It was somehow appropriate that at the end of French soccer's annus horribilis, the man whose alleged halftime rant kick-started the World Cup's most astonishing team meltdown continued his row with the French football federation and accused it of "another provocation."
A few weeks ago, the federation leaked that two players, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka, had refused to waive their bonus payments, worth about €140,000 ($182,000) each, from the World Cup, where the France team finished last in its group. "I had never even been asked to do this," Anelka said in a statement before New Year. "Maybe the weather conditions held up the post but it's a shame the federation said that." He ended up donating his bonus to France's amateur game (not to be confused with the French federation).
The Chelsea forward cannot be surprised: He sees himself as the scapegoat for the troubles of Les Bleus, after L'Equipe reported that he told coach Raymond Domenech at halftime of the opening fixture against Uruguay: "Go f--- yourself, you dirty son of a whore." Anelka does not deny bickering with Domenech but insists he did not use those words, and he is suing the paper. The confrontation set off a battle between the players and the federation, which expelled Anelka from the camp that day. In protest, the players went on strike and the team never recovered.
Anelka was given an 18-match ban from international football after the tournament, which, given that he is 31, effectively ended his France career. He called it "laughable," especially as he had already told the federation that he would be retiring from Les Bleus after the World Cup anyway. "They never made that public, as they wanted it to look like they had the last word on me," he recently told Les Inrockuptibles magazine.
Anelka scored one of France's vital goals in its playoff win over Republic of Ireland but he almost didn't play in the World Cup at all. After a terrible pretournament campaign (France drew with Tunisia and lost to China), he wanted to leave the squad as he was unhappy with Domenech's tactics. "I knew we were heading into a wall," he said. But he was talked out of it by his teammates, which he now regrets.
It is notable that, although the French press, particularly L'Equipe, to whom he hardly ever gives interviews, has cloaked him with, as he put it, "a reputation of arrogance," his teammates valued his presence enough to first persuade him to stay on and then protest his treatment by the federation.
Before the World Cup, former teammates were queuing up to sing his praises, and they insisted that his previous lack of recognition was a result of his unfair portrayal in the media. "His image of being anti-social must have weighed on him," Emmanuel Petit, his former teammate at Arsenal (1997-1999) and France (1998-2003), told L'Equipe magazine.
"All the stories about him since his time at Real Madrid [in 2001] counted against him and led to all sorts of misconceptions," added Bernard Diomede, another ex-France colleague, in the same publication. "For way too long people had a false image of who he really is. You'll never have any problem with him. He's the kind to take blows but to never respond."
Anelka said nothing when he was one of six players to miss the cut the night before the 1998 World Cup began. He said nothing when France coach Roger Lemerre ignored him for the 2002 World Cup because he distrusted his attitude. When Domenech left him out in 2006, fearing his influence would be negative and preferring to pick Sidney Govou, Anelka did go public, and said he thought about quitting the France team for good.
Now, he has had his say again. He is not ashamed of what happened in South Africa because his motivation was to improve things. Indeed, he said Domenech is the one who should be ashamed, "for refusing to shake hands with the South Africa coach [Carlos Alberto Parreira] in front of the whole world." Anelka has also urged Domenech to publicly admit that he was misquoted -- as likely to happen as Anelka is to subscribe to L'Equipe.
France assistant coach Alain Boghossian ignored the 18-match ban last month, and told the French press that Anelka, who has suffered a recent slump in form at Chelsea, was not being selected as he had made himself unavailable. With Karim Benzema, whose career at Real Madrid has been far from secure up until now, serving as the team's main center forward, Les Bleus could use some experience in attack. But Anelka won't be providing it, and one thing seems certain in 2011: France will miss Anelka more than Anelka will miss France.