World Soccer: You left Arsenal saying English football didn’t suit you; so why come back?
Nicolas Anelka: I refute the claims that I was disillusioned with English football – it was always in my mind to come back at some stage. I left Arsenal because it had been a dream, since I was a young boy growing up in Paris, that if I had the chance to play for Real Madrid, I would pursue that goal. Things didn’t work out for me there, but now I am back in English football and hope to make the most of my opportunity this time.
So what went wrong with your ‘dream move’?
Basically, Real did not suit my style of play. At the beginning I was enjoying myself and was accustomed to the system of our coach, John Toshack. Unfortunately, results were not in keeping with the demands of the supporters and the press, and everyone was pointing the finger at me and the huge transfer fee. The arrival of Vicente Del Bosque only hindered my situation and I soon realised that I did not fit into his system of play. I was delighted to return home to Paris Saint-Germain.
You’re now at Liverpool. How did it come about?
Everybody is aware I was having problems at PSG. I didn’t always agree with the direction of the club, and my relationship with the coach [Luis Fernandez] was not as amiable as it should have been. But sometimes in football things do not go your way, and I found myself out of the team. So when the chance came to join a club of Liverpool’s stature, I weighed up my options and thought it was the best move for me at this stage of my career.
Having scored just twice for PSG this season, did you move to salvage your World Cup dreams?
I am fiercely patriotic and it is my ambition, like all French players, to play for my country in the game’s biggest tournament. I was disappointed to miss out four years ago, despite having helped Arsenal to the championship, so I want to stake a claim this time. Aime Jacquet said I was too young, too inexperienced, but I have now played for some of Europe’s biggestclubs. Yet I am under no illusions. I need to be playing and scoring regularly to get back in contention, but I couldn’t be at a bigger club than Liverpool to help realise all my dreams, not just those that come in the summer.
Why did you choose Liverpool?
It was important to join a team where the management have as much faith in my ability as I have. I knew Gerard Houllier from my time with the French junior sides at Clairefontaine, so he knows what to expect from me, and I know what I’m going to get from him. We spoke several times before my arrival and he said I will be a part of his plans for the rest of the season. But it was also important to join a big club with a great history, who are also in contention for the major trophies. Liverpool fit those criteria and now it’s up to me.
You have been signed to replace Robbie Fowler. Does that bring extra pressure?
When I made my debut at Aston Villa, I had a certain amount of apprehension because I know what Robbie meant to Liverpool fans and his goalscoring record is one of the best in Europe. But they immediately started chanting my name and it was at that moment I realised that I had truly made the right decision. Naturally, I am a little rusty but I’m confident that the fans will soon see the best of me and that I can carry on the tradition that comes with wearing the No 9 shirt for Liverpool.
Some people say you and Michael Owen are too similar.
When I first arrived at the Liverpool training ground, Michael was away receiving his European Player of the Year award, but he phoned to welcome me. I appreciated that; it showed how determined he is to make the partnership work. We have worked well in training since and there is no reason why two players who have pace and are direct can’t work together. I’m sure defenders would rather deal with just one fast opponent instead of two, so we can exploit that. But this isn’t just about Michael and myself. He is a truly great player but we have a number of international forwards at the club, who are all capable of fulfilling a role in the side.
Are you disappointed that the move is only a loan deal?
I am not looking at the deal as a temporary one. I would love to stay here and I’m going to work hard to ensure that I get a permanent contract. The best possible outcome would be for me to help the club win the championship, which we are very capable of doing, and then sign – but I would put pen to paper today if I was asked. I really feel a part of the set-up here already.
Will it be a strange feeling when you return to play at Arsenal?
Not really. Football brings such situations and you have to adjust accordingly. I do not expect a good response from the Arsenal fans whenever I face them but I was a young boy at Highbury and I am more mature now. I was happy with my form and my goal ratio during my time there, and I will never forget what Arsene Wenger did for my career. I still have a number of friends at the club and it is good to see Arsenal playing well, although with their quality that is no surprise.
This interview appeared in the February 2002 issue of World Soccer