The new documentary about Nicolas Anelka dedicates plenty of time to perceived grievances, but too little is said about one thing that really does matter…
There’s an old episode of Alan Patridge’s radio show, in which Norfolk’s premier Lexi-enthusiast describes himself as enjoying “a bit of a chat with the soft, fair, waif-like, moist creatures who you find in ladies’ sports.” He then quickly clarifies: “Please, don’t write in saying that’s sexist – it’s not.”
That passage came to mind while watching ‘Misunderstood’, the new film about Nicolas Anelka. The premise of the thing is ostensibly to explain Anelka the man, this brooding, seemingly inaccessible sort who was at the centre of numerous ‘controversial’ incidents during his career. You might expect we’d get lengthy explanations of those incidents, and come away with an account of why he was indeed so very misunderstood.
But rather than run us through exactly what we all misunderstood and why, the film appears to simply recount the events as they happen, before cutting to Anelka to off-handedly tell us it wasn’t his fault. Probably someone else’s, not really sure, but definitely not his. It’s as if simply saying he’s misunderstood is enough, that no further explanation is required.
It gets off to a strange start as, in the opening stages of the film, Anelka explains why he never formally announced his retirement from playing. “Because I don’t care,” he says, presumably about what people think of him. “I wanted to live a quiet life.” A strange move, therefore, to make a film about what people think of you.
And before we go much further, it’s worth pointing out that among the three producers listed in the film’s credits, one is Doug Pingisi, Anelka’s agent. While presumably Anelka did not spend hours in the editing room crafting every frame of this film himself, we can safely assume this wasn’t an entirely independent production.
Admissions of fault are few. They are occasionally hinted at, but usually in the way that famously ‘difficult’ people tend to acknowledge flaws: it’s just the way I am. Refuse to play in an Arsenal game not long after signing only to eventually be persuaded by Arsene Wenger? Just the way I am. Refuse to train at Real Madrid after forcing through a move there? Just the way I am. Describing not being picked for the 1998 World Cup squad as an ‘injustice’? You guessed it.
It’s not that Anelka is portrayed in an entirely unlikeable manner throughout. He lives in Dubai now, his wife’s decision, which feels like a healthy way to have things: when a player drags their family across the globe during their playing career to suit their whims and needs, it only seems fair that the family decides what happens after that. The cast of characters recruited to offer character references for ‘Nico’ – your Henrys, your Petits, your Pireses – is comprehensive enough to suggest most of his teammates liked him, at least.
And there are some examples where you could argue he really was ‘misunderstood’. He was obviously treated pretty badly at Real Madrid: bullied even, by a bunch of overgrown school kids in the Real dressing room, and the 2010 World Cup incident was clearly a stitch up to some degree.
A lot of time is dedicated to that 2010 World Cup, when Anelka was alleged to have said some very rude things to Raymond Domenech which inspired the infamous ‘mutiny’ in the France squad. The sense of injustice is understandable, but boy it drags on: this section takes up around 20 minutes, which doesn’t sound that long but in a 95 minute film about a 19-year career, it feels…disproportionate. It’s a little like that bit in Morrissey’s autobiography where he derails the entire narrative to devote acres of pages to his High Court case against Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke: interesting for a bit, but after a while you simply don’t care.
And it particularly grates when put next to the amount of time dedicated to the ‘quenelle’ affair, three years later. In December 2013 Anelka celebrated a goal for West Brom against West Ham by doing the ‘quenelle’, a gesture which involved placing his left hand against his right upper-arm, associated with French controversialist Dieudonne, a pal of Anelka’s but widely regarded to be an enthusiastic antisemite.
That gets about four minutes, but while the disproportionate amount of time rankles, the content does even more so. Anelka essentially places the blame for the incident on Steve Clarke, who it’s important to note was not West Brom manager at the time. Clarke was manager at the start of the season, when Anelka signed, but was sacked a couple of weeks before the game in question.
In the film he complains about being substituted by Clarke in 83rd minute the first game of the season, against Southampton. “I’m kind of the star of the team,” says Anelka. “When you take me off like that, what you’re actually saying is it’s 0-0 because the striker did nothing. So it’s a lack of respect. And a lack of trust. When you’re 34-years-old and the coach does something like that, I’m going to stop speaking to him.” Equally you could argue that if you’re 34-years-old and your reaction to being subbed off is to stop talking to your boss, you might just be a giant child, but anyway.
That lack of respect apparently created a burning injustice deep in Anelka’s soul, which manifested itself in that West Ham game, the first Anelka played after Clarke was sacked at the start of December. “When I do the quenelle, it’s for him [Clarke],” says Anelka. His interpretation seems to be that it is only an anti-establishment gesture, and specifically in this case a ‘fuck you’ to the man who had the temerity to substitute him seven minutes from the end of a game four months earlier.
At this point you have to remind yourself that this is in a film called ‘Misunderstood’, in which Anelka is presumably trying to make himself seem sympathetic. We are invited to assume that the only possible way he could have expressed his displeasure at Clarke – and, to repeat, the only reason given for this displeasure is that Anelka was substituted seven minutes from the end of a game in which he didn’t score – is to make a gesture widely associated with antisemitism.
“Not one prior incident with Jewish people,” Anelka claims, incredulous. “Why would I think about Jewish people after scoring a goal? Why?” Well, that’s sort of the point: he didn’t think about Jewish people, either when or more importantly after he scored the goal.
For the sake of argument let’s believe the notion that Anelka wasn’t aware of the antisemitic connotations of the quenelle before that West Ham game, that it merely was a gesture of defiance, a flipping off of the establishment that in this case took the form of …checks notes…the recently sacked West Brom manager. If he didn’t know about the other, more unpleasant stuff before, he sure as hell did after, and absolutely does now, seven years later, as he films a documentary supposed to rehabilitate his character.
It’s reminiscent of an old bit in Louis CK’s stand-up, where he tries to argue that a prevalent homophobic pejorative (you know the one) isn’t actually that offensive now, because when he was younger it didn’t mean what everyone else says it means now. An individual doesn’t get to decide what something means to suit their own purposes, if it’s widely associated with something else in the broader consciousness.
This was an opportunity to show a little humility, to admit that perhaps he was insensitive at best, that while he had or has no antisemitic intent – which he seems to insist he does not – he could see why it might be interpreted that way. But no. This section just fits in with the vibe of the rest of the documentary: not my fault chief, I ain’t apologising.
It makes you wonder why players bother with these sort of films, which are becoming more and more popular, de rigueur for the self-regarding modern footballer. These vanity projects are ostensibly an attempt for the subject to show the real them, to counter a prevailing narrative that they may not recognise as themselves. But more often than not they simply end up reinforcing what everyone thought of them in the first place.
If you thought Cristiano Ronaldo was a ferociously and justifiably arrogant but obsessively driven loner before watching the 2015 film ‘Ronaldo’, there certainly wasn’t much in it to dissuade you of that notion. Similarly for the Sergio Ramos Amazon documentary series from 2019. And now with Anelka.
The chances are that if you were on Anelka’s side before watching ‘Misunderstood’ then you’re going to be even more on his side afterwards. But if you weren’t on his side, you’re not going to be persuaded that he is ‘misunderstood’: a viewer who thought he was a tool before will probably just conclude that “no, we did understand, Nico, we just think you’re a tool.”
This was an opportunity for Anelka to explain what the public perceive to be his flaws, most obviously the quenelle incident, to explain what we really have misunderstood. But like almost all similar films, it really tells us nothing new. Please, don’t write in saying Nicolas Anelka did some objectionable things in his career: he didn’t.
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