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Jul 5, 2013

Anelka hopes for home again

When Nicolas Anelka posed at West Bromwich Albion's Great Barr training ground for the obligatory holding-the-shirt shot on Thursday afternoon, the expression was one of familiar discomfort. One notable tweeter, BeardedGenius, memorably described the forward's demeanour as "holding the WBA shirt like it's a dead pigeon covered in sick." Plus ça change.

Among all his diverse achievements in an extraordinary career that's seen title wins with four different clubs and a Champions League title, being liked has never been something that Anelka has quite nailed. Baggies fans recalling the nationwide mirth inspired by Peter Odemwingie's televised attempted escape from The Hawthorns may feel a heart flutter or two.

Yet as time goes by, it's more and more apparent that Anelka is less 'Le Sulk', and more a shy, reserved man whose uncommon ability is juxtaposed with a total aversion to the modern media treadmill. While at Juventus this year, he shunned suggestions that he should live on the outskirts of Turin as most of the squad do, instead taking a nondescript apartment a few streets away from rivals Torino's Stadio Olimpico.

Known as modern football's archetypal nomad, Anelka has arguably always been searching for a home. Nearing the end of his 34th year, Anelka had made significant sacrifices to return to Europe on loan from Shanghai Shenhua. On the cover of one March issue, France Football asked: "But what's he doing here?" He joined Juve on one-seventh of his €920,000 monthly Shanghai salary to be fifth-choice forward. During his half-season with the Bianconeri, Anelka managed a cumulative total of 41 minutes in Serie A, and another four against Celtic in the Champions League.

A March survey of France's biggest earning sportsmen in L'Equipe had Anelka at number 4 in the table. Having been catapulted up the ranking by his mind-boggling earnings in China, he would almost certainly have leapfrogged the trio ahead of him - Karim Benzema, Tony Parker and Franck Ribery - had he not shunned all forms of advertising and sponsorship, "in order to not have to undertake even the smallest (marketing) obligation," as L'Equipe put it. Benzema is generally regarded as taciturn too, but earns around a third of his yearly income from commercial endorsements.

It seems unlikely Anelka's older brothers, Claude and Didier, would have allowed this sort of fiscal flippancy when they were looking after his affairs in the early part of his career. They were infamous while creating his reputation as a mercenary when engineering his acrimonious move from Arsenal to Real Madrid in 1999.

The genesis of this image pre-dates his spell at Highbury. In his 2000 book 'Le Foot', editor Christov Ruhn asked then-Paris Saint-Germain president Laurent Perpere why the club had let Anelka go to Arsenal in early 1997. "In football," Perpere reflected, "the people who advise players are terribly important and I feel that although Nicolas is perfectly straight, he finds he's the victim of circumstances that are somehow larger than his desire to play football, which is probably very sincere."

Of course, the truth is that Arsenal did extremely well out of his departure, as celebrated by Gunners fans in the famous chant of the time sung to the "Tom Hark" tune: "Real Madrid, Real Madrid, we sold you a **** for 23 million quid." For less than half of that bounty, Arsene Wenger brought in Thierry Henry as his replacement.

Unfortunately for young Anelka, this put him plainly out of his depth at the Bernabeu, even after a strong top-level apprenticeship at Highbury; isolated by struggles to learn the language, dressing room envy and the swift sacking of his champion, coach John Toshack. He still had his moments, scoring in both legs of the Champions League semi-final victory over Bayern Munich, and playing the final win over Valencia in his home city of Paris.

Anelka struggled to settle in the ensuing period, with an unfulfilling return to PSG, an unconsummated loan at Liverpool and a good spell at water-treading Manchester City following. After he converted to Islam in 2004, there was even talk that Anelka would turn his back on the big leagues to play in the United Arab Emirates and pursue spiritual enlightenment.

The compromise was a January 2005 move to Fenerbahce - perplexing for City fans, but a watershed for Anelka. In Istanbul, he found not only inner peace but a more altruistic side to his game, playing a supporting role to the prolific Marcio Nobre as the Yellow Canaries retained the Super Lig title. This patience stood him in good stead during a slow start at Bolton, whom he joined in summer 2006. It took until November for him to get his first Premier League goal for Sam Allardyce's side - a double, in fact, against former club Arsenal - but he kept his counsel. At West Brom, he will hope to recall the warmth he received - and gave - in Greater Manchester. When he married Belgian choreographer Barbara Tausia in Marrakesh in June 2007, he paid for the entire Bolton squad to fly out for the wedding.

This mature and versatile Anelka extensively benefitted Chelsea. Recovering from the missed shoot-out penalty in Moscow that saw the 2008 Champions League title go to Old Trafford instead of Stamford Bridge, he ended up playing more games and scoring more goals for Chelsea than he had anywhere else during a four-year spell. He put in considerable shifts all over the field before being frozen out by Andre Villas-Boas.

Of course, Anelka is no 'yes' man. Few in France will ever forget the fallout from his slanging match with Raymond Domenech at the 2010 World Cup, which saw Anelka sent home. When he was punished in August 2010 with an 18-match ban from the international side, he responded by saying the news made him "die laughing" and by calling the French Football Federation "clowns". Interviewed by TF1's Telefoot programme in October 2012, he enthusiastically defended Samir Nasri after the Manchester City midfielder's sweary outburst at a reporter during Euro 2012.

That's Anelka - as diametrically opposed to the airbrushed all-singing, all-dancing Premier League as can possibly be. The good news for West Brom fans is that hidden behind the frown is an enduringly fine player with work rate to match, who simply craves tranquillity and mutual respect.

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