Nicolas Anelka was a child soccer prodigy, whose gift for goal-scoring was spotted, when he was a mere 17, by Arsenal’s astute manager Arsene Wenger, a fellow Frenchman. Wenger’s faith in the teenager was swiftly vindicated: A year after signing to play for the English team, Anelka played a key role in Arsenal’s extravagant 1997-98 season of success, winning the prized and elusive “double” of English soccer’s key trophies: the Premier League and the FA Cup.
But after that remarkable start, Anelka’s career quickly spun into a decline from which it never really recovered. After 90 games for Arsenal, he left the club, having attracted the nickname “Le Sulk” for his perceived lack of enthusiasm on the field, amid headlines about his unhappiness in England.
He then embarked on a dizzying journey that took him to teams in Spain (Real Madrid), France (Paris Saint-Germain), England again (Manchester City, Liverpool, Bolton, Chelsea), Turkey (Fenerbahçe), China (Shanghai Shenhua) and Italy (Juventus). Apart from Manchester City and Chelsea, where he played and scored fairly regularly, he never really settled. Every now and again, reports would surface of dressing room unrest, friction with other players or the coach, arguments over pay.
He had seemed to have all the skills of a potential Cristiano Ronaldo or a Lionel Messi, but the sense of a spectacular career being frittered away was reinforced at national level too. Anelka had made his debut for France as a 19-year-old and helped his country win the Euro 2000 tournament. But he lost his place in the France team because his club career was so inconsistent, did not play in the 2002 or 2006 World Cups, and was sent home from the 2010 tournament after crudely criticizing the national coach. Declining to apologize, he was banned for 18 matches, effectively ending his international career.
Along the way, in 2004, Anelka converted to Islam.
The start of the current season found Anelka, now nearing the likely end of his soccer journeys at age 34, signed by the fairly mediocre English Premier League team West Bromwich Albion. No sooner had he arrived, in the summer, than he was reported to have walked out of a training session vowing to retire. But he stuck it out and on Saturday, in his first appearance for the team in two months, he played and starred — scoring two vital goals.
Nicolas Anelka, a role model for tens of millions wearing his hatred on his sleeve
Scoring a goal in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans, with tens of millions more watching on television around the world, top-class players say, is an extraordinary experience. Not a few have described the feeling as better than sex.
West Bromwich were a goal behind, to fellow Premier League strugglers West Ham United, when Anelka scored his first, bringing his team back into the game. His teammates were, obviously, overjoyed. They rushed to congratulate him, to embrace him, leaping with happiness, smiling, shouting in near ecstasy.
Not so Anelka. No sense from him of a joyous release to equate with orgasm.
His face, rather, was set in a stony, expressionless mask as he turned away from the goalmouth toward those teammates dashing to envelop him. In a move that was quite the opposite of spontaneous celebration, and one he had evidently carefully prepared, he extended one hand straight down and touched the other to his shoulder in what might be described as a reverse Nazi-style salute. It is a gesture known as the quenelle, invented by the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-ridiculing French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a sometime extremist politician who has been convicted repeatedly in France for incitement against Jews and whom Anelka calls a friend.
After the game, despite the cold-hearted choreography and his thorough familiarity with everything foul that Dieudonné and the quenelle symbolize, Anelka claimed to be mystified by the predictable outcry — which was led by French politicians. (The sports minister, Valerie Fourneyron, called his salute a “shocking, disgusting provocation.”)
Anelka’s team coach, plainly flailing way out of his depth, initially believed the player’s disingenuous professions of surprise, and asserted that the row was “absolute rubbish really. [Anelka] is totally unaware of what the problems were, or the speculation that has been thrown around; he is totally surprised by it.”
But Anelka, of course, knew exactly what he was doing. He had posed previously with Dieudonné, performing the quenelle alongside him. And now, after finally ending his own goal drought, with all eyes and all the cameras trained upon him, he was able to bring this gesture of malevolence onto the soccer field — a role model for tens of millions wearing his hatred on his sleeve.
The row will rumble on now for a while. West Bromwich Albion claims Anelka has promised not to repeat the salute. As of this writing, he had not apologized for it. The Football Association is investigating the incident and, not for the first time in his career, he faces a lengthy ban.
We’ll see, in the coming weeks, whether the racist minority that soccer has long attracted will pick up on the quenelle, and bring a new wave of anti-Semitism and hostility to the stadiums. One fervently hopes not. That minority has long been relatively marginalized; the overwhelming majority of soccer fans are motivated not by animosity but by love of the game and their team.
The lesson, though — and there is a chilling lesson here — relates to hatred’s capacity to brand its bitter mark on the souls of those who are prone to carrying chips on their shoulders, those who feel grudges and slights, those who believe that they are not being given their due — be they the German masses in the years approaching World War II, whipped up by Nazi incitement, or multi-millionaire soccer players who have nonetheless managed to convince themselves that the world is against them, stirred up by cynical politician-comedians.
Anelka hadn’t scored a goal in England in more than two years. Now he had broken that dry spell, to the ecstatic relief of his teammates, his management, tens of thousands of adoring fans in the stadium, and untold numbers watching across the globe. What a moment, so long yearned-for. What a release. But in those first glorious seconds of triumph, influenced by his cynical, anti-Semitic friend, he was able to suppress the instinctive sense of delight and joy almost all of us would have felt and would have exhibited. To easily suppress those instincts.
Instead, while all were rejoicing around him, Nicolas Anelka’s heart and soul and stare stayed icy, and he carefully signaled hatred.