Anelka: Mistunderstood lacks the depth and drama needed for documentary filmmaking

Anelka: Misunderstood, released on Netflix, strives to paint a picture of a humble human being shunned by the football world. It instead offers basic insights into a pretty ordinary career for a top footballer by today’s standards.

Directed by French filmmaker Éric Hannezo, the film is a talking head summary career of Nicholas Anelka. As a striker for many of European football’s top clubs including Arsenal, Chelsea and Real Madrid, Anelka has won many trophies while also enduring many on and off the field controversies.

The film covers the mercurial striker’s career from the early years in French football academies and coming through the ranks at Paris Saint Germain, all the way to his retirement coaching underage players in Dubai.

Although Anelka succeeded in winning both the Premier League title with Arsenal and then the Champions League with Real Madrid, a large portion of the film deals with his difficulties in playing within the sports media focus of Spanish and French tabloids.

The Spanish soccer media is notorious for giving Real Madrid players the focus of Hollywood actors and in one case does entrap Anelka in a staged photo-op, mocking his inability to score for the club at the time.

This part of the film does well looking into how football is above all a mental game, and how outside incidents can affect a player’s mental well-being and performance levels. As Gareth Bale knows well nowadays, the Madrid spotlight can hamper a player’s development.

Despite winning trophies with Madrid, Anelka’s career has a bit of dip where he journeys between a transfer back to Paris and then with various Premier League clubs such as Bolton, Manchester City and Liverpool.

Interestingly, Anelka felt that the English game suited him a lot more than the French and Spanish leagues.

The main clip of note that stands out from the film though, is one that highlights one of the problems with it. His former manager at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger notes in one of the vignettes that he felt Anelka could’ve done more with his talent with his career, implying if he had stayed with one club longer, like Arsenal, he might’ve achieved more.

When you see what Thierry Henry did with his career, given he came out of the same academy about the same time and played with him at Arsenal, Wenger has a point. However, this is one of the few interviews that at least slightly criticises the subject of this documentary.

Although football fans of the last two decades will find plenty of interesting content in the film, there is little which separates this from a puff piece. Interviewees are mostly friends of the striker or players that hold him in high esteem.

Another problem is that Anelka just isn’t that interesting to carry a whole documentary by himself, such as The Last Dance with Michael Jordan or a figure in sport like Scottie Pippen.

Ultimately little is discovered beyond what’s already public. Still, he was a damn good player.

Peter O’Neill

Image Credit: Netflix