Anelka: Misunderstood review – subtle portrait of an enigmatic talent | Film

A galaxy of major names – including Thierry Henry, Arsène Wenger and Didier Drogba – line up to chip in their two-penn’orth on one of the great footballing enigmas of modern times: Nicolas Anelka, the mercurial boy wonder who burst out of the Parisian banlieues but will probably linger longest in the collective memory for triggering a player strike at the 2010 World Cup and flashing the quenelle salute, widely regarded as an ansemitic gesture, after scoring a goal for West Brom in 2013.

But there’s a bit more to this than your standard sporting hagiography: Anelka comes with a lot of baggage, and this film from French director Franck Nataf does its best to get stuck into some comparatively heavy material. We start at the beginning, when Anelka was a fresh-faced young shaver tearing it up in the local park, before being airlifted into the elite Clairefontaine national youth academy, where Henry was one of his peers.

As we follow Anelka’s long march through Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal, Real Madrid and so on, the film frequently dodges back to his low-key, apparently idyllic new life in Dubai – though not so low-key that he doesn’t chew out his son for not training hard enough, or not going in for the kill in a family game of footvolley. There are a few glimpses of Anelka’s startling on-pitch talent but everyone knows that’s not the story here. Throughout his career Anelka attracted trouble, and much of the film’s running time is given over to letting him have his say. In a calm, measured voice, he explains why he walked away from PSG as a teenager, how it all went wrong at Real, why he felt stitched up at Liverpool, what it felt like to miss the crucial penalty in the 2008 Champions League final.

Anelka doesn’t shy away from the really controversial stuff, either: he hotly refutes any suggestion of antisemitism over the quenelle incident, and repeatedly denies he uttered the words he is alleged to have said to France coach Raymond Domenech in 2010 that saw him excluded from the squad and initiated the player walkout and the team’s on-pitch humiliation at the hands of South Africa.

The film very much takes Anelka’s denials at face value – failing, for example, to point out that at the time he was happy to endorse the notorious quenelle populariser and comedian Dieudonné – but even so, this is a subtle, modulated portrait of someone who gives little away. Knuckling down never seemed to be part of the programme; Anelka, you feel, is the kind of short-fuse customer who conceals a basic fragility. He is happy to acknowledge the mistakes he made as a young player; the progress of his football life, however, demonstrated that he never managed to learn enough to prevent it happening again.

Source: The Guardian

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