Prolific journeyman, protest instigator, and controversy magnet: Alasdair Hooper tells us the patchwork paths of Nicolas Anelka’s career.
Where do you start with Nicolas Anelka?
From the incredible talent, to the numerous transfers, and all the way to the controversy, his career was always eventful.
To many Premier League fans, he is the teenage striker that burst onto the scene at Arsenal, helping the club to both the Premier League title and the FA Cup in the 1997-98 season.
Some see him as the man who helped spearhead the Chelsea attack for four years. For others, he will be remembered for a spectacular bust-up within the French national team, as well as the controversial quenelle gesture during his time at West Brom.
It all began at Paris Saint-Germain, with Anelka soon moving on to Arsenal at the age of 17 in – surprisingly – contentious circumstances back in February 1997.
Arsenal had attempted to sign the young striker on a Bosman transfer, which didn’t go down too well in some quarters, but he eventually signed for just £500,000.
He initially failed to make regular appearances, but following Ian Wright’s injury he broke into the first team in 1997-98, scoring nine goals along the way as the Gunners won the double under Arsene Wenger.
The following season Anelka’s goalscoring form kicked up a gear as he finished the campaign as the club’s leading scorer with 17 Premier League goals. He also won the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
Arsenal, however, failed to retain their titles from the previous year – we all remember what Manchester United did in 1999, after all – and Anelka soon wanted out.
In August 1999 he joined Real Madrid for £22.3million, with Arsenal going on to sign a certain Thierry Henry as his replacement from Juventus. But things just did not work out for Anelka in the Spanish capital.
In March 2000 he was suspended by the club president after refusing to train due to a disagreement with manager Vicente del Bosque. One season in Spain brought just two league goals and Anelka was on the move again back to Paris Saint-Germain in July 2000.
Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, it was another disagreement with a coach that brought an end to his time with PSG, and the Frenchman returned to England to join Liverpool on a loan deal in December 2001.
Despite some important goals in his half-season with the Reds, manager Gerard Houllier opted to sign El Hadji Diouf instead of Anelka, and the French striker ended up joining newly promoted Manchester City instead.
Anelka’s goalscoring form returned in Manchester as he finished as the club’s top scorer in his first two seasons before he left for Fenerbahce in January 2005.
In August 2006, Anelka was moving in the transfer market again and joined his fourth English club Bolton Wanderers for a club-record £8million.
With Sam Allardyce at the helm, he continued to provide goals, finishing as the club’s top scorer as Bolton finished seventh in the league.
Midway through his second year at Bolton he was soon on his way to Chelsea where he would go on to enjoy his longest period at any one club. In four years with the Blues, he scored 59 goals in 184 appearances, won the Premier League once, and the FA Cup twice.
However, while at Chelsea, controversy still followed the striker, most notably at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa where he was sent home for verbally abusing Head Coach Raymond Domenech at half-time during France’s 2-0 defeat to Mexico.
That episode led to the whole squad refusing to train the following day in protest. The world witnessed France’s 2010 World Cup campaign unravel in dramatic circumstances. Anelka was subsequently banned for 18-games by the French Federation, essentially ending his international career.
In January 2012, after falling down the pecking order under Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea, Anelka moved to Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua where he was also joined by his former Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba a few months later.
But Anelka wasn’t done with the transfer moves just yet. In January 2013 he moved on loan to Juventus, making just two league appearances as the club went on to win Serie A, before he decided to return to England with West Brom in July of that year.
What followed was another incredibly turbulent period for the forward. Anelka scored his first goal for the Baggies in a 3-3 draw with West Ham in December 2013 and performed a quenelle during his goal celebration – a hand gesture popularised by controversial comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala that has anti-Semitic connotations.
An FA disciplinary meeting banned him for five matches – though they found that he was not anti-Semitic and had not intended the gesture to express or promote anti-Semitism. In his Netflix documentary he would go on to say it was a gesture against manager Steve Clarke.
Following his ban, he then announced on Twitter that he had left West Brom with immediate effect.
Anelka would then go on to see out his playing days with Mumbai City in the Indian Super League before eventually retiring in 2015.
So, what is the former French striker up to these days? Well, it is fair to say he’s been busy since he hung up his boots.
Initially Anelka joined the technical staff with Dutch side Roda JC in February 2017, before becoming a youth forwards coach at Lille in November 2018.
More recently in February 2021 he became the sporting director of French fourth-tier side Hyères FC, under the new ownership of French businessman Mourad Boudjellal.
However, this week – on May 4, 2021 – the former Premier League star left his role as sporting director with no first team game having taken place at all during his tenure thanks to the Covid pandemic.
As reported by The Sun, the now 42-year-old said France’s ‘severe restrictions’ meant his ‘expertise are of no use’ as amateur football remains in limbo.
So, while Nicolas Anelka may currently be looking for a new role in football, you can bet there will still be plenty of suitors for him, just like his career on the pitch.
You can follow Alasdair on Twitter at @adjhooper1992