Next stop, Great Wall

Next stop, Great Wall

From the tough streets of France to Chinas Shenhua, it has been quite a journey for Nicolas Anelka

Next stop, Great Wall

That 2-1 turnaround on Monday night for the London team owned by a Russian over the Manchester side bankrolled from Abu Dhabi was the second-most intriguing event of the day.

It paled in significance to the news that Nicolas Anelka, one of the many players to pass through Chelsea since the oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, has been sold to Shanghai Shenhua in China. Nothing should surprise us in modern sports, or society.

Wealth in the West is receding, China is an emerging financial force, and Anelka has been a player of no fixed abode since he was 17. He is like a butterfly in soccer shoes. He flits from club to club, from one culture to the next. Born outside Paris to immigrant parents from the French islands in the Caribbean Sea, Anelka is like Thierry Henry, the New York Red Bulls striker, a travelling man made super-rich by the talents in his feet.

Anelka came through the tough streets of French immigrant struggles. He attended Clairefontaine, the French soccer academy, in the early 1990s. And from there, briefly, very briefly, he belonged to Paris Saint-Germain, then Arsenal, followed by Real Madrid, briefly back to Paris and then on to Liverpool, Manchester City, Fenerbahce in Istanbul, Bolton and Chelsea.

And now, for an undisclosed transfer sum, but on a contract said to reward Anelka with more than $270,000 per week for the next two years, he will relocate again, to the Yangtze Delta. You wish him luck.

Anelka is not the most communicative of men, even in languages he does speak. He has not needed to be. His swiftness of foot, his tall, slender body, is a blessing. His instinct to glide stealthily before opponents sense the danger has been his fortune since he was a child. He plays in the most passionate of games, but with an outwardly indifferent attitude. Something moves him quicker than most men on the field. He has an inner awareness, an antenna for scoring chances, and a deadly coldness in finishing them with either foot or head.

The remoteness he gives off, the almost secretive essence that tells us neither whether playing the game is a chore or a joy to him, might well appeal to the culture he is about to enter. We know that Anelka is married, to a Belgian choreographer, and that they have two sons of pre-school age. We hear that, along his nomadic path, he converted to Islam.

We do not know how that will fit into sports, or life, in China.  On the one hand, Shanghai, with its burgeoning commerce, its modern fashion, its fine art, could enrich the Anelkas. On the other, Shanghai Shenhua, under previous ownership, was as entangled in a match-fixing scandal that reached right to the top of Chinese soccer – corruption that has run even deeper than the gambling-related fixes that bedevil every other culture nowadays. But let us be charitable. Let us think with an open mind of the possibilities of a 32-year-old man, Anelka, signing up to possibly his last few years of athletic prime in a whole new world.

The vision of it could, truly, help make this the global game. Anelka could be a catalyst to something bigger than winning the Champions League, which he did long ago with Real Madrid. Reports say that Shanghai Shenhua is about to install a new coach – Jean Tigana, one of the famed midfield quartet that won the European Championship of 1984 for France.

Speculation suggests that Didier Drogba, who up until Monday was Anelka’s scoring partner in the Chelsea attack, is being courted for an even greater salary by a rival Chinese team, Dalian Aerbin. These things are happening faster than anyone imagined. But the process is familiar. Major League Soccer in the United States took the aging David Beckham as its icon, and Thierry Henry followed.

Twenty years ago, Gary Lineker, the English striker, and Zico, the Brazilian play maker, became part of the new Japanese league at a time when they had a few more years, a few more miles, left in their careers as players. Pep Guardiola, the man now coaching Barcelona as it seeks, in Yokohama, to add the Club World Cup to all its other trophies, spent his final two playing years in Qatar, with Al-Ahli. He wasn’t alone there; the renowned Argentine goal scorer, Gabriel Batistuta, shared the loot and the limelight with another Qatari club, Al-Arabi.

But still, when Nicolas Anelka arrives in eastern China in January, the culture shock will be as great to him as he may be to the Chinese. When this transfer was first floated just a few weeks ago, among the disbelievers was Cameron Wilson. A resident of Shanghai, a member of Shenhua’s Blue Devils fan base, Wilson wrote on his Wild East Football Web site: “Anelka coming here is pie in the sky.”

The club, said Wilson, was at its lowest ebb. It had finished 11th of the 16 teams in China’s Super League. The team appeared to have no motivation, little money, and he wondered if the team could hold on to its own young talents, never mind recruit a global superstar. Zhu Jun, who owns 75 percent of the club and whose biography includes dropping out of college to try his luck in the United States, has other designs.

Shenhua’s Web site has generic pictures of Anelka dressed in the team colors against a background of a robotic warrior standing ominously. Zhu’s financial worth is a mystery even to many. Its origins were from selling World of Warcraft computer games to tens of millions of young Chinese. Four years ago, when Zhu bought into the Shanghai club, he instructed his coach to pick him for a friendly match against Liverpool in Amsterdam. The coach dutifully obliged. Zhu, then age 41, lasted five minutes.

Anelka should have more than that in his legs. But whatever happens, this soccer nomad who was at the center of the French team implosion at the 2010 World Cup, has another future in mind, after soccer: He wants to be a film star.