Anelka finally getting his chance to shine
France striker Nicolas Anelka has no intention of letting his chance to finally shine at the World Cup slip after not getting selected for the last three tournaments.
Anelka has long been an enigmatic player for France, scoring twice in a stunning performance against England way back in 1999, but then refused to play under former coach Jacques Santini and spent three years out of the national team until Raymond Domenech called him back up nearly five years ago.
Now firmly part of Domenech's plans, Anelka is in contention for a starting place in South Africa where he thinks France can repeat its victory from 1998.
"It's a very big competition for any player, I have never taken part in it before and I am very happy to get the chance," the Chelsea striker said Tuesday. "There's no point playing just for the sake of it. We will only be happy if we've played well and if we've won it. Why not?"
France scraped through to the World Cup after knocking out Ireland in a tense playoff, but Anelka is confident the French can improve significantly.
"We think we can win it and we have the players to do so," the 31-year-old Anelka said. "We have been working well physically and tactically and we can't wait to see what it brings out on the field."
Having won two English league and cup doubles, with Chelsea this season and with Arsenal 12 years ago, the Premier League's Golden Boot in the 2008-09 season, the European Championship with France and the Champions League with Real Madrid in 2000, Anelka's last-remaining ambition is to be a World Cup star.
Overlooked in 1998
He was overlooked by Aime Jacquet in '98 because the coach thought he was too young.
Anelka won Euro 2000 under coach Roger Lemerre, who subsequently did not pick him for the 2002 World Cup because he took Djibril Cisse, Thierry Henry, and David Trezeguet — the top scorers from the French, English and Italian leagues.
Domenech's decision to snub Anelka in 2006 was more surprising because he had recalled him from his international exile in November 2005. But even when Cisse broke his leg on the eve of the World Cup, Domenech called up Sidney Govou.
Ironically, it was precisely because Anelka did not want to be a replacement for the injured Govou for a friendly match against Yugoslavia in November 2002 that he had turned his back on Santini's team.
Anelka then told Paris Match magazine that he would only return if Santini got on his knees and begged.
But Anelka's unselfish attitude for Chelsea this season has won him many admirers, and his reputation has greatly improved since the days English soccer fans mockingly nicknamed him "Le Sulk" for his surly attitude.
His abrupt nature has made him few friends in a topsy-turvy career, but Anelka always speaks his mind. He even criticized Domenech's lack of tactical awareness when France lost 2-0 to European champion Spain in March.
"It's logical to be critical when you lose a match, and when you lose in this way," he repeated on Tuesday. "We have been working on things this week to make us better tactically."
Anelka's Chelsea teammate Florent Malouda has been largely overlooked since France flopped at Euro 2008, where Domenech played him in a defensive role that negated his flair.
Domenech appears inclined to play a more attacking 4-3-3 formation at this World Cup, with Malouda potentially slotting into midfield alongside Jeremy Toulalan and Yoann Gourcuff.
"He does this very well for Chelsea, so he can do it just as well for France," Anelka said. "He had a great season for Chelsea. I think the coach will give him his chance and he'll take it."
With 14 goals in 64 international appearances, Anelka's strike rate for France is somewhat poor, but he got crucial goals both in qualifying for Euro 2008 and notably away to Ireland in the first leg of the World Cup playoff.
Anelka scored far less than his strike partner Didier Drogba this season, managing only 11 league goals to Drogba's whopping 29, but his superb movement off the ball freed up the space Drogba craves, and his crisp touch and passing provided a seamless link between Chelsea's midfield and attack.