Nicolas Anelka doesn’t give a shit.
It was clear for most of his career and it’s even clearer now, as he stars in his own Netflix documentary, Misunderstood.
From that perspective the title is somewhat of a misnomer; we very obviously understood from the beginning that he was a generational talent but only on his terms and, unfortunately, all too often those terms weren’t met.
But frankly, who cares? There are enough drones and automatons out there blithely complying with what the stereotype of a modern, dedicated, disciplined footballer is to last us the rest of our lives. Anelka; stupid, arrogant, badly advised, whatever you want to pin on him, he was box office in every aspect. It’s an often-forgotten part of the game; a player who talks the talk but can walk the walk whenever he finds the time.
The documentary begins from a unique perspective, wondering why you should be interested in what a periphery figure in French and English football is doing now. We are shown his kids waking up to go to school in Anelka’s current home in Dubai.
And there’s no rags-to-riches story, really, to speak of. Anelka was a coveted player from a young age but his family were always behind him and gave him the means to do so. By the age of 13 he was already recruited at Clairefontaine, France’s mythical training centre which formed the foundation of the team that won the World Cup in 1998 - a tournament that Anelka would not be selected for, a decision he met with the message that it would finally allow him to pass his driving test.
That that team eventually went on to create history doesn’t matter to him in the slightest. The fact that he did play at Euro 2000, when France went back-to-back in major tournaments, and didn’t excel despite their victory undoubtedly galls him more.
There’s much gesticulation around Anelka and his attitude towards the ability he had, how it was squandered, and in particular his complete ambivalence, and sometimes hostility, towards the media.
But it’s all meaningless, really. ‘Le Sulk’ was an appropriate nickname because the man doesn’t stand for utter bullshit and he called them out on it. At no point did he want to be misrepresented and it happened to him again and again. He remembers the honey trap when at Real Madrid and how Marca had him play Fifa only to run with the headline ‘Anelka finally scores… in a video game!’, referencing his poor run of form when he arrived in the Spanish capital.
But this was a £23m, 21-year-old signed by the biggest club in the world yet not provided with a locker or any training kit on his first day. It is ludicrous to think it possible now but one of the most expensive players in history had to borrow shorts to complete his first training session in front of a rabid press.
He comes as a package. He talks of his relationship and rapport with his brothers, who operate as his agent and financial consultant. The trio have frustrated literally every club he’s ever played for - Gerard Houllier, then-Liverpool manager, notoriously ceased negotiations to sign him permanently in 2002 because his brothers had been actively courting him around Europe - but Anelka doesn’t care. He doesn’t trust anyone else other than family to look after his affairs, and given he is clearly a private man in that regard, it makes logical sense.
The denouement of the piece is the French collapse at the 2010 World Cup, a disastrous campaign under a certifiable coach in Raymond Domenech who chose to pin his own ineptitude on a single man. But the key to understanding Anelka isn’t in his incessant arguments, but in those who appear in the documentary to go to bat for him.
Thierry Henry, Patrice Evra, Manu Petit, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires… the list of French legends discussing him as a player, but more pertinently, as a man, is striking. Someone this dislikeable wouldn’t be entertained by some of the greatest players of the 21st century. And yet, when Domenech chose to exile him, the rest of the team sided with Anelka, refused to train, and left the astrology-believing buffoon to address the media alone. When, years later, the coach is forced to admit that the thing it was claimed Anelka had said, well, he hadn’t really, it’s tacit admittance that Anelka wasn’t really the problem at all.
And, again, in the controversial ‘quenelle’ incident, where his explanation isn’t entirely convincing but the court case exonerated him and still he was publicly pilloried. It’s understandable that he has set himself up in opposition to who he feels has wronged him and trusts very few people.
The documentary, given it’s all about him, doesn’t dive into the details of the times where he was clearly in the wrong but you wouldn’t expect it to. What it does do is provide Anelka a platform to attempt to right some wrongs, and it achieves that well. And it also serves as a reminder that footballers used to be beings of independent thought, of attitude, and of charisma. Football misses players like Nicolas Anelka.