka netted 46 times in 103 appearances but after two-and-a-half years in Manchester he decided it was time to move on and had 18 months in Turkey with Fenerbache.

Back to England he came though with a move to Bolton in August 2006, starting perhaps the best period of his career. 

He offered a reminder of his scoring credentials with 23 goals in 61 appearances, the first of which was an absolute screamer against former club Arsenal. 

Anelka was Bolton’s top scorer in the 2006-07 season as they finished seventh in the Premier League, qualifying for the UEFA Cup. 

‘It was the best moment of my career,’ Anelka told RMC Sport back in 2018. 

‘I was happy to play with El-Hadji Diouf and other French players. I liked the way we played football back then. Simple: kick-and-rush!

‘You didn’t have to dribble, you just had to fight. You knew the ball was going to come into the box sooner or later and you’ll have your chance.’

After two and a half years in the North West, Anelka won a move back to London with Chelsea. Although he missed a penalty in the 2008 Champions League final, he was impressive at Stamford Bridge.

He won the Premier League title, two FA Cups, the Premier League Golden Boot in 2008-09 and won a place in the PFA Team of the Season that year as well. In 2009-10 he formed a sublime partnership with Didier Drogba as Carlo Ancelotti’s side won the title with 103 goals scored.

It was at the end of that season that Anelka’s reputation on the international scene blew up at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Coming off a superb season in the Premier League, Anelka probably felt he should have been a key player under Raymond Domenech.

But he was brought off after 72 minutes in the opening draw against Uruguay and then exploded during the 2-0 defeat by Mexico in the second group game.

When criticised by manager Domenech and substituted at half-time, Anelka allegedly fired back: ‘Go f*** yourself you son of a w****’. When Anelka refused to apologise the day after, he was sent home.

That prompted mass protests from his team-mates who refused to train. Just as a public training session was about to start, Domenech had to separate captain Patrice Evra and fitness coach Robert Duverne during a heated argument. 

Further chaos ensued as the players shut the curtains on their team bus to have showdown talks with Domenech. The French Football Federation’s managing director subsequently quit and the team finished bottom of their group with just one goal and one point from three matches.

Even John Terry got involved, saying: ‘You won’t find a better man in football. It’s obviously the wrong decision.’ Anelka was given an 18-match ban from international football by the FFF, to which he responded: ‘I’m dying with laughter’. 

Domenech was later replaced by Laurent Blanc, who suspended all 23 members of the World Cup squad for his first game in charge. Evra was banned for five matches, Franck Ribery for three and Jeremy Toulalan for one for their roles in the chaos.

Anelka never played for France again. The Netflix documentary promises to take a look at the 2010 fiasco and Anelka’s insights promise to be unmissable. 

Anelka returned to Chelsea in 2010-11 and picked up where he left off, scoring 16 goals in 45 appearances. But the arrival of Andre Villas-Boas in 2011 was the beginning of the end for Anelka in west London.

His role in the team diminished and Anelka handed in a transfer request before agreeing a move to Shanghai Shenhua in January 2012. A year later he won a move back to Europe, signing for Juventus on loan where he won the Serie A title in 2012-13.

Anelka was released by Shanghai Shenhua on his return to China in the summer of 2013 and so he moved back to England on a free transfer to West Brom, his sixth Premier League club.

Just a month after signing Anelka walked out of a training session, reportedly saying he was going to retire. The reports were quickly denied and Anelka missed one match on compassionate grounds following the death of his agent.

After taking almost six months to score his first goal for the club, Anelka managed to finally find the back of the net in a 3-3 draw with West Ham in December but his celebration caused major outrage. 

He was banned for five matches and fined £80,000 for his ‘quenelle’ gesture, brought to prominence by French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. 

Some thought the gesture was an ‘inverted Nazi salute’, leading to claims of anti-Semitism. Anelka insisted the symbol was ‘anti-establishment’, rather than anti-Semitic.

The FA’s independent regulatory commission later concluded it did not believe Anelka was an anti-Semite or that ‘he intended to express or promote anti-Semitism by his use of the quenelle.’

Anelka was quickly out of The Hawthorns, terminating his contract by social media in 2014 much to the dismay of the club. In September of that year he was back in Asia after singing with new Indian Super League side Mumbai City FC.

After an attempt to leave for Algeria’s NA Hussein Dey proved to be unsuccessful, Anelka returned to the Indian club as their player-manager which proved to be his swansong. 

Anelka is now back in France, working as a coach with Lille’s young players. If anybody has any experience to offload onto the next generation then it is most definitely him.

After a career spanning 662 appearances for 12 clubs in seven countries, it is remarkable Netflix have managed to squeeze everything into just over 90 minutes. Every single second should be unmissable television.  

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