On the one side sat Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, and David Dein, the club's vice-chairman and leading influence. On the other were Nicolas Anelka and his extensive entourage: his elder brothers, Claude and Didier, his cousin, Salim, his agent, Marc Roger, and the lawyer, Marguerite Fauconet. The conversation, as it had been for months, was going around in circles.
Anelka, said his family and advisors, wanted to leave Arsenal. The club, insisted Dein, wanted him to stay. They had, however, been worn down and Dein, accepting the inevitable, told the Anelkas the club was now prepared to negotiate with interested parties. One was Lazio, Anelka's preferred choice, but, said Dein, Juventus were offering the better deal.
Claude stood up, moved towards Dein and, jabbing a finger in his face, screamed: "You must sell my brother to Lazio." Dein responded: "I will do whatever is best for Arsenal." The Anelkas and company turned on their heels and left.
Twenty-four hours later they were back but, with Wenger taking a double- training session, Dein was left to deal with them alone. Afterwards he said to Wenger: "Don't ever leave me with those sharks again." Wenger responded: "Don't worry, one day the sharks will eat themselves."
That day has not yet arrived but the Anelka affair, which was finally concluded with the player's pounds 22.5m transfer to Real Madrid yesterday, after three months of manoeuvring, may have moved it closer. On the outside the fans are becoming increasingly disenchanted with players' greed, on the inside Dein is seeking greater regulation of agents.
He said yesterday: "Anelka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink [who forced Leeds into selling him to Atletico Madrid] have left a huge scar on football. They have ridden roughshod over the rules and their contracts. They have shown a total disregard for the game.
"The sad fact is that, under the current legislation, in two years' time Nicolas Anelka will do exactly the same to Real Madrid. We need legislation and not just in England. I have already spoken to Ken Bates [the Chelsea chairman] and Martin Edwards [Manchester United's chairman] and I will speak to the other chairmen in a bid to make sure that this never happens again."
There is another side to this. Arsenal have made a huge profit on a player they lured from Paris St-Germain, against the French club's will, for pounds 250,000 three years ago. They have also sold him to, and bought Davor Suker from, a club they reported to Fifa earlier this summer for `tapping up' Anelka. Hypocrisy? Or pragmatism?
An element of both, perhaps, but by the end the deal was a minor victory for Arsenal in what had become, noted Wenger, "a power struggle rather than a transfer." The Anelka entourage had originally sought pounds 4m in commission but their behaviour so irked Dein it reached the stage where he would only sell on the basis that they would receive less than half that fee. With Arsenal holding out for their full price and Real not prepared to up their total outlay, it was the commission which had to be squeezed. Dein's honour was thus satisfied, although he added "this was just their first pay day. They'll probably get another in a few years." Arsenal insist that Nicolas Anelka is not a bad man, just an easily led one.
They were so concerned about his state of mind last year that they considered asking him to have counselling after being told that he had become a Muslim fundamentalist. "We were afraid he might set fire to himself," said one club insider. Fortunately it did not come to that, but he remains a withdrawn figure.
When presented to the Spanish media yesterday he barely raised a smile in 25 minutes. However, he did manage a jibe at Arsenal. "I've come here because Real Madrid is a much bigger and more important club than Arsenal," he said. "I did not leave because of money, any footballer would jump at the chance to join this club. I never had any problems with Arsenal, it was all invention by the English press."
These words will be greeted with derision by many at Highbury and in the English media, but with sadness by Wenger, the man who made him a star. In one of the most poignant scenes of the whole tawdry affair, again at Sopwell House, Wenger said to Anelka: "I want you to look at me and tell me you want to leave Arsenal."
The 20-year-old Frenchman was sitting, as ever, with his head bowed, hands in his lap and lips sealed. Without looking up, he mumbled: "I want to leave." Then Wenger, holding his thumb and forefinger a few inches apart, added: "Will you ever, at any stage, acknowledge the fact that Arsenal and I have influenced your career just a little bit, even this much?" Anelka was silent. His feet, and his brothers, had done the talking for him.Reuse content