It was a time when the fax machine had a purpose. The one plugged into the wall at Piazza Crimea rang, beeped, clicked into action and spat out the communiqué. It was marked for the attention of Juventus director general Luciano Moggi and consisted of four brief bullet-pointed sentences.
· Juventus are not participating in the Champions League.
· Lazio, potentially, are technically superior to Juventus.
· Rome is a better place than Turin.
· Turin, as advised by his French international colleagues, is a difficult city to settle into.
The note had been sent on behalf of Nicolas Anelka, the then Arsenal forward who was desperately trying to find a new club who could meet his healthy financial needs. It was his way of telling the Turin giants that he had no intention of moving to the Old Lady of Italian football.
Moggi had set his sights on the French youngster in a bid to rejuvenate a side who had just finished seventh in Serie A – their lowest placing since Gigi Maifredi’s promise of champagne football, at the start of the 1990s, turned out to be bitterly flat. And Anelka was openly on the market.
Aged just 20, he was one of the hottest young attacking talents in circulation and it was no secret that he was looking for a Highbury exit. In May of 1999, the former Paris Saint-Germain kid had made it clear that he wanted out of London – no matter what his agent brother Claude officially announced. “His future is still at Arsenal,” the latter stated on the 19th of the same month. “He will be with the club next year, I can guarantee that.”
By that stage, Claude was understood to have already held talks with Real Madrid, but there was strong Italian interest too. Juventus were keen, but they faced stiff competition from Sergio Cragnotti’s Lazio, a side who had just finished as Serie A runners-up. The Biancocelesti, bossed by Sven Goran Eriksson, hired Italian agent Vincenzo Morabito to act as their intermediary.
“Juventus wanted Nicolas, but there was already a deal in place with Lazio,” Morabito recently told Mediaset. “Juve had an advantage over us in terms of an agreement with Arsenal, but they couldn’t close the transfer as they needed the consent of the player. A deal with Juventus was dead even before talks started.
“Some of the things that occurred that summer were like from a mystery novel,” continued the representative. “His agents arrived in Italy for a meeting with Moggi. Fearful that they would be spotted in Turin, Moggi organised a summit at a motorway service station. I told Anelka’s entourage to go as to not arouse suspicion, but when they got there they found that Luciano had sent poor Roberto Bettega instead.”
When it became clear that Anelka wanted Lazio, Moggi publicly claimed that the forward was never a target of his Bianconeri. “We’re not interested,” he stated. “We’re happy with our strikers and happy that he is joining Lazio. We simply met his agents out of courtesy – and that was transformed by people into the theory that we wanted to sign him.” Juventus also held talks with Arsenal, officially to discuss Thierry Henry’s switch, but Morabito insists that Anelka was primarily the topic of conversation.
With La Signora out of the running, Lazio were in pole position even if the messiest transfer saga of the summer continued to take more twists and turns than the Magic Bullet Theory. After allegations of illegal approaches and a multitude of ignored ultimatums by all interested parties, it took until July 25 for the Biancocelesti to agree an initial £21m transfer fee with Arsenal. Anelka was seemingly theirs, but the move was never completed after a last-minute disagreement with his people. A week later and Le Sulk was a Real Madrid player.
Now, almost 14 years on, Anelka has finally put pen to paper on a deal with Juventus. The difference is that back then he was considered as a star of the future, today he’s being labelled by his critics as a wasted talent of the past. He’s got five months to have his say.