Anelka’s Indian summer of discontent

Mehr Shadaab 17:18 02/12/2015
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Anelka has not enjoyed his time in India.

A five-minute monologue by Oscar Bruzon on Nicolas Anelka’s ‘leadership’ was a give away that all’s not well in the Mumbai City dressing room. Bruzon, the assistant coach of the Indian Super League outfit, was asked if Anelka – the player-manager – would start the match against Delhi Dynamos. Instead of answering what he was asked, the Spaniard went down a different route, speaking about the impeccable qualities of the ‘boss’ and stressing three times how Anelka had the backing of the entire team.

It was unprompted and unprovoked. But the sermon suggested that everything wasn’t okay in the Mumbai dressing room, after all. The following morning, hours before the kick-off, Anelka called a team meeting. Upset with Bruzon’s ‘unwarranted’ comments, Anelka reportedly got so angry that the duo nearly came to blows and had to be separated by the players.

That was the last time those players saw Bruzon. He stormed out of the team hotel, never to return again. In an official statement, the club said Bruzon parted ways following ‘philosophical differences’ without elaborating further.

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The season that began with such promise for Mumbai is now ending on an extremely disappointing note, full with dressing room tiffs and a sulking manager insisting he won’t return again. Having been regarded as favourites for one of the four semi-final spots, Mumbai have missed out for a second season in a row.

Anelka has decided not to return next year and he defended himself on Tuesday, saying he was given the impossible task of getting performances from a group of players he did not select.

“When I signed as manager, we already had somebody who took care of the signings, so I was unavailable to bring many players — only three out of 26. So it was difficult. If I had chosen the players, everything would have been different. But I came here and had to believe in the players they gave me,” he said.

Clearly, the belief was lacking. The Bruzon incident wasn’t the only time Anelka was involved in a fight with his own men. Ever since he accepted the managerial role in the ISL, the question always had been when – not if – the first dressing room would erupt with heated exchanges. It did not take long, after all.

There was some irony in Mumbai naming the Frenchman as their player-manager. In his long, mercenary-esque career, Anelka has hardly been a manager’s player. Though a talismanic goal scorer, he has proven a problem child to many of his coaches.

But Anelka had promised a packed media gathering ahead of the season that he would behave. Now on the other side of the touchline, he had a different perspective to the game and understood why managers made certain decisions that may seem harsh on the player, but were necessary for the team. Many were smacking their lips in anticipation of this all proving to be hot air.

And he didn’t disappoint. After just two matches, Mumbai’s influential midfielder Andre Moritz left the team amid rumours of a falling out with Anelka. The Brazilian, who has played for Bolton Wanderers, Crystal Palace and Pohang Steelers in the Korean League, was involved in an argument with Anelka inside the dressing room after they lost the season-opener to Pune City, 3-1. Moritz was unhappy at being substituted, and things went on a downward spiral, eventually leading to him boarding a flight to Thailand in pursuit of greener pastures.

As Mumbai crashed out of the ISL on Tuesday, Moritz tweeted: “(sic) Its so easy to pointing fingers to other ones… Blaming other people for your failure. Be a man and stop crying.” He followed that up with: “(sic) Lets see whos guilty today?” Moritz didn’t name Anelka, but it was clear who the intended target of his social media outburst was.

Anelka insisted he didn’t have any role to play in Moritz quitting the club, saying: “Moritz had to go because he had to go. And I didn’t try talking to him because it was a decision made by the club management.”

Bruzon, who has been a successful coach in the I-League, acted as a bridge between Anelka and the players. Unlike Carlos and Materazzi, Anelka does not address the media before or after matches. In fact, he barely talks to his players as well – be it on the field or off of it. He does not celebrate when his team scores a goal, nor does he wince when they miss a chance or concedes.

He stood in the dugout a silent spectator while his now former assistant Bruzon barked out instructions to the players and, at times, initiated substitutions. Under Anelka, Mumbai have played a very physical game. After Moritz left, there was no order on the field and just when it transcended into chaos, India captain Sunil Chhetri returned from national duties and steadied the ship.

But even Chhetri had to face Anelka’s wrath. The Frenchman lashed out at the India captain’s effectiveness, saying he wasn’t a ‘fighter.’ The statement was met with fierce criticism in India, as Chhetri – India’s all-time highest goal-scorer – is seen as the messiah of the national team. Anelka, though, was unapologetic. “If he (Chhetri) is not happy, then that is life,” said the boss.

Despite all the bust-ups, Anelka insisted there were no differences between him and the management. “There is no big difference between me and the management. I know football and I know who has to be on the pitch and who doesn’t. I can see everything. If people are not happy, then sorry, I am the manager and I decide,” he said.

Anelka has left the door open to return as a player. It looks unlikely, though, especially as he has hardly played this season and had minimum impact when he has. One wonders if the Bruzon incident would have reminded Anelka of South Africa 2010 and the numerous other occasions when he fell out with his managers.

Karma, perhaps.

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