Despite playing a prominent role in France’s World Cup qualification – he scored the winner in the first leg of the play-offs in Dublin – Anelka knows better than anyone that he cannot take a seat on the plane to South Africa for granted.
Tipped to feature in the France squads of 1998, 2002 and 2006, but never making the final cut, he has grown used to associating the World Cup with disappointment.
In 1998, two months after winning his first full cap, France coach Aime Jacquet labelled him too inexperienced. Four years later Roger Lemerre was similarly unconvinced, and when Djibril Cisse broke a leg on the eve of the 2006 tournament, Raymond Domenech preferred Lyon’s Sidney Govou.
“Obviously it’s a pity to miss out on big competitions, but it hasn’t affected me at all,” says Anelka in typically unrepentant mode. “I’m neither obsessed or scarred by it. I haven’t needed World Cup appearances to exist in this business.
“Maybe it’s written in the stars that I’ll never play in one, though I hope not. I am as keen as anybody to play for Les Bleus in South Africa and enjoy a good tournament. Qualification is only the start of the process.
“We have to aim high and go a long way in the finals. There’s no point returning home after three games.”
For Anelka to be on the verge of ending his World Cup exile borders on the miraculous. Not so long ago he seemed hell-bent on committing international suicide, turning down a call-up in 2002 from Jacques Santini and then aiming an enigmatic volley at the next man in charge, Domenech, saying: “Every time they choose strange people as head coach.”
Yet Domenech, a man capable of bearing a grudge for an eternity, gave another chance to the striker who often gives the impression of not caring.
Now 30 and in his prime, Anelka is better equipped than ever to make headway on the international stage. More mature, relaxed and comfortable in himself, he is not nearly so sensitive as he once was.
Another factor in his favour is the obvious pleasure he is deriving from his club football these days. The open, fast-paced English game is made to measure for his qualities and it is no coincidence that while his form in the Premier League – with Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton Wanderers and now Chelsea – has left little to be desired, it never really worked out for him at Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Fenerbahce.
The one headache the French have with Anelka is where to best use him. Domenech generally plays him in a deep-lying role on the right side of attack but, with Anelka often wandering into the middle and doing little tracking back, it can seem pointless.
The obvious move would be to deploy him up front in a two-man strike-force. But, as we know only too well, Domenech does not do the obvious.