Football: Anelka excels as ultimate predator

Arsenal striker faces England on Wednesday close to general acceptance as world champions' spearhead after just four caps

IT'S SAID that he didn't even watch the World Cup final. He was at home, 30 miles from the Stade de France, but he didn't bother to switch on the television. A month earlier he'd been one of six players told to pack their bags when the squad was cut from 28 to 22. So while his former team-mates were entering history, he took a ball out into the streets where he'd grown up and had a kick-around with his mates. At 19, Nicolas Anelka is already one of a kind.

Nowadays, cool is a word that means the same in English and French. C'est cool, the way Anelka takes his goals without a flourish and celebrates without a smile. To adults, it seems unnatural. To kids, it's the only way.

"Ah oui, Anelka," sighed Andre Merelle, who coached him between the ages of the 13 and 16 at Clairefontaine, the French national football institute. "Well, he's some sort of a rebel. Not a bad boy. But during the three years he was here I never had the impression he was listening to me. I don't know. Maybe he was listening. But he was never giving this impression. He seems to be saying, `I'm doing what I like, and thinking what I like.' It's difficult to persuade him to have a relationship."

There's plenty of evidence to support the view that Anelka isn't interested in ingratiating himself. He didn't bother to hide his disappointment with Aime Jacquet last summer, just as he had failed to see the justice in criticisms made by Gerard Houllier when the present Liverpool manager was in charge of the French Under-20 squad at the 1997 World Championships. Even Nike, where brattishness is a marketable commodity, irritated him to the extent that he refused to renew his contract. And only since he scored in last season's FA Cup final - a goal full of pace, power and perception - have Arsenal's fans begun to recognise his quality.

Yet his future as one of the stars of world football seems beyond doubt. Houllier, who once told me that Anelka was the most talented young player in his position that he had ever seen, recently added a prediction that "if his mental attitude is right, one day he'll win the Ballon d'or, definitely."

Carlo Ancelotti, who takes over as the coach of Juventus next season, has been overheard describing him as "the Van Basten of the new millennium", according to the current edition of FourFourTwo magazine. After a mere four international caps, and a solitary goal, he arrives at Wembley on Wednesday night close to general acceptance as the new spearhead of the world champions' attack.

But yesterday the young centre-forward found himself, not for the first time, making headlines on the back page of a British tabloid for something he had said to a French newspaper. Last autumn he had spoken of being bored with his life in Britain. Now, on the day after his goal had helped Arsenal to a 4-0 win at Upton Park, it was a remark about one of his team-mates, the Dutch winger Marc Overmars.

"It's the absolute truth that Overmars plays exclusively for his own benefit," Anelka told L'Equipe, "and that he never gives a scoring pass. Why shouldn't I say that? There's no reason why I should shut up about having to run like a bird-dog after the missiles that he aims out to the wings, where I'm left with no choice but to put them back into the centre so that he can take advantage of them to shine all by himself, which was his aim all along..."

Whatever criticism his comments attract, Anelka won't mind. Or at least he won't allow himself to be seen to mind, which may be more important.

"He's got a very high esteem of himself," Houllier said, "which is good when you're a forward. He's going to be outstanding. He's very quick with the ball, which is different from being quick without the ball. He prefers to have the ball and to be facing the goal, then he can dribble and score. As soon as he starts running for goal, it's very difficult for a defender to catch him without committing a foul. He has two good feet. And now he realises that he has to work more. Maybe he had a mental problem before. Now he closes down, he defends, he runs off the ball."

At Highbury, the fans still grumble that he misses chances. "He's young," Merelle said. "And he's not just a goal-scorer, or like Jean-Pierre Papin, who I coached here and who was only interested in scoring goals. But Nicolas has no doubts. He thinks, `I'm the best. Overmars? Bergkamp? Not a problem. I'm as good as Bergkamp.' I think it's his strength. No emotion."

HIS PARENTS are from Martinique, but he was born in Trappes, the sort of multiracial suburb that gave rise to the harsh neo-hiphop culture depicted in Matthieu Kassowitz's celebrated film La Haine ("Hate") a couple of years ago.

Plain de Nauphle, the sector of Trappes where he grew up, is a town planner's dream of the way ordinary working people ought to live. Tree-lined avenues and grassy knolls divide clusters of colour-coded apartment blocks optimistically named after great cultural figures: Daumier, Gauguin, Courbet, Cocteau, Stendhal, Camus. Between two of these clusters is where Anelka grew up, in a variation of the dream - the Square Van Gogh, a little warren of terraced streets intended to recreate a vision of rural France, full of sand-washed houses with steeply pitched pantiled roofs and wooden shutters. In pursuance of the ideal, his street was ludicrously christened the Rue du Moulin de la Galette, the street of the flour mill.

It's not Compton or the South Bronx, but it certainly isn't the fulfilment of its own dream. When working people aren't working, they stop conforming to the desired social pattern. The ethnic mix in Trappes reflects French imperial history, from the Maghreb to Indo-China. The cassette stall at the open-air market sells only zouk and rai. In the daytime it's curiously quiet. Outside the bleak apartment blocks and terraces there are no signs of individual self- expression.

"It's a very difficult place," said Claude Rondeau, sitting beneath posters of Youri Djorkaeff and Zinedine Zidane - stars of France's rainbow-nation team - in his office in the Trappes gendarmerie. "A ghetto, a lot of kids, a lot of unemployment, a certain amount of drugs, a lot of angry people, a lot of small crime. The kids get together at night. Sometimes they set fire to a car."

Not surprisingly, Rondeau lives 10 miles away, in a town where he is the general manager of the football club. But he seems proud of the fact that Anelka played his first games for FC Trappes, and that he chooses to return frequently.

"Nicolas's parents are good people," Andre Merelle said. "His mother is a secretary at a lycee, and his father works in the post office. But in these suburbs the boys spend their time in groups, and they feel very rejected by society. There is no respect. They hate police, they hate authority, they attack buses because the drivers are wearing a uniform. Nicolas was not on the worst side, not a bad boy. But the education in these suburbs had an impact."

During his years at Clairefontaine he showed little aptitude for school work. "Not interested," Merelle said. "A bit arrogant. There's a special way of speaking, a certain tone of voice. It says, `No, I don't want to get in contact with you.' "

A sociologist might not be too surprised to learn that Anelka's primary loyalty is to his suburb. "Coming back to Trappes is my recreation," he said last year. "In London, it's all just work and sleep. In Trappes, it's real life. My friends are here. Like before. Some people may say I've changed, but I know it's not true. I never forget anything, above all my roots."

HE LIVES in Edgware now, in a house with his older brothers, Claude and Didier, who are aged 31 and 29 respectively. He has made it clear, quite reasonably, that English pub life doesn't appeal to him, but from a distance it seems an unnecessarily insulated existence. Arsene Wenger is reliably said to have misgivings about its effect on his starlet. The recent arrival at Highbury of David Grondin, another French teenager, may have been at least partly calculated to improve his social life, and the two travel to Arsenal's training sessions together in Anelka's Mercedes cabriolet.

He doesn't give interviews to English journalists, and is bright enough to understand the consequences. "In the end, this image has stuck to me because I've done nothing to remove it. Honestly, I don't care what other people think about me. I know who I am and what I'm worth."

Didier, who has business qualifications, handles Nicolas's commercial interests, and described to L'Equipe his pleasure in confronting David Dein, Arsenal's managing director, during a contract renegotiation before Christmas. "It was a long and difficult process," he said, "but every time he [Dein] made an counter-offer, he found himself facing the three Anelka brothers. We couldn't be broken down, and in the end it was he who gave in."

Their strategy is based on the objective of eventually signing a deal with one of Europe's top teams, by which they mean Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, one of the Milanese clubs, or Parma. Ancelotti's words, and the recent arrival at Juventus of Thierry Henry, Anelka's best friend, may give the best clue yet to his eventual destination.

Arsenal's fans, who have only just begun to appreciate him, may find that difficult to swallow. But they should think hard about something Anelka said last week: "The world of professional sport is a jungle, and the higher you get the worse it is. So it's time to stop talking about things like loyalty to a shirt. All of that, except for the national team, is over. The only thing that grabs me is to win, to collect medals, and to improve until I'm the best."

It's almost 40 years since Jean-Luc Godard described the youth of modern France as "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola". In Nicolas Anelka, who reconciles a chilling degree of commercial self-interest with an absolute contempt for the machinery of sport's rampant free market, we may be glimpsing the finished article.

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