Ken Bates surely had a point when he told me years ago that the reason he did not sign African players was that they so often were absent in Africa, playing in competitions. Either the Cup of Nations or the World Cup eliminators.
The present plight of his former club, Chelsea, seems to show that he had a valid point. Suddenly they find themselves deprived of their one truly valid striker Didier Drogba, off to play for the Ivory Coast and his fellow attacker Salamon Kalou, apparently now pursued by Arsenal.
Which puts a substantial burden on the hapless Fernando Torres, the £50,000,000 misfit, plunged willy nilly back into action, since there is no other cover for the centre forward position. Against Portsmouth, beaten with a flurry of very late goals at Stamford Bridge last Saturday, Torres provided neat “assists” for two of the Chelsea goals, which at least constitutes a step forward out of his persisting crisis, but as for getting goals himself, as owner Roman Abramovich had plainly hoped, they are still not coming.
Were Chelsea wise to let Nicolas Anleka go to Shanghai, where he is said to be earning a spectacular fortune? Both he and the big centre back, Brazilian Alex, were drummed out of the squad, made to train with the reserves and, somewhat spitefully – to the ire of their team mates – excluded from the Xmas celebration meal, attended by the rest of the squad who, by all accounts, were incensed by what looked like a piece of malice.
Yet one couldn’t help reflecting that, in the case of Anelka, though not of Alex – and both of them surely could have played crucial roles in the last few Chelsea games, with such important absences – it was perhaps a question of the biter bit.
Hard to forget what a turbulent teenager Anelka was when he suddenly walked out on Paris Saint Germain, insisting that he wasn’t getting enough matches to join Arsenal for nothing; as the haphazard European rules allowed him to do. Once at Highbury and seemingly wound up by his two brothers, his contumacious agents, he was almost perpetually at odds with the club, though there was never any doubt about his huge talent.
Eventually, after somewhat patronisingly throwing half a million pounds to PSG, Arsenal sold him for over £20 million to Real Madrid, where he continued to be a turbulent figure. Shining for France, whose team he was now in, now out, he returned to England, playing variously for Liverpool, Manchester City and Bolton, a calmer being now, eventually finding his way to Chelsea.
True, he refused to take that vital shoot out Euro spot kick for them in Moscow, against Manchester United, but overall, whether playing down the middle or out on the right wing, he remained an attacking force. Now, in his case and that of Alex, Chelsea appear to have cut off their nose to spite their face. To field a player as gifted but sometimes as reckless as the young Brazilian David Luiz can sometimes be dicing with death.
Last Saturday, I had the fortune to be at Swindon, to see the home team deservedly knock a depleted Wigan out of the FA Cup. Wigan could blame nobody but themselves for starting with nine changes from the side which had just been thrashed at home by Sunderland, but even so, Swindon’s display was exhilarating and reflected great credit on that ever controversial and sometimes explosive figure, Paolo Di Canio, so unexpectedly appointed their manager last summer, chosen from a group which was made up by several experienced English managers, Paolo having no such experience at all.
Goodness knows, his playing career both in Italy and England has been peppered with eruptive moments, as he readily admits in his pungent autobiography. A Roman who admired Mussolini, a winger, a “fantasista” of bewildering skills, he has chronicled his furious stand offs with the managerial likes of Gianni Trapattoni and Fabio Capello, got an eleven match suspension for pushing a referee to the ground at Hillsborough, yet was capable of moments on field of unusual chivalry.
He shone alike at Celtic and West Ham. Now he has Swindon playing elaborate football.
By Brian Glanville