Tuesday 28 March 2017

Incredible Sulk rages between the sublime and the ridiculous

Dion Fanning

M aybe it was the weather or something like that, but Nicolas Anelka was a transformed man in Copenhagen last Tuesday night.

Perhaps it was simply too cold for Anelka to play his natural game. His natural game has always involved a mesmerising combination of disdainful disengagement, aristocratic contempt and spellbinding talent.

Like all shy people, as he gets older and becomes more confident, he seems intent on making some people suffer for the silent humiliations of the past.

Raymond Domenech would tell you how that feels, but there is always the sense with Anelka that at any time somebody could disrespect him in a manner that is unacceptable.

On Tuesday night, he came alive, delivering a performance of menace and intent.

Anelka has an ability to convey a sense of menace and intent even when he is not menacing and shows very little sign of doing anything at all.

On those rare occasions this season when he has been roused, he is lethal but there is even an intensity to his apathy.

He remains banned from international football after last summer's unpleasantness in South Africa. He is free therefore to concentrate on his club career, to sprinkle it with his characteristic intensity.

He started for Chelsea on Tuesday night which may, as much as the cold, have provoked him into playing with energy.

Last Saturday, he was sent on during the game against Everton and as a substitute was asked to take a penalty in the shoot-out.

This, as seasoned observers of Anelka would have warned, was a mistake. "That is out of the question," Anelka said when asked by Avram Grant to take a penalty in the Champions League final after being sent on a sub to play, as he saw it, as some sort of auxiliary right-back.

Eventually, he did take one, watching with a shrug of the shoulders as Edwin van der Sar saved. "All the better for him, that is the game."

He does, in some way, embody the Corinthian spirit, at least with his ability to dismiss the vagaries of football as something that can only be expected. Especially if people somehow underestimate Nicolas Anelka.

"I am dying with laughter," he said when given his mammoth 18-game suspension by the French Football Federation, displaying the gift the serene possess of laughing at their situation, no matter how calamitous it may appear.

So he seemed nonplussed or intensely apathetic when he missed his penalty against Everton. He had been sent on as a sub again and was now being asked to do things which, in another context, he had suggested were beneath him.

There was an aesthetic quality to his penalty: a short, minimalist, run-up, the languid connection as he aimed high into the corner. It was a penalty that was going to look good whatever happened. Sometimes with Anelka, it looks as if scoring is not his first priority. He is trying to make a point about the nature of existence -- primarily his -- and how we all have to suffer -- primarily him.

His goals on Tuesday were a demonstration of the beauty he can conjure on the field. They were hit as languidly as his penalty miss, but with lethal force.

The idea that some have suffered enough did not cross the minds of those who delighted in Ashley Cole's penalty miss and his recent troubles on the field.

The world demands integrity for some reason. Tony Blair says he did what he thought was right, everybody nods and concedes that at least he was doing what he believed in when we'd all be better off not being so sure what was right and what was wrong.

As Jonathan Franzen writes in Freedom, integrity is a neutral value, "hyena is pure hyena". Ashley Cole is pure Ashley Cole, a man who knows himself and gets abused for it. Cole proves that when people say they want integrity and honesty, in fact they want something else.

Chelsea provide these moral ambiguities more than any other club. For many their rise was summed up in that final in Moscow when Peter Kenyon led the team up the stairs while Bobby Charlton fulfilled that role for Manchester United. Many of us pointed out that the difference between Kenyon and Charlton was the difference between Chelsea and Manchester United, even the Glazers' Manchester United. The fact that George Gillett had led Liverpool up the year before could be said to both strengthen and weaken our argument.

Chelsea could not claim dysfunction in their promotion of Kenyon, although they are suffering now from the peculiar type of malady that affects the very bored and very rich.

Few have sympathy for the wealthy and their agonies. They persevere with Ancelotti and try and work out what exactly it is Abramovich wants (I would say it is just 'more'), they rely on men like Anelka and Cole, who is usually reliable.

Anelka would, if allowed, tell you all about the hypocrisies of life, especially as they pertain to him and his situation.

After Domenech criticised his positional play at half-time in the game against Mexico, Anelka told him to "go screw yourself, you dirty son of a whore". This harsh and inaccurate response led directly to his substitution and the complete unravelling of French football.

Among the consequences was the ban on giant headphones as they were seen as symbolic of the disconnect between the players and the country. Anelka doesn't need no giant headphones to be a man apart.

"They are dominated by tormented egos and star salaries, cut off from the reality of the country and their fans, and split into clans," Le Monde wrote at the time. And that was just Anelka.

dfanning@independent.ie

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