It started badly. Then it got worse. It was riddled with recrimination, suspension and frustration. Nicolas Anelka’s single season at Real Madrid is usually one that pops up on those worst transfers ever lists, a lesson in pre-Galactico hubris and another apparent piece of evidence that Anelka himself was trouble, unreliable and not to be trusted.
Yet it’s an interesting sort of failure that sees a player saunter off into the night of his home city with a Champions League winners’ medal, having scored the crucial goals to get his team there. How did all of this happen?
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Anelka’s path to the Bernabeu was a pretty bumpy one. The summer of 1999 saw one of the more tedious and undignified transfer sagas at a time which was awash with tedious and undignified transfer sagas. Anelka wanted out of Arsenal, and he seems to know where he wanted to go. “My dream has always been to play in France in Marseilles or Spain in Real Madrid,” he said at the time. “It’s not a question of money. I am not the first player to abandon a club and I won’t be the last.”
The saga dragged from the end of one Premier League campaign to the brink of the next. Anelka made it clear that he would be leaving, but Arsenal were equally steadfast that it would take a bucket of cash to make that happen. Emboldened by the transfer of Christian Vieri from Lazio to Inter for £32million, Arsenal were looking for a price in that region, and at the very least something north of the British transfer record at the time, Alan Shearer’s £15million move to Newcastle.
One week Lazio were in pole position, prepared to offer cash plus players ranging from Marcelo Salas or Roberto Mancini, to Pavel Nedved or Kennet Anderson, the latter name notable since they had only signed him a few weeks earlier. The next week, Juventus were the team, dangling a young colt who had lost his way named Thierry Henry as bait. Then Marseille would enter the frame, and basically any other big team with some spare cash were credited with an interest.
Looming all the time was Real, who eventually put us all out of our misery by stumping up £22million for Anelka and allowing Arsenal to pay £3million for Davor Suker by way of replacement, in the middle of August.
Anelka and his advisors’ tactic of screaming and screaming until they got what they want was successful in one respect, but sewed the unfortunate seeds of what was to come, in that Anelka arrived in Madrid with a reputation for being, at best, a pain in the arse. “There was an overall stink about the way the deal was done,” said Steve McManaman in ‘El Macca’, the book about his time in Spain. “It was nasty, not the blaze of publicity you want to arrive with.” It also didn’t help that him pitching up threatened the places of Real golden boys and bezzie mates Raul and Fernando Morientes. It was perhaps for this reason that Anelka was welcomed with all the warmth of a bowl of chilled sick.
“My life at Real Madrid was made difficult from day one because I was an outsider and many people did not want me to sign,” Anelka said a few years later. “The Spanish players at the club, particularly Hierro and Raul, are very close, so when I came in as a big money signing and took Raul’s place in the team, there were problems.”
“The first day I arrived at Real Madrid in the dressing room, no one introduced me to the players,” Anelka told FourFourTwo in 2008. “There was no locker for me, no place allotted, so I had to wait for everyone to sit down before I could decide where I was going to get changed.”
Julien Laurens pointed out on the Totally Football Show that only the French speakers in the Real side spoke to him when he arrived – Christian Karembeu, Samuel Eto’o and Geremi. “When you sign for a new club, it’s like arriving in a classroom,” Geremi tells the Totally Football Show. “You don’t know anyone, you don’t have any friends, you have to take time to get to know people.”
By the sounds of things this was a particularly unwelcoming classroom. Anelka said: “I remember the first thing that Eto’o and Geremi both said to me: ‘Be careful, because we know that some of the players went to see the president and asked why the club had bought you when they already had [Fernando] Morientes.’”
Geremi is coy about that, but nonetheless did his best to help integrate Anelka. “I had to do my best as a friend to help him, because it wasn’t easy for me to gel either. The person who helped me was Christian Karembeu. It was not easy for him to gel [with the rest of the squad] because he came from England to Spain. It was a big move. He was young.
“It wasn’t easy for him, because of his personality. When he came, he was one of the most expensive players at that time. We were almost the same age, we spoke French, it was easier for us to be friends. I was there before him. I am the type of person that loves people, and I think people love to be with me!”
Despite Geremi’s best efforts, the move appeared to be doomed from the start. “I can’t say I reacted badly but I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened,” Anelka said, of the apparent minor mutiny over his signing. “And from that moment, things could never be the same. Knowing what they had said about me, and the way that they showed me what they thought – in the way they treated me – that I wasn’t welcome.”
There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that it’s just naked bullying, the established boys at the school trying to drive out someone who potentially threatened their pals. It’s the sort of thing you might expect from a mean-spirited 12-year-old, rather than a collection of grown adult professional footballers.
“He is only 20, like Michael Owen,” McManaman said later that season, “and people don’t realise that they are still only babies. He left France at a young age, now he’s gone to Spain at a young age and, because of the transfer fee, he is under a huge amount of pressure. He doesn’t know the language and you don’t realise what he is going through unless you are in that situation.”
But is that too easy, though? Can you really say that just because some of the bigger boys were mean to him when he arrived, that a £22million transfer which had been months in the making was a write-off? Sure, Anelka was shy to the point of being freakishly introverted for a professional footballer, which isn’t going to help, but isn’t that letting him off the hook? Isn’t the idea to put your head down and prove everyone wrong?
If a player is not ready to fight for his place, he's not a competitor...Real Madrid is a big club, with big players. When you go there you have to fight.
Geremi, one of the more avuncular footballers you’ll come across, suggests just that, but in a nice way. “It’s competitive. It’s normal. If a player is not ready to fight for his place, he’s not a competitor, he’s not a fighter. I think this is what happened to Anelka, because he came from Arsenal where he was first choice. Real Madrid is a big club, with big players. When you go there you have to fight.”
That fight appeared not to be there, and was laced with an impatience consistent with Anelka’s nascent career to that point. He joined Arsenal in 1997 because, aged 17, he was unhappy with his lack of opportunities at PSG. He ultimately left Arsenal, barely two years later, after one barren season, trophy-wise.
Of course, it didn’t help that Anelka wasn’t fit. Having spent the summer social distancing, training on his own while his prospective transfer bored the pants off the public at large, by the time he actually started playing he clearly wasn’t up to speed. “He has gone some time without training and he needs time to get himself together,” said John Toshack, Real head coach at the time.
Anelka lasted 69 minutes of his full debut, a 2-1 win at Mallorca. He came off after 55 minutes of the next game, against Numancia. He didn’t start another game until a 2-2 draw against Barcelona in October, playing in a socially awkward front three with Raul and Morientes. “I arrived late and I missed a lot of pre-season so I will not be in the best shape physically, that is why I have not started so well,” he said after a couple of games.
Anelka also hinted at an unwillingness for the established Madrid meanies to pass him the ball, throwing in a jibe at his colleagues/competitors’ ability. “Raul and Morientes know each other really well. They are not great players, but players of a high level who know when they must give each other the ball.” Not long after this Michel Salgado had a birthday party which, in the spirit of squad cohesion, he invited Anelka to. Anelka didn’t go. File under ‘he didn’t help himself, did he?’
A series of minor injuries limited his appearances until Christmas, but by that point Anelka’s slow start was the least of Real’s concerns, Toshack sacked after winning just three of the first 11 games, an unwillingness to apologise for criticising some players in public the final straw.
Vicente del Bosque succeeded him, and while 20 years later we can regard Del Bosque achievements – two league titles, two Champions Leagues, a European Championship and a World Cup – with awe, back then he was seen as a club man, a sort of souped-up Tony Parkes, a willing stand-in who would doff his cap and move aside when someone weightier was available.
Del Bosque would later become exasperated with Anelka, but he attempted to tease something like the best from his young charge by trying to use the more laid-back McManaman, who had signed in the same summer and settled in Madrid very nicely, to act as a sort of interlocutor.
“I think Del Bosque hoped that Anelka would be as outgoing, and keen to integrate himself as Steve,” said Ivan Helguera in ‘El Macca’. “When the situation became impossible, he encouraged Steve as a sort of link the communications, a go-between. I think what he hoped was that some of Steve’s personality would rub off on to Anelka.”
They treated me like a dog. They accused me of spending too much time on the phone. So what? Am I not allowed to call my family and my friends?
The early signs weren’t promising. Results weren’t improving and Anelka’s performances were attracting increasing ire from the Real fans, though he was mercifully absent from the nadir of their season, a 5-1 home defeat to Real Zaragoza in which the chant “burn their Ferraris” boomed around the Bernabeu.
By the end of November reports in Italy suggested that Real were already trying to cut their losses and were either willing to loan Anelka to Lazio, or use him as bait to sign Ronaldo from Inter, who at that point was weeks away from the knee injury that would end the first phase of his career.
A terribly clever topical joke started to circulate in the Spanish press: ‘What is the difference between Anelka and the Euro? Neither will be effective before 2002.’ “I’ve named my pet hamster Anelka because I never know what he’s thinking or what he wants,” japed Margarita Garcia, president of a Real fan group.
By the turn of the year, even Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had weighed in. “I think it is impossible for a soccer player to play so well as to be worth 5.3billion pesetas,” he mused. “In life, everything has a limit and some things are simply too much. What must a player do to justify 5.3billion pesetas? How many goals must he score, how many titles must he win?”
And again we must return to the point about bullying. Of course, footballers have to expect criticism, even abuse, but reading back through the coverage at the time, from the Spanish and English press – it’s relentless. The collective media’s mind was made up, that Anelka was a bad egg and every piece of evidence to support that conclusion was leapt upon. Anelka undoubtedly dealt with a lot of things badly, but he had a lot of things to deal with.
There was even a suggestion that Anelka was malingering, missing a few games with a knee injury that the Real doctor, Alfonso del Corral, couldn’t locate. “I’ve seen nothing about Anelka’s knee that impresses me, but if he says it hurts, then it hurts,” Del Corral said. Anelka was nonetheless made to travel with the team for a trip to Celta Vigo, Del Bosque archly saying: “He’s not trained, and apart from that his knee hurts, but he’s going to travel with us so he doesn’t feel left out.”
Not that things were much better when he was fit and playing. “I’m playing on the right that everyone knows is not my job,” Anelka sniffed in November. “That way nobody can ask me for goals. We play with a striker who is an area fox (Morientes) but I will not change my game. I have never scored such a goal and would hate to do it. If at 20-years-old I don’t enjoy soccer, the best thing is to quit.”
Then in December, Del Bosque named him on the bench for a Champions League game against Rosenborg, but was apparently infuriated with the leisurely manner with which Anelka removed his tracksuit when called upon to play.
To this point, Anelka hadn’t scored a competitive goal in a Madrid shirt, but in January they travelled to Brazil for the Club World Championship. Something seemed to awaken in Anelka as he scored goals against Al-Nassr (albeit that a blocked clearance that looped in) and two against the eventual winners Corinthians, even if the one thing the British press seemed to gleefully jump upon was that he missed a penalty in the latter game. ‘NICO JUST CAN’T GET IT RIGHT’ whooped the Daily Mirror. By by this point, Anelka truly could not win.
Alas, any potential comeback was stymied by a meniscus problem that required surgery and thus two months out, but when he returned at the end of February, yet more green shoots appeared. Anelka scored in a 3-0 win over Barcelona – a tap-in it may have been, but it was a start. “I have waited for a long time for this day,” he said afterwards. “Things have not gone particularly well for me and I am thankful that I have scored at the Bernabeu.”
But, alas, again, it was not to be. Apparently unhappy with being substituted in a Champions League game against Bayern and with how he was being used in the team, Anelka missed three training sessions and was subsequently banned for 45 days without pay, or until he apologised, whichever came sooner. “He now has to ask for forgiveness from his teammates, the coach and, above all, the fans,” said president Lorenzo Sanz. “He has to do it in public, in a press conference.”
“I reminded Nicolas that this is not a school playground but a professional club, but he still refused to train,” Del Bosque said. “This is painful for me. Nicolas has always been treated with love by the club in general and by me in particular. This is a bad example for our young players.”
Years later, Del Bosque claimed that Anelka’s boycott was motivated by his teammates not celebrating his goals, that they weren’t happy for him when he scored. “It’s clear that he is a child, but we still don’t know the age of the child,” said the Real Madrid vice president, Juan Onieva.
“I have been polite to everybody,” Anelka told France Football. “I shook hands and I smiled when they asked me. I even learned Spanish alone and gave interviews despite the fact I hate to speak in public. The result? They treated me like a dog. They accused me of spending too much time on the phone. So what? Am I not allowed to call my family and my friends?”
The stand-off lasted only two weeks in the end, Anelka apologising in a 90-second press conference for his conduct, although it was possibly for more pragmatic reasons as a Champions League tie against Manchester United was looming and Morientes was injured. Nevertheless, Anelka was sorry, and weirdly thus began a fruitful few weeks in a Madrid shirt.
Real won that game, in which Fernando Redondo defenestrated Henning Berg, but then they had to face Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. The Germans were overwhelming favourites, having absolutely horsed Real in the second group stage by an aggregate score of 8-3. Enter Anelka.
‘The corpse of Nicolas Anelka rises,’ is how Marca recently described his performances over the two legs, as he first gave Real the lead four minutes into the opening game, running onto a brilliant Raul pass, pausing to assess all options before smartly lifting the ball over Oliver Kahn and into the net. “[It] had the stadium buzzing and meant his teammates had to go and hug him!” said McManaman.
Real took a 2-0 lead to the return in Munich, but 12 minutes into that second leg Carsten Jancker volleyed home and for the next 20 minutes, Real were pinned back, Giovanni Elber having a second disallowed (probably wrongly) for offside and dragging another effort wide. But then, Anelka again. Savio cut in from the left and clipped over a cross, Anelka stole a march on Sammy Kuffour and glanced a header home. Bayern then needed to score three more times and the tie was effectively over.
In two games, Anelka showed why he was so coveted, why half of Europe had been falling over themselves to sign him the previous summer. These were the two biggest goals of Real’s season, since Valencia melted away in the final and Real won pretty easily. It was as if Anelka had taken a season’s worth of abuse just to get the opportunity to prove a point, to show his talent, what he really was. Anelka scored four goals in La Liga and the Champions League: two were against Bayern and the other against Barcelona. A brief but pretty punchy resumé.
But just as soon as it started, it was over again. Anelka scored a few days later against Real Betis, but that was his last goal for the club, and after being part of the France squad that won Euro 2000, he returned to PSG.
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So what happened? Anelka showed us all how good he could be in those two games against Bayern, but not in the other 29 times he put on a Real shirt.
One explanation is that it was just a matter of timing. “He got to Real too young,” said Alvaro Romeo on the Totally Football Show. “He never adapted to the Real Madrid locker room. He did things his own way from a young age. He just couldn’t cope with everything that playing for Real Madrid involved at the time. It was just the wrong moment for Anelka to be there. I’m not blaming him, or Real Madrid, but it was just the wrong moment.”
Another is that Real’s innate conservatism and Anelka’s stubbornness were never going to mix. “There were a few things that Anelka did that were considered, at least, eccentric,” said Alvaro. “Number one, he left the training ground once in the boot of his car, with his brother driving, because he didn’t want to meet the press. And maybe his dress style was too much for a conservative society – he rolled up one of his trouser legs and was walking around like that.” As ludicrous as it sounds, that was too much for the stuffier end of the Madridistas.
You would like to think that, if this was happening today, there might be a nuanced conversation about mental health. Here was a 20-year-old kid who had already been the subject of two controversial transfers, shifted to an alien culture with enormous pressure and expected to adapt instantly. Of course, his nature and stubbornness didn’t help, but who among us would have dealt well with all of that, at his age?
McManaman, for his part, always defended Anelka. “I get on well with him. That’s why I stick up for him. Some people say he’s arrogant, but I say he is shy. You can get very lonely., He only speaks to a couple of people because of the language. He is even shy about speaking English to me. If I couldn’t speak the same language as anyone, I would be quiet.”
It would of course be a stretch to call Anelka’s time at Real a success. Seven goals in 31 games is not anyone’s idea of a sterling return. But in the end three of those goals were crucial, arguably kept Del Bosque in a job and allowed him to achieve what he did, and provided a few of those ecstatic moments every football fan craves. And then, in the end, Real got their money back and used some of it to pay for Luis Figo.
“Despite all the things that went on during the season I have good memories of my time in Madrid,” Anelka told FourFourTwo. “I’ve just kept all the good things in my head: the town, the club – even though there were negative things going on. What I hold on to and remember is that we won that Champions League, one of the most important competitions in the world. On top of that, the final was played in Paris, which is where I come from, so it was magnificent.”
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