Netflix released on August 5 a new documentary, Anelka: Misunderstood, on French football (or soccer) player Nicolas Anelka and the many scandals that have followed his career. Anelka is known in the world of football for his talent as striker (heralded as one of the greatest strikers in history by Thierry Henry at the beginning of the film) and for a controversial “quenelle” gesture at the end of a match.
Anelka: Misunderstood is an engaging documentary, even for those who do not follow football. You’ll learn, for example, that a special school training teenagers into becoming professional football players exists in Paris, and that even in a job where you earn millions, you may not always get on with your colleagues and boss.
French director Franck Nataf’s documentary opens with images of Anelka, alone, walking in the desert. “La traversée du désert”—or its literal translation, “crossing the desert”— is a French expression that designates a period in one’s career that is long and particularly difficult. With these opening images thus Anelka: Misunderstood announces what will be the film’s focus: the difficulties Anelka faced during his career as a footballer.
As the Netflix film shows, Nicolas Anelka grew up in Trappes, a suburb of Paris, and entered the prestigious Institut National de Football de Clairefontaine (the INF for short) when he was 13, where he met another future football star, Thierry Henry. At 16, Anelka already began his career as a professional player at Paris Saint-Germain (P.S.G.). The very first controversy he faced was when, at 17, he joined Premier League club Arsenal for a £500,000 transfer fee, when he had been expected to stay on at P.S.G.
The documentary goes on to cover all of the controversies that Anelka faced, as he transferred to play for Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Chelsea, but gives particular attention to two of his major ones: the World Cup in 2010 and the “quenelle” gesture in 2013.
In 2010, he played for the French national team at the World Cup in South Africa. The film describes the events that led the French team to mutiny against their coach Raymond Domenech. After Anelka was dismissed from the team, the other players boycotted their training session and instead sat in the team bus. At the time, Anelka was said to have been banished from the team for insulting the coach. Here, Anelka explains his version of events, clearly stating that he never uttered the insults reported by the French sport newspaper L’équipe.
It was while playing for West Bromwich Albion in 2013 that the infamous event of the “quenelle” gesture happened. Anelka explains in the film that it was directed at former manager Steve Clarke after scoring his first goal. “People don’t know this,” he says, “because I never wanted to talk about Steve Clarke, but when I did the quenelle it was for him.” The “quenelle” is an inverted Nazi salute, but Anelka insists he did not make this gesture as an anti-semitic symbol, but it was meant to be anti-establishment. The Football Association subsequently banned Anelka for five matches and fined him £80,000.
This is very much how this documentary functions. The film illustrates Anelka’s version of events, with Anelka himself mainly explaining his perception. This is thus a very one-sided documentary, in the sense that the film seems to be justifying Anelka’s actions, without confronting what he says with any counter-arguments or critique. The film functions as a platform for Anelka to finally have his say, something, the documentary suggests, the press never gave him.
Anelka: Misunderstood is a compelling documentary, now on Netflix.