In the amongst the great talents of European football, think Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henri, Nicolas Anelka is not a name you’ll find amongst them. A French footballer who it seems history has chosen to forget on purpose, Anelka has two things about him in droves, fierce fans and even fiercer critics.
…succeeds in conveying the drama behind a sport for that some might not even care for.
Much like Anelka himself, Netflix’s Anelka: Misunderstood is a documentary brimming with footballing talent and yet initially struggles to sew enough meaning into its away kit. Through interviews, archival footage and the testimony of his former teammates, Anelka the man emerges as a thoughtful and loyal husband. However, as a footballer, it seems he was always perplexingly unable to find a club that could harness his raging ambition.
As director Franck Nataf’s film historically follows Anelka’s migrations from one disappointment to another, it soon becomes clear that those closest to Anelka didn’t always have his long-term interests at heart. And it’s at this point that Anelka Misunderstood starts to echo Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Diego Maradona. Both were prodigious footballers playing for Spanish clubs where football rivals religion for attendance figures. And yet in both cases, the seeds are sown early on for a truncated legacy.
Now in retirement, and staring you down through a lens, Anelka isn’t here to intentionally settle scores or further bite the hands of those that promised to feed him. Since walking away from the game and the nuclear fallout of 2010’s World Cup still swirling in people’s minds, Anelka would like to now address his public perception. Professionally within the game, and for those who stood beside him, Anelka is a fiercely loyal if taciturn talent. For football fans, it always seemed as though his feet were always just as ready to step out the door as they were to score another goal. And yet in the closing minutes of Anelka: Misunderstood, director Éric Hannezo delivers a late, shock equaliser which revealingly puts the previous 90 minutes into proper context.
So, whilst Anelka: Misunderstood, may not be in the same league as other sports documentaries like Asif Kapadia’s Senna or Netflix’s The Last Dance, it does at least succeed in conveying the drama behind a sport for that some might not even care for. As an attractive portrait of a man who followed his own conscience, even if it led him down some of the sport’s darkest paths, I’d definitely say that this is one documentary worth coming off the bench for.