Football: Anelka ready to strike at Arsenal

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NICOLAS ANELKA effectively went on strike last night after Arsenal announced that there was no chance that the 20-year-old French international would be moving to Lazio.

"It would appear that personal terms were not concluded and that a transfer was unable to proceed," an Arsenal statement said. "In the absence of a firm agreement for the transfer of Nicolas Anelka, the club has withdrawn the possibility of the player departing, and expect him to resume full training with Arsenal this week."

Anelka's brother and agent Claude, signalled, however, that the striker might refuse to honour his contract at Highbury. He said his brother was unlikely to return to London, and would be staying in Paris with his friends and family.

"Our main worry is not Arsenal's statement, it is rather to achieve his transfer as quickly as possible," Claude said. "We told Nicolas to think of himself as injured. He hasn't taken it too badly but hopes the problem will be resolved as soon as possible."

Lazio did little to clarify matters by releasing a statement of their own which said that transfer talks had not been concluded. "Lazio deny that at this point talks with Arsenal over the possible sale of the player are in any way concluded, either directly or indirectly," the statement said.

By stating so categorically that Anelka is at odds with his club's assessment of the situation, the player's brother has shown that the stage is now set for a long and complex argument over how to settle the matter. By closing the door on Anelka's move, Arsenal may have opened a can of worms that could see one party taking the other to court to resolve their differences.

Lazio had been hoping to agree a fee of pounds 18m with Arsenal and on that basis were understood to be willing to spend another pounds 18m on Anelka's wages over a five-year contract - or pounds 69,000 per week. When Arsenal insisted on a transfer fee of pounds 22m - a record for a transfer involving a British club - rather than pounds 18m, it is understood that Lazio cut their five-year wage offer to the player to pounds 14m. Just pounds 56,000 per week was on the table, which Anelka and his advisors could not bring themselves to accept.

Anelka, who only recently signed a new four-year deal with Arsenal, worth pounds 18,000 per week, has been the the subject of transfer speculation for months. He has said that he hates London, that the British media make his life a misery, and that he will never play for Arsenal again. If he stays true to his word, he may decide to take Arsenal to court in an attempt to win his freedom from his current four-year, pounds 18,000 per week contract.

The Belgian lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont, who acted for Jean-Marc Bosman in his landmark case to gain the freedom to move when contracts expire, is said to be confident that he could win a legal fight to free Anelka from his contract and that the player may only have to pay Arsenal pounds 900,000 in compensation to secure his freedom.

As The Independent reported last week, legal experts are divided over whether such a strategy would be successful. One school of opinion says that the transfer system is essentially slavery and would never be upheld if legally challenged. If transfer fees were deemed illegal, the whole nature of football contracts would change and there would be little to stop players from moving at will between clubs as their ambitions or desires for bigger pay packets took them. The other school of opinion says that Anelka has willingly entered into a fixed-term contract and that the courts would uphold Arsenal's right to insist that he cannot move.

What happens next is down to Anelka. He could return to play for Arsenal but his attitude this far makes that unlikely. He could go to court, but might then face the prospect of losing several years of his career for a battle he might not win. He may also face being countersued by Arsenal for breach of contract.

The other option open to Anelka is simply to go on strike and refuse to come back. This might lead to Arsenal suing him for breach of contract, or it might simply make the Gunners realise that they cannot win and attempt to sell him again.

Precedents have already been set in similar cases. Pierre van Hooijdonk went on strike last season when a Nottingham Forest player. He later returned to the City Ground and was eventually sold this summer to Vitesse Arnhem for pounds 3.5m. Paolo Di Canio also effectively went on strike when a Sheffield Wednesday player. He refused to rejoin Wednesday after they extended the Football Association's suspension of him over the infamous referee-pushing affair, and was then sold to West Ham for pounds 2.7m.

On the evidence of those cases, Anelka may end up being sold. Only Arsenal's determination to stand up to him - and his stomach for a potentially monumental legal case - will stop that.