It helps to remember, when considering his soccer life writ large, how Nicolas Anelka chose to play. A more traditional striker would loiter closer to goal, waiting for a capable teammate to spy an opening and create a scoring chance. Broadcasters often say that they then “still have it all to do,” but realistically, it’s far less work than, say, picking the ball up in the middle third and creating the scoring chance for yourself.
Despite having the ideal blend of catlike reflexes, close control, and imposing physical stature to play on the turn, Anelka would drop in deep to do just that. In the event that the midfield struggled to link the defense and the attack—he explains in Anelka: Misunderstood, the new Netflix documentary about his life—he didn’t want to become a “victim” of the game. Almost every youth coach in the world would advise against his impetuous style: an attacker dropping in too deep complicates a team’s forward progression and creates a scenario where that player has to go it alone, almost without exception. Necessarily, by creating more obstacles for themselves, and having to carry the ball through those obstacles, these players also tend to be more wasteful. However, if sports and the stories we weave around them have taught us anything, it’s that wasteful athletes tend to be the most compelling, and the most beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, in Misunderstood there’s a gravely serious slow pan from the ground up of Anelka, now 41 and retired, settling into a quad stretch. Sweat beads artfully on his chiseled physique, he pierces the middle distance with an icy glare, the closed captioning reads “[reverb].” There’s a lot of this quiet aesthetic solipsism throughout, suggesting Anelka, and only Anelka, was built for what he experienced. “You want to be like me?” a voice-over says as he climbs a large sand dune in an early scene. “It’s impossible.” In the desert, there’s no one to disagree with him.
History should remember Anelka as a transcendent, generational talent who emerged on the global soccer stage almost fully realized, and reached the wuthering heights of the professional game with steadfast dedication and unshakable self-belief. In 1997, at 16 years old, he broke into a Paris Saint-Germain team that had just won the European Cup, and scored in his very first game. When he felt he wasn’t being picked in the first team enough—again, for a European champion, at 16—he forced a move to Arsenal, at a time when players years his senior were scarcely aware they had agency at all. Over 20 years of soccer he’s won every type of silverware there is and scored more than 150 goals for 12 teams in seven countries.
History primarily remembers, with not a small amount of judgment, that Anelka played for 12 teams in seven countries. He changed jobs so often because controversy, scandal, and intrigue trailed him throughout his career, whether it was a work strike, a locker room row, or an anti-Semitic gesture. But if the headlines were all there were, we wouldn’t need a 90-minute documentary: Anelka churned against the average sports fan’s idea that what you’re seeing on the field, in the player’s tunnel, or in the locker room, is a perfectly rendered portrait of an athlete. The kind of person they are, the life they lead, the things they believe in. Crucially, however, Misunderstood isn’t an attempt to shift the French soccer legend’s perception as a Difficult Man, much like how Michael Jordan didn’t really make The Last Dance to celebrate the cultural impact of his champion Chicago Bulls teams. You get access and their “side of the story,” but the true value to you, as a viewer, is in seeing these men set up figures from their past just to knock them over again. There’s an evergreen thrill in watching practiced assholes be practiced assholes, and Anelka has no shortage of Reinsdorf-like nemeses: Aimé Jacquet, Gérard Houllier, Jacques Santini, Raymond Domenech.
There are no apologies in Misunderstood; the documentary instead seeks to illustrate a man who, if not totally at peace, is at least comfortable with his decision to value his integrity above all else. He practices savate by the waterfront in Dubai now when he’s not coaching youth soccer. His European Cups are gathering dust in a storage closet behind sneakers he clearly hasn’t worn in years; he enjoys sunny afternoons on the beach with his family, instead of on the training pitch. Only on occasion does regret over the difficult path he took bubble up, in the form of ripping his then-6-year-old son for having “zero technique” during practice. He was just imparting one of the essential lessons of organized sports—you play like you practice—but he did it with the haptic energy of a comptroller. I almost want to say there was desperation in it.
“Don’t just say, ‘I wanna be a footballer,’” he said. “Being a footballer is hard!”