Nicolas Anelka talks football, discrimination, and his Islamic faith
Anelka was the first signing of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger
It is exactly 18 years since Nicolas Anelka started a career which has seen him become one of the most successful footballers of all time.
Now, in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya, the 36-year-old has spoken about his new footballing project in North Africa, his conversion to Islam, and how growing up with French Algerians in the Paris suburbs helped forge his personality.
Anelka’s cumulative transfer fees are more than £112m – placing him among the most expensive players in history – and he has turned out for the biggest clubs in Europe, including Real Madrid, Juventus, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool.
But it was at the Aurassi Hotel in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, where he is currently acting as a consultant to homegrown football club NA Hussein Dey (NAHD) that Anelka spoke.
“I have an affinity with Algeria, because I grew up with plenty of Algerian friends in the suburbs of Paris,” he said.
“We had lots in common, including Islam. In fact, people kept telling me that I had an Algerian character. I was very touched by that because they are a very proud people. I’m proud but not arrogant.”
“I was sixteen when I converted to Islam,” Anelka said. “Beyond the fraternal aspect, my conversion did not change my life. I was already living by the same principles – being righteous, having values… I used to fast during Ramadan because I admired the people fasting around me. What made me convert was that I had that certainty that Islam was for me.
I felt this relationship with God, and that enlightened my life. I had that conviction in my heart that that was my religion.”
Anelka added that while French people with North African background attempt to assimilate, the system discriminates heavily.
“French people of North African background try to make things work for them, but French society keeps them in check. There are a lot of obstacles in the way,” he said.
“For example if you send a CV with the “wrong postcode” and a Muslim sounding name then you won’t be considered for a job.
It is only in France that you need to hide your name and picture in the hope of getting work. That level of discrimination is unacceptable.”
Top of the charts
Anelka was the first signing of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, and the striker was top scorer in his debut Arsenal season of 1998-99, with 17 Premier League goals.
He earned the PFA Young Player of the Year award before being transferred to Real Madrid for £22m.
It started an astonishing round of transfers, during which he moved all over the world, while also winning the European Championship with France in 2000.
Despite rumours linking him with a return to the Premiership, Anelka says he has no immediate plans to go back to the professional game in England.
Instead he is concentrating on Algeria – the North African country which he only visited for the first time this year.
“I’m fascinated by the colonial history between France and Algeria and have always wanted to visit the country,” he said. “It’s a place I’ve always been impressed by. Working for NA Hussein Dey is a great opportunity to do so!”
Hussein Dey is a suburb of Algiers named after the last Ottoman to rule the city. The football club was founded in 1947, as an amalgamation of three teams, and is now in the top tier of Algerian football. Notable Hussein Dey players have included Rabah Madjer, Chaabane Merzekane, Yacine Bentalaa, and Mahmoud Guendouz. All four were part of the legendary Algeria national side who defeated West Germany in the 1982 World Cup, before Algeria was scandalously put out of the competition when the Germans engineered a draw with Austria. More recently, Hussein Dey defender Rafik Halliche was in the Fennecs team which came close to defeating Germany during last summer’s World Cup finals in Brazil.
Anelka said: “I’m very excited about developing Algerian football. Nowadays it is mainly represented by Frenchmen of Algerian background who play in France, the Netherlands, and the UK… I’d like to set up coaching academies in Algeria.
The biggest challenge is to train youngsters, and build up the foundation of the game. Once the basis is in place, the rest follows,” he said.
The art of football
“Algerian players have great qualities, especially their technical game. It seems to be innate in Algerian football. It really is an art. Algerians are above average when it comes to technique, but there are shortcomings which need to be worked on.
I simply want to transmit my knowledge on football to Algerian youngsters and inspire them. Algerian football reminds me of the style of Brazilian football.”
Anelka’s ambition is to develop the beautiful game in a country which has achieved brilliantly.
He said: “Algeria itself has a mystery about it, and you’ve got to respect that. The mystery is part of its charm.”
Speaking about the opportunities his sport has given him, he added: “Football is open to anyone, especially somebody like me who grew up in the Paris suburbs.
It’s a popular game and gives people the chance to succeed. Up to 90 per cent of footballers come from modest backgrounds. It’s very egalitarian but you have to be one of the best to make it. There are plenty of players but very few who can perform at the highest level. It’s incredibly difficult.”
Anelka is married to the Belgian choreographer Barbara Tausia, and they are based in London with their three children.
The footballer was happy to discuss his personal philosophy: “I’m not a sheep in a herd. I think differently… I have never cultivated a showbiz profile. On the contrary, I’m actually pretty shy and withdrawn.”
On the subject of his vast wealth – and especially those transfer fees – Anelka is certainly very modest.
“These are just figures which I didn’t set out to achieve – they just happened. I transferred from club to club for other reasons.
Figures don’t mean anything to me, it’s the clubs that mean something. I’m so proud to have played for the biggest clubs in the world. If you play for one big club in your life, you’re doing very well. I played for many,” he said.
Wenger is now under pressure from some quarters to quit, because Arsenal have not won any major trophies for so long, but Anelka said his mentor should stay.
“For me, Wenger represents the modern Arsenal. There would be no Arsenal without Wenger. He’ll stay in England.
He defines the Arsenal game – he’s the trademark of Arsenal. The difficulty is that there is now a lot more competition,” he said.
In the past, Manchester United and Liverpool would always top league tables, whereas now Chelsea and Manchester City now crowded the space, he added.
“But I trust Arsène Wenger’s work, I don’t question it. I have a huge amount of respect for him, because he recruited me and made me play. It wasn’t easy. He believed in me.
Arsenal have great players – some are aggressive, but they need more mature ones who can manage a whole season,” he said.
“There are too many youngsters. In the past there was a mix between youth and experience – Emmanuel Petit, Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Patrick Vieira, Steve Bould, Ray Parlour, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, and Dennis Berkamp were all crucial in providing grit. Now it’s a different era,” he added.
As far as Algeria is concerned it is the start of the Anelka era – and it could well be a very successful one.