A week ago Nicolas Anelka had not been selected for a France squad in three years. Today he is celebrating having marked his return with a goal that sparked a comeback to beat Costa Rica 3-2 on his home island of Martinique.
At half-time France were trailing 2-0 and heading for an embarrassing defeat. But only five minutes into the second period Fenerbahçe SK forward Anelka turned in Thierry Henry's cross, and the French revival was on.
Sports newspaper L'Equipe was swift to hail France's prodigal son, declaring: "Anelka was everywhere on the pitch in the first half, often coming back into his own half to help his team-mates."
The 26-year-old had not even been expecting a recall for this charity match on the island where his parents were born. "I have no illusions about the French team or the World Cup," the former Arsenal FC, Paris Saint-Germain FC, Real Madrid CF, Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC striker said at the beginning of the season. "If I am not called up, it would not be a problem at all."
But having been overlooked since refusing a late call for a friendly under Jacques Santini in November 2002, Anelka was the recipient of a surprise nomination from Raymond Domenech last Thursday. Then, when David Trezeguet pulled out on Monday just before he was due to fly to the Caribbean, Anelka's 28th cap, three and a half years after his 27th, seemed certain. "I called him in to bring more depth and control in front of goal," said Domenech.
Domenech, who fell out with a young Anelka while Under-21 coach, paired him with Henry, probably his best friend in the squad along with Zinedine Zidane. "He's among the best ten strikers in the world," Henry said before the game. "He will bring something to the team," added captain Lilian Thuram. Anelka started to justify that tag in the opening minutes with two chances "and some lightning and powerful movements that few others in Europe could manage", said L'Equipe.
With France 1-0 down, his strike was deflected on to the post by Costa Rica's goalkeeper, but not long after the break he claimed his first goal in Bleu since the 5-0 win against the Korean Republic at the FIFA Confederations Cup on 30 May 2001.
In front of his father, watching cautiously from the stands, Anelka's activity decreased after the goal and cramp forced him off with 15 minutes left, to the applause of the 17,000 spectators in the Dillon Stadium.
His replacement, Djibril Cissé, equalised with his first touch on 80 minutes, meaning the race to join Henry and Trezeguet in the France squad for Germany should be fiercely contested. But after Wednesday, Anelka is certainly in the running.
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