Letter from Rome: Onset of Anelka fatigue

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The Independent Online
CHRISTIAN VIERI'S record transfer at the start of this summer was in any terms a hard act to follow in this football-crazy nation but, in terms of media play, it has been amply upstaged by the stop-start saga of Nicolas Anelka and his much touted desire to play in Rome.

Whereas Vieri's move was expensive, perhaps controversial, but decisive, the adjective most frequently used to describe the wooing of Anelka is telenovela, or soap opera. Each time it appeared there would be an ending - happy or not. But last Thursday, Sergio Cragnotti, the president of Lazio and one of the key actors in the Anelka show declared "the soap opera is finished" only to add that "anything could still happen".

The two-month drama seems to be finally reaching a close as a tentative deal has been reached between Arsenal and Real Madrid - although until Anelka is munching paella and drinking Rioja few will believe it. For many Italian football followers, it can only be a relief. Even dedicated Lazio fans admit they are sick to death of the twists and turns in a courtship that does honour to no one; the player, his family, the agents, the managers.

In the early stages, the idea of recruiting a bright young star of European football to the ranks of Lazio was greeted with enthusiasm. Italian TV showed endless film of Anelka's choicest goals. The three sporting dailies, the innumerable TV football shows and the sports pages of the main newspapers pounced on the story.

The first scuffles over money and contracts were welcomed by the press as good fodder for football fans, orphans of the adrenalin of the championship. When it appeared Lazio and Juventus were in competition for Arsenal's hot property there was a new surge of interest nationally. But that gave way to criticism when it was reported the two clubs, supposedly deadly rivals, were planning a bizarre deal whereby Juventus would buy Anelka and then "loan" him to Lazio for a couple of seasons.

Fans of both clubs were unimpressed. If Anelka was the goods, argued the followers of Juventus, why are we giving him away? Their counterparts at Lazio did not fancy the idea of helping Anelka settle in to Italy, get up to speed, and then handing him back over to Juventus.

As the on again, off again story reached its (Italian) peak earlier this month, signs of Anelka fatigue were becoming evident. Until then there had not been much criticism of the player himself, who has been accused in Britain of being greedy. He was described as young and fiery, full of promise. If anything there was a tendency to blame the Anelka clan for muscling in on their brother's athletic potential.

But the transcript of an Italian internet football chatline over the past week reveals they had run out of patience. A certain Ricky summed it up with an elegant play on words, asking "Nicolas Anelka - un giocatore fuori o senza classe?" A player who is fuoriclasse is an exceptional athlete, head and shoulders above his peers. Senza classe is to have no class, no style at all.

Who is this Anelka anyway? replied Tommaso, obviously a Lazio fan. "Do we really have to spend all this money on a nobody with all the talent we've already got?"

"The Anelka story has worn us out because at the centre of it is Anelka, not Maradona or Van Basten" wrote Gianni Mura in La Repubblica newspaper.

"Technically, Anelka is a 20-year-old-lad who has scored 17 goals for Arsenal (more or less like Inzaghi for Piacenza). But beyond Juventus and Lazio and their confused strategies, does a high stakes auction for Anelka really have any sense?"

The one common thread in opinions on the Anelka affair is a wider criticism of the way multi-million dollar interests override sporting objectives. Players are the goods and everyone wants a share; their relatives, lawyers, agents, clubs, financial consultants and television magnates.

The likely conclusion of the affair - Anelka's move to Real Madrid - will probably be met with a sort of collective shrug of the shoulders by Italian fans. It would have been quite another story if one Italian club had whisked him away from one of their national rivals. By going to Spain he is off the map.

My newsagent, an elderly man whose views on football and life in general are largely influenced by his years in the military, said he thought it was a shame Anelka would not be donning the blue and white Lazio colours next season for a question of formation - of character.

"Had he come to Rome, that young man would have learnt that we Italians are very tolerant of off the field antics - just remember Gazza - but we expect results, and, even though we are Catholics, we do not forgive easily."