The hooded figure walked calmly through the frenzy, headphones in, dark glasses on, like some sort of Jedi. Nicolas Anelka had landed back in Europe, at Heathrow, after his World Cup tantrum in South Africa had sparked mutiny and meltdown in the France camp. He was click‑clicked every step of his way to the getaway car.

He did not need the shades. Anelka's public face has always resembled a mask; the eyes staring impassively into the distance, whether in triumph or disaster. When the striker became a Champions League winner in 2000 with Real Madrid – he started in the 3-0 victory over Valencia in Paris – he seemed cut off, somewhat isolated, in the post-match celebrations.

Spool forward to the 2008 final in Moscow and when his shootout miss for Chelsea saw Manchester United crowned as the champions, unleashing extremes of emotion in all quarters, there was barely a flicker from him. Anelka's nonchalance borders on the fatalistic; his professionalism is so icy that he regularly invites the accusation that he does not give a fig.

His transfer from Chelsea to Shanghai Shenhua, from the "greatest league in the world" to the fringes of the world game, at the age of 32, feels like his latest cold-blooded career decision. He might have been lining up at Stamford Bridge against Manchester City, one of his many former clubs, in one of the English season's showpiece games. Instead, he is preparing to leap into the unknown in January. It ought to be mildly shocking yet Anelka has lost the capacity to shock.

He merely polarises opinion like few others. He is a hero to the kids in the banlieues, an icon with the power to roll up one of his tracksuit legs to the knee and spark a fashion craze. There are few players cooler than Anelka. But to many others in France he is seen as a mercenary who will be forever tainted by his rant at the national team's manager, Raymond Domenech, at half-time in a 2010 World Cup group fixture against Mexico.

"Go and fuck yourself and your tactics," Anelka told Domenech. After refusing to apologise, he was put on a flight to London, the end of his World Cup coming shortly before that of his country. His international career was effectively over when he was given an 18-game suspension. "I'm dying of laughter," he said.

When Domenech's players went on strike over Anelka's expulsion, it showed his popularity in dressing rooms. Apart from at Madrid, when established stars made sure he was never welcomed, he has been well liked. At Chelsea, there was tremendous admiration for him and no little disillusionment when he was marginalised and then banished by André Villas-Boas.

Authority can fire Anelka's non-conformist streak. If he has always tended to put himself first, he does not take kindly to being treated with disrespect. A hasty exit was likely when Villas-Boas told him he could not use the first-team facilities, after he had requested a transfer. It took him less than a week to finalise his two-year contract at Shenhua, which is worth €10.6m (£8.9m) a year.

Some misconceptions have built around Anelka. He was not a disadvantaged Parisian urbanite – he was born in Versailles and his parents had regular jobs. He is a committed family man, a father of two boys who enjoys nothing more than quiet time. He believes that Shanghai will be a great city for the children.

But he has allowed the enigmatic image to grow, spiced by his apparent wanderlust, the transfer fees that total £85.8m and the influence of his brothers Claude and Didier, who advise him – some would say badly. Anelka would argue that his move from Arsenal to Madrid came too early; that he wanted to stay at Liverpool; and that the transfers to City, Fenerbahce and Bolton were part of the quest to return to a leading club.

Anelka attended the Clairefontaine centre of excellence with Thierry Henry and was thought the better prospect. He was the prototype modern No9: jet-heeled, super fit and efficient, with silky smooth technique. But if he can look like the best player on any pitch, he has also shown infuriating inconsistency and, at times, indifference. The debate rages as to whether he has fulfilled his potential.

In 1997, at the Under-20 World Cup, Anelka missed a penalty in a quarter-final shootout lost to Uruguay. The France manager, Gérard Houllier, spoke of him lacking mental strength but being honest enough to recognise it. Plenty of people have got between the hip-hop beat in Anelka's ears and found complexity. The game has been richer for it.