The World Cup’s opening day excitement was reserved for events in Johannesburg, where the hosts South Africa scored the first goal of the tournament only to be denied a win by a late Mexico equaliser, but there was something momentous about the evening game in Cape Town between Uruguay and France too.
At the age of 31, a dozen years after making his international debut, Nicolas Anelka finally appeared at a World Cup. Over the course of his career clubs have paid a combined fee of just under £90 million to acquire the striker’s services, but his selection for France in their opening game of the tournament was Anelka’s first ever at this level.
Chief amongst the factors behind the Versailles-born forward’s intermittent international record is the trail of acrimony that he took back and forth across European football for a whole decade. Anelka left Arsenal under a cloud in 1999 and then endured a miserable year with Real Madrid before rejoining Paris Saint-Germain, the club he had left at 17 to move to north London. Still only 22, he moved back to English football for a loan spell with Liverpool but did not do enough there to convince his fellow Frenchman Gerard Houllier to sign him permanently. He joined Manchester City instead, where he enjoyed the most prolific scoring period of his career to date, but in 2005 the striker’s nomadic ways took him east to Fenerbahce in Turkey.
Anelka scored twice in a friendly against England at Wembley in February 1999 and, although the World Cup the previous year had come too soon for him, a long and successful spell of international football with France looked to be stretching out ahead. Inclusion in France’s European Championship-winning squad of 2000 followed but then his club form floundered and he was dropped by the new national coach, Jacques Santini. Anelka rejected a recall in 2002, saying that Santini would have to get down and beg, and he would remain in the international wilderness until November 2005.
Sidney Govou, the player who missed France’s best chance against Uruguay on Friday night, was chosen ahead of Anelka to replace the injured Djibril Cisse at the 2006 World Cup, but that summer Bolton broke their transfer record to bring the Frenchman back to England for his fourth spell in the Premier League. Anelka was on the move yet again at the beginning of 2008, when Chelsea needed another striker, but in west London he finally seems settled. In his first full season with Chelsea he was the Premier League’s top scorer and this year he won the league and cup double, as he did with Arsenal as a teenager in 1998.
Anelka was withdrawn late on against Uruguay for Thierry Henry. Entering the fray in the 71st minute, France’s former captain was earning his 122nd cap and taking to the field at his fourth World Cup. Anelka is at last regarded as his country’s finest forward but, with Henry being only 18 months older than him, the player they used to call Le Sulk must surely covet the international record of his fellow former Arsenal striker.