Butterflies make me smile and that’s why I celebrate like that, says Nicolas Anelka

Mumbai City FC player-manager Nicolas Anelka tells Adit Ganguly that France are primed to win the 2016 Euro at home

Nicolas Anelka

Did growing up in Trappes (a ‘tough’ suburb of Paris) motivate you to become a professional footballer?
Yes, that was one of the reasons. All the kids in the locality used to play football. You could say that at least three out of four players who play in the French league and for the national team come from these regions. When I was young, I never used to think about where I came from. My family brought me up very well so I wasn’t exposed to wrong company. It was always football for me. But yes, Trappes isn’t the best part of the city. On the positive, it’s made me the person and footballer I am today.

Clairefontaine (France) is one of the best football academies in Europe. How was your time there?
When I was 12, we did a test to be enrolled in Clairefontaine. It was opened in 1988 but in three years, it was already the best football school in the country. There were 500 players from which they ended up choosing 22. It didn’t end there. Once you made the final cut, the coaches were strict enough to tell if you had it in you to make it as a professional footballer. You know you have to fight for your place if you want to be professional. Let’s not forget, this is the place all parents send their kids to. This school has produced the likes of William Gallas, Louis Saha, Thierry Henry and, not to forget, Nicolas Anelka.

You won the English Premier League and the FA Cup in your second season with Arsenal in 1998. Was it a case of too much too soon for a 17-year-old?
I have good memories of Arsenal. It was the start of my career. It was not so easy as I was just 17 and it was my first time in England. I didn’t understand a word of English. It was tough in the beginning. But we had a huge French contingent at the club, including manager Arsene Wenger who was like a father figure. After him, it was Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit who helped me settle in. It was a crazy season. I remember we were something like 13 points behind Manchester United at one stage and we came back to win it at the end of the season. Just crazy.

You won the UEFA Champions League in your only season at Real Madrid (2000). How do you reflect on your time with the Galacticos?
It was a difficult year. I faced a lot of problems right from the first day. I didn’t have my locker room, no one introduced me to the rest of the squad, some players felt I was not needed. I knew I wouldn’t stay beyond a year. At the end of the day, I only look at the positives and I did score in the semifinals of the Champions League against Bayern Munich. I lifted the trophy in Paris. So my time at Madrid did have a silver lining.

How was it coming back to England and winning the ‘double’ with Chelsea?
Chelsea was good. I had a lot of fun and won a lot of trophies. I also made a lot of friends. I had two great seasons with them, a ‘Golden Boot’ in 2009 followed by another double the next year. As far as England is concerned, I think I was happier in smaller clubs like Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City at that time as there was very less pressure. I’m happy I got to play with a guy like Diddy (Didier Drogba). He’s a great footballer, but he’s an even greater human being if you see what he’s done for Africa. I think he wants to play until his leg stays stop.

You have played for 10 European clubs over 20 years. Who was the best manager you played under? What about the top players?
I played under a host of good managers — Carlo Ancelotti, Guus Hiddink, Arsene Wenger. Each one had his own style. That made me improve my game as well, so it is very tough to choose the best. When it comes to the players, I would pick Dennis Bergkamp and Nicolas Kanu as the two best players I have played with (Arsenal).

You have the nickname ‘Le Sulk’. What makes Nicolas Anelka happy?
I am always laughing and smiling. People have often complained that I don’t smile on the field. I always say that I smile when there’s something to smile about; when there’s a goal or something that makes you smile. You don’t just smile for the sake of it, do you? I love butterflies. They make me smile which is why I have stuck to my way of celebrating right since the first day.

You were part of the last French side which won a major trophy (Euro 2000). France will host the prestigious tournament next year. How well do you think they will do?
We have got a very exciting team. Most of the players belong in the 25-30 age category and have been part of the national side for a long time. The one I am looking forward to the most is midfielder Paul Pogba. There is a lot of pressure because we are the hosts. It seems we have a very well-balanced squad after many years. This squad could end the country’s wait for a major tournament.