Nicolas Anelka’s reputation as the enfant terrible of French football owes as much to his talent as his forthright personality. The striker has been a regular fixture in the France set-up since spring 2007, but his current status took a number of years to be acquired following a long and frustrating period in and out of contention. Absent from Les Bleus' squads for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups™, he can nonetheless boast a UEFA European Championship title and a FIFA Confederations Cup win, as well as a UEFA Champions League crown and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup medal in the club sphere.
Now enjoying his fourth spell in England, where he seems to be flourishing with Chelsea, the Trappes native has experienced football in four different countries since taking his first steps in the professional game as a 16-year-old with Paris Saint-Germain in 1996. His goals and almost constant instability have earned him headlines practically every step of the way, from his prolific stint as a youngster with Arsenal to his large transfer fee and disappointing stay at Real Madrid, followed by a failed return to PSG, a surprise but productive move to Fenerbahce, and varying degrees of success with Liverpool, Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers.
On the international stage, Anelka’s breakthrough came against England on 10 February 1999, when his two goals earned France a famous win at Wembley. A star seemed to have been born that night, but as the years went by his love affair with Les Bleus began to prove as tumultuous as his transfer sagas in the club game. There seemed to be no way back for him, in fact, when he rejected selection in 2002 after Jacques Santini called him up in the midst of an injury crisis. “I don’t want to be the replacement for the replacement,” he said at the time. “For me to come back, Santini would have to get down on his knees.” That clumsy rather than cruel declaration earned him a lengthy spell on the sidelines and, after missing out on the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups, he also had to draw a line under UEFA EURO 2004.
The dawn of the Raymond Domenech era heralded a new start, however, and Anelka was brought back into the fold in November 2005 for a historic friendly encounter in Martinique – his parent’s homeland – to face Costa Rica. Despite a fine performance and a goal in the 3-2 win, the forward nonetheless missed out on Germany 2006, with Sidney Govou selected instead after Djibril Cisse was forced to pull out through injury.
Rather than release a provocative statement, this time Anelka kept his head down and set about demonstrating his worth with a series of goals and stand-out performances for Fenerbahce. Playing in a new withdrawn role, he developed a more technical side to his game in Turkey, adding that dimension to a style that had previously been based on speed and a nose for goal. With Zinedine Zidane withdrawing from the international scene in the wake of Germany 2006, France now required a player with just such credentials.
Called up in March 2007 for a decisive EURO 2008 qualifier in Lithuania, Anelka seized his chance with the only goal of the match, before repeating the feat three days later against Austria. Anelka was back and since then the Chelsea marksman’s trajectory has followed a consistently upwards course, both with the Blues and Les Bleus.