Football: Anelka the Real outsider

John Carlin in Madrid fears for the future of a lost little rich boy; Parable of modern times threatens to become tragedy as a tormented talent wanders the wilderness
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SPANISH TELEVISION has its own version of Spitting Image. A nightly programme, lasting barely 10 minutes, Los Gui'oles snappily spoofs the day's news. Nicolas Anelka is one of the latest additions to the programme's rubbery cast.

Real Madrid's French striker, the most expensive signing in the history of Spanish football, always appears playing with his Gameboy, a set of Walkman headphones round his ears. Less true to life, he speaks Spanish. One night last week this is what the Anelka puppet said: "My company pays me pounds 50,000 a week. My company paid pounds 23.5m to acquire my services. But I do not work."

The satire was cruel, but hardly unfair. In Real Madrid's last five games Anelka has appeared on the pitch for a total of three minutes. And even then he failed to touch the ball, his one contribution during injury time in Real's 3-1 Champions' League victory over Rosenborg on Tuesday having been to be caught once offside.

Since Anelka's acrimonious move from Arsenal in the summer Real have played 18 games, in 11 of which he has made an appearance. Whether that qualifies as "work" is debatable. The closest he has come to doing what he is paid to do, scoring goals, was a shot that bounced off a post, but would have sailed wide had the ball not struck a defender along the way. Apart from one assist, a short sideways pass to Fernando Morientes, his contribution to Real's hitherto appalling season has been so indolent, ineffectual and seemingly uninterested as to suggest that the team would have lost nothing, and possibly gained much, had they left him on the bench and played with 10 men.

Anelka's brief history at Real Madrid is a parable for the principle that you should be careful what you wish for. After the unseemly Mediterranean haggle that preceded his August transfer he was introduced to the Madrid public by Real's president, the serial coach-sacker Lorenzo Sanz, as the talismanic hit-man that would bring back the glory days to Spain's most legendary club.

Today Anelka looks more like the name of a virus that has infected that proud spiritual entity known in Spain as el Madridismo.

A solid run in the Champions' League has done nothing to mitigate the vertigo of despair that has gripped directors, players and fans alike as they contemplate the unbelievable prospect of relegation to the second division. It is early days and logic says that the club's stellar squad will claw their way up the table. But following last weekend's 5-1 home defeat to Zaragoza (Spain's Coventry City), that plunged Real to 17th out of 20 in the Liga, the impossible no longer seems out of the question.

The Anelka virus is a cousin of ME, commonly known as "Yuppie Flu". Its symptoms are energy loss, a crushing self- confidence deficit, an almost pathological lack of ambition. In league games the entire team seems to succumb to the virus. But no player is more chronically afflicted than the young Frenchman.

The first sign that the disease was setting in came early in September when he told a Parisian newspaper: "If you don't enjoy yourself on the pitch, which is what is happening to me, maybe the time has come to start thinking of retirement." Two days later the 20-year-old millionaire described by the French national team coach, Roger Lemerre, as beset by "psychological problems" did not entirely set Madrid hearts at rest when he explained: "I like to joke about retiring from the game."

A couple of weeks later Anelka ventured the spectacularly idiotic observation that Morientes, a fixture in the Spanish national side, was "not a great player". Which may be true - but it betrayed a suicidal lack of tact at a time when the most elementary rules of social engagement indicated that he should have been endeavouring to win the respect and trust of his new team-mates.

None the less, when Michel Salgado, Real's right-back, had a birthday party a few days later he had the courtesy not to omit Anelka from the invitation list. Sure enough, Anelka, alone among the Real playing staff, did not have the courtesy to turn up.

The inevitable muttering among his team-mates gave way to indignation after a performance in a Champions' League game against Porto, Real's one defeat in the first group phase, that even by Anelka's standards was stunningly lackadaisical. What really did it for the other Real players was his reaction when he was brought down in the Porto box. It was the clearest of penalties but Anelka, far from doing the natural thing and raging at the heavens, or the referee, got back on his feet wearing an expression of the purest, emptiest boredom.

Things went from bad to bizarre when Anelka began feigning injury. Or so the Spanish press have surmised. He turned up at Real's training ground on 26 November alleging that he had a sore right knee. The club doctor rushed him off to hospital, where scans revealed that the knee was in perfect health.

Although Anelka skipped training the next day, he was included in the squad that travelled to Vigo for a league match against Celta. He was badly needed, since Real only had one other striker fit, but not only did he fail to play, he did not grace the occasion with his presence in any capacity whatsoever, choosing instead to spend the game in the dressing room - where there was no television set - receiving a massage from a club physio.

Fully recovered since then from his purported knee complaint, he has been making a habit of fleeing training sessions mid-way - presumably rushing home for another session with his beloved Gameboy. Ten days ago he developed a problem in his throat, which spared him the Zaragoza thrashing, but by Tuesday he was well enough to make it to the bench for the home game against Rosenborg (attendance 20,000). With Real 3-1 up and injury time ticking, Clarence Seedorf suffered a blow to the thigh. Anelka received instructions to take his place. Apparently insulted at having to endure such an indignity, he made a slow, lazy meal of taking off his track suit. Which provoked one of Real's assistant coaches into a rare verbal volley.

It was the most eloquent sign of the hair-tearing anguish that has been assailing Sanz and the club staff in recent weeks as the truth has begun to dawn on him that the purchase of Anelka, entirely el presidente's idea, may turn out to be the most calamitous business decision ever made in the history of football.

A number of Real fans are suggesting, as Arsenal fans did before them, that Anelka is driven by pure greed and will be quite satisfied with the aberrant business arrangement - no work, huge pay - that he has secured for himself.

But the truth, as some of the Arsenal players must long ago have suspected, may be that Anelka is a desperately sad, emotionally crippled man-child, a football-playing version of Mike Tyson yet to go completely off the rails.

Some of those who admired him at his coltish best will be hoping that, by some miracle, he may recover his potential. But all the evidence suggests that the poor, uncomprehending little rich boy is a sporting tragedy waiting to happen.