French Bad Boy Nicolas Anelka Takes Over Chinese Soccer Team

Can the controversial Frenchman steer his Chinese club to glory in his first stint at management?

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LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

French International football player Nicolas Anelka from the Shanghai Shenhua club gestures during the match against Tianjin Teda club of football Chinese Super League in Shanghai on April 13, 2012.

The footballer Nicolas Anelka has been called a lot of things in his time – some of them unprintable – but a firm favorite was always Le Sulk, due to the Frenchman’s ability to seemingly not get along with his teammates or managers. Among a career of low points and frequent transfers, it’s hard to top his expulsion from the 2010 French World Cup squad, with his row with then-coach Raymond Domenech resulting in President Nicolas Sarkozy getting involved, as well as an 18-game ban.

Well, Anelka may have to start harnessing a politician’s penchant for diplomacy, with the news that he’s been confirmed as the new player-manager of China’s Shanghai Shenhua, a team he only recently joined from English Premier League outfit Chelsea. The 33-year old is making his first foray into management, and replaces his fellow Frenchman Jean Tigana, the man for whom he was playing. So that shouldn’t be awkward the next time they meet up.

To say that the move was made under the shadows of darkness is an understatement. “I have absolutely nothing to tell you … because I do not know myself,” Tigana told the AFP on Friday. “I am currently waiting for letters from the club. I am not aware of anything.”

Here’s what we are aware of: Until Anelka’s appointment Thursday, Shenhua had only recorded a W in one of its five games this season, languishing in 11th place in the 16-team Chinese Super League, which was not what Zhu Jun, the ambitious chief executive of the club, would have expected. As for his star signing, Anelka certainly thinks he’s the boss, saying on Twitter that, “It’s official. I’ve just become the new player-manager of Shanghai Shenhua.” He’s overseen his first training session, and been allowed to bring in three coaches, including the former Tottenham goalkeeper Ian Walker, who he played with at Bolton.

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But Anelka’s new role hasn’t got off to the most promising of starts, with Shenhua slumping to a 1-0 home defeat on Friday to fellow strugglers Tianjin Teda. The final whistle was predictably greeted with boos and the club still only has four points in six matches. Tigana reportedly left the ground shortly before kick-off, meaning that he might have breached the terms of his contract. If Anelka makes it past the end of this season, the belief is that his extensive contacts – after all, we’re talking about a footballer who has played for eight clubs in Europe, including the likes of Arsenal, Real Madrid and Manchester City – will be able to attract other big names to come to China (his former Chelsea team mate Didier Drogba was linked to the team before Anelka took over).

And if he’s willing to read over some history about past player-managers, Anelka might be encouraged by what he finds. Liverpool’s current manager Kenny Dalglish made a far better go of it the first time around, when he took the Reds to three league titles and two FA Cup’s in the 1980’s. Dalglish’s teammate, Graeme Souness, took on the same role at roughly the same time for Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, winning three league titles and three league cups, before he replaced Dalglish at Liverpool.

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Another of Anelka’s former clubs, Chelsea, had two distinguished player-managers in the last decade. Firstly, the Dutchman Ruud Gullit brought some silverware to Stamford Bridge (FA Cup) and then the Italian, Gianluca Vialli, led the Blues to both the Coca-Cola Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1998, as well as the FA Cup a couple of years later, when he’d hung up his boots for good.

But we’ve seen some notable names fall foul, with it coming across more as a p.r. stunt than a legitimate sporting move. The World Cup winning Argentinean Mario Kempes and Brazilian Romario didn’t exactly enhance their reputations: Kempes struggled as player-manager of Indonesian outfit Pelita Jaya while Romario lasted a grand total of six games for his beloved Vasco Da Gama before falling out with his chairman over team selection. To make matters worse, the then 41-year old tested positive for the drug finasteride. And England’s mercurial midfielder Paul Gascoigne (who also tried to make it in China in the twilight of his career) was a shock appointment by Kettering Town a few years ago. He only lasted 39 disastrous days amid accusations – denied by Gazza – that he drank on the job. Anelka should pay heed to these examples, both good and bad, for as the manager Terry Venables once memorably said, “If history is going to repeat itself I should think we can expect the same thing again.”

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