One of the greatest-ever French talents, Nicolas Anelka failed to achieve consistency in his career and, with the possible exception of his time at Chelsea, never found a more permanent home during his travels across the land of football. Educated at the famous INF Clairefontaine, 50km southwest of Paris, Anelka benefitted from the quality of an academy that also produced the likes of Thierry Henry and Louis Saha. An unbelievable prospect, the striker made his senior debut for Paris Saint-Germain in 1996, aged just 17. After only ten senior appearances and a goal for the club, he was identified as a major target by none other than Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who snapped up the 17-year old for a fee of around €750,000 in February 1997.
At Arsenal, Anelka spent his initial few months as a back-up player, but it took him less than six months to break into the Gunners’ starting eleven. He made 26 appearances, scoring 6 in his first full Premier League season. The following season was the Frenchman’s breakthrough year in North London and by the end of the campaign, the striker was Arsenal’s top scorer with 17 Premier League goals in 35 games. Only 20 years old at the time, Anelka’s exploits drew some significant attention from the continent and he was subsequently bought by Real Madrid for an incredible record fee of €35 million.
At the club that many describe as the ultimate best in the world, Anelka hit the ground running and played some great games, but it did not take too long for fans, fellow players and even manager del Bosque to become frustrated with this young prodigy. At one point, the Frenchman even received a 45-day suspension for refusing to train. This was a horror scenario for such a young player. However, the striker managed to bounce back to some extent by regaining his place in the starting line-up and even scoring critical goals in the Champions League semi-finals, before being named in the starting eleven of the 2000 Champions League final. Despite this improvement, Anelka left the Spanish capital after just one season to return to his boyhood club PSG for just under €35 million.
However, it did not take Anelka too long to fall out with yet another manager, this time Luis Fernandez, who was known as a disciplinarian of sorts. Again, after only a season he was loaned out to Liverpool, where he did not manage to settle either, and then joined Manchester City for €15 million in 2002. At age 23, this was Anelka’s fifth club since turning professional. He managed to score 37 goals for City in 89 appearances, but left for Turkish giants Fenerbahce after two and a half years. He managed only 18 months in Turkey before a surprising return to the Premier League, after joining Bolton Wanderers for €12 million in 2006. At 27, Anelka had joined his seventh club and scored 21 Premier League goals in 53 appearances across one and a half seasons, after which he earned himself a move to Chelsea.
Chelsea turned out to be his most permanent home. He stayed at the club for four full years and won a Premier League title and two FA Cups during his time in West London. After leaving the Blues in January 2012, Nicolas Anelka still managed to play for another four clubs in just under three years, taking his total tally to 12 football clubs during his career of 18 years. Most recently, he played for Mumbai City in the Indian Super League and will return for them next season.
In contrast to many other nomads, it seems as though, Anelka made one key decision that turned him into a nomad, namely leaving Arsene Wenger’s side at Arsenal. Although this can be classed as pure speculation, the assumption is that, had he stayed with the Gunners, he could have become a club legend and could have lived a more consistent football life.
Nevertheless, we have been lucky enough to witness a player with such talent and, on a more positive note, Anelka was happy to share his ability with so many different people, even going as far as showcasing himself in the Turkish league during his prime. Regardless of how he is regarded, the Frenchman made some tough choices and it all turned out well for him in the end. In addition to this, many clubs benefitted from him in a financial context, as his total transfer fees amount to just under €130 million.