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Have mercy on the mercenary

The gospel according to football fans: Players who are promiscuous in their careers shall be split into two categories - journeymen and mercenaries. The former stand for everything that's good and honest in the game; the latter are an indictment of everything that's wrong with it.

Mercenaries are the pirates of the high-end transfer market - hopping from treasure-laden ship to ship, on a cold and heartless quest for currency. Greed and ego loom large, and the only legacy worth worrying about is the 40-foot one they'll spend their retirement cruising around the Bahamas on.

Most would agree Nicolas Anelka is their Blackbeard. The 32-year-old Frenchman has already pillaged seven of the biggest clubs in the world - Paris Saint-Germain (twice), Arsenal, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester City, Fenerbahce and Chelsea. There was also a spell at Bolton, and next up for the striker is a highly-lucrative January move to Shanghai Shenhua in China.

Anelka's latest siege plays to his every negative stereotype. Having been marginalised somewhat under Andre Villas-Boas at Stamford Bridge, "Le Sulk" did what he always does when things don't go his way. He angled for a move, and a move duly arrived. All too predictably, it just happened to be one worth an estimated £190,000 a week.

It's no secret the Anelka family has profited spectacularly from his brand of wanderlust. Older brother Claude is Nicolas' agent, and between them they've attracted around £85 million in transfer fees alone since Anelka graduated from the prestigious Clairefontaine academy - the French finishing school for footballers that is also responsible for the likes of Thierry Henry, Louis Saha and William Gallas.

Anelka left Arsenal for Real Madrid in 1999 for a record fee of £22.3 million. He left Madrid for PSG for a French record £20 million in 2000. He became Manchester City's record signing when Kevin Keegan paid £13 million in 2002, and Bolton's when he arrived at The Reebok in 2006. As for his move to Shanghai Shenhua, Anelka represents not just the club's biggest extravagance, but arguably the most ambitious statement in Chinese football history.

When you consider his reputation as a dysfunctional loner, whose rap sheet includes a 45-day ban for missing training at Real Madrid and being sent home from the 2010 World Cup in disgrace, Anelka's enduring appeal is that of a troubled genius. Like sympathetic wives to unruly husbands, every club he calls home apparently embraces the possibility of a new dawn, and unlocking his true value. Every club believes they're the one to change his ways.

As yet, none have fully succeeded, but that's not to say he hasn't made returns on their investments. At Arsenal and Chelsea he won the Double, in Madrid a Champions League title. Even in his brief stint in Turkey with Fenerbahce, Anelka was implicit in a title-winning side.

He remains some way behind the Zlatan Ibrahimovic level of alchemy (eight titles in a row for five different teams, in three different countries), but Anelka must still be classed as one of the game's winners.

The fact remains, however, that a globetrotting career has come at the expense of Anelka's popularity, and his respect. Chelsea is the club he's served most often, but it's hard to imagine Stamford Bridge chanting his name once he's cashed his chips in west London. His was a fleeting cameo in comparison to those played out by the likes of his contemporaries John Terry, Frank Lampard and even Didier Drogba. To choose the football outpost of China over the Champions League knockout stages won't have helped his cause either.

Chelsea fans may yet join the chorus of derision against him. To his many detractors, Anelka is viewed as a selfish antagonist, whose performances have never quite lived up to his potential, or his pay packet for that matter. "He was the most gifted player I have ever seen", his former manager Avram Grant told talkSPORT on Wednesday, "but I think he has a lack of passion to succeed."

Anelka's fleeting allegiances have left him particularly vulnerable to criticism. No one club identifies with him, and no one set of fans feel duty-born to defend him. To that end, he finds himself a perpetual target with nothing but his own ability to answer back with.

Perhaps it's time for a fresh perspective on the clichéd barbs that follow him? Perhaps it's time to give "Le Sulk", le second chance?

How about considering the kind of self-belief necessary to free yourself from the cocooned surroundings of a football club that worships you? The confidence and ambition you need to stride into the most famous stadiums in the world and truly believe you can win them over. Anelka has succeeded in four countries and he's about to land in a fifth. Is that really the career path of least resistance?

Maybe fan allegiance is a crutch Anelka simply doesn't need. And in resisting authority he's no more of a maverick spirit than celebrated countrymen Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona. The aloof demeanour is read as disinterest, but maybe it's just the face of an inner focus immune to the emotional distraction suffered by his fellow players? One man's arrogance is another man's absolute faith.

As for his accrual of huge transfer fees, Anelka's not the first footballer to covet a pay day - and why blame him for his enduring market value? Here is a striker who's scored goals to a backdrop of four cultures, immersed in four different languages. He's collected over 100 goals in the most competitive league in the world and continues to present a genuine threat on the biggest stage.

You could say Anelka was playing to type in moving to China. But that type is as much as football's bravest frontiersman, inviting a new challenge with no fear of failure, as it is the game's ultimate mercenary. In a game increasingly devoid of personality, Anelka remains a complex case study of a player we may never fully understand. You can castigate that, or celebrate it. Either way, you'll miss him when he's gone.


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