“Baby, you understand me now?
If sometimes you see that I’m mad
Don’tcha know that no one alive can always be an angel?
When everything goes wrong, you see some bad
But oh, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”
When Nina Simone sang those lyrics from her legendary hit “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it’s almost like she wrote those lyrics for athletes that people took the wrong impression from. One of those players is French forward Nicolas Anelka. He was a talented player, but always seemed to find his way into controversy, whether it was on the club level or for the national team.
His trials and tribulations, controversies and missteps were documented in his own words through a documentary on Netflix, “Anelka: Misunderstood.” It details several of the stops in Anelka’s career. Growing up in Trappes, a suburb of Paris, he played with several players at Clairefontaine, the French training academy that serves as a pipeline for French national team players. He eventually won a contract with Paris Saint-Germain when he was 16, where he played on their youth team for a season and didn’t see the field much for the senior team.
Anelka then moved to Arsenal, where he paired up with newly appointed French manager Arséne Wenger. After an injury to fellow striker Ian Wright, he moved into the starting lineup and was a key contributor to the team’s Premier League title and FA Cup that season. It didn’t fully work out for him at Arsenal, and he moved to Real Madrid in 1999. There, while it took him 5 months to score a goal, much to the chagrin of the Spanish press. He also got into a spat with then-Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque. However, he then was able to help the team along the way to its 8th Champions League title.
Anelka decided to move back to France to his boyhood club, PSG, after that season. It was a transfer that was heralded by the French press and the fans. He became the captain of the team early on, but the team’s performance dropped and they finished 9th in Ligue 1. He repeated ran into issues with his head coach over his work ethic.
Nicolas moved onto Liverpool on loan, but after a decent season, they decided not to make the move permanent. He used it to move to Manchester City, where he led the team in goals in his second season. He also had stints at Fenerbahçe and Bolton Wanderers before landing at Chelsea in 2008. It’s there that he had his most success, though also one of his biggest club failures. His penalty in the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United was saved, giving United the victory. The next season, he won the Golden Boot, leading the Premier League with 19 goals.
The documentary covers another club controversy that occurred when he played for West Bromwich Albion in 2013. He had a relationship with a French comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and after scoring a goal he performed a quenelle hand gesture, which M’bala created as anti-Semetic. He was banned for 5 matches for the gesture being anti-Semitic, despite the FA finding that Anelka himself was not intending the gesture to promote anti-Semitism. His contract was eventually terminated by the club.
While Nicolas Anelka just missed out on the French roster for the 1998 World Cup, he became the starting forward for Euro 2000. Between 2001 and 2007, he didn’t factor much into the national team. He returned to the team in 2008, helping the French to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, which was the site of his biggest controversy yet. After reportedly abusing head coach Raymond Domanesch at halftime of a 2-0 defeat to Mexico, he was sent home from South Africa. French sports outlet L’Equipe had a headline on the front page of their paper that reported Anelka as saying “Va te faire enculer, sale fils de pute,” which means, “Go f*ck yourself, you dirty son of a wh*re.”
It later came out that the paper was exaggerating the quote, but that Anelka never actually said that to the coach. He refused to apologize publicly, and he was dismissed from the team. He retired from international soccer at that point.
Despite Anelka being at the center of controversy throughout his career, he also collected many honors. He won 2 EPL titles, 3 FA Cups, a Community Shield, 2 Champions Leagues, a Süper Lig title, a Serie A title, a European Championship, and a Confederations Cup. He scored 14 goals for the national team and scored 210 goals during his club career. Despite all that, and even with many teammates having his back throughout his career on the club and international levels, Nicolas Anelka’s career in his mind boiled down to that Nina Simone lyric:
“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.