This is the first of a series looking at the players who have been washed away into the annuls of footballing memory. In today’s edition, we look at Hatem Ben Arfa, the French attacker whose technique was second to none, but whose attitude got the better of him. On his day he was unplayable, but those days became too few and far between. Now, as a free agent, Hatem Ben Arfa is one of Football’s Forgotten Players.
Football’s Forgotten Players: Hatem Ben Arfa
Hatem Ben Arfa: Humble Beginnings
Footballing heritage was ingrained in Ben Arfa’s family; his father, Kamil Ben Arfa, was a former Tunisian international. At the age of 12, Ben Arfa was selected to attend the prestigious Clairefontaine academy; the institution counts Kylian Mbappé, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka amongst some of its more famous graduates. Even in those early days, Ben Arfa showed glimpses of the attitude that would harm his career. A documentary about the French academy portrayed the young prodigy’s fight with Abou Diaby.
After three years at Clairefontaine, Ben Arfa signed for Olympique Lyon, already deemed a future French star. He signed his first professional contract with the then French champions, even with Chelsea and Ajax sniffing around for him. There, Ben Arfa spent four years of his fledgeling career, even winning the French young player of the year award in 2008. Despite having signed a new contract that same year, a training dispute with Sebastien Squillaci gave rise to discontent in Lyon.
Rumours began to grow of European giants circling like vultures to land the talented Frenchman. Real Madrid, Manchester United and Arsenal all clambered for his signing, but it was Lyon’s fierce rivals Marseille who won the race. Ben Arfa had missed training with Lyon, thus signalling his desires and a move came to fruition the next day. Yet another training brawl ensued, this time with Marseille striker Djibril Cissé, though he ended up joining Sunderland on loan.
After scoring on his Marseille debut, and hitting six goals in his opening 11 matches, things were peachy for the French attacker. Yet, controversy marked him wherever he went, more disputes followed, including one with manager Eric Gerets, refusing to warm up from the bench in a match against Paris Saint-Germain.
Indeed, controversy marred his time in Marseille for the most part. He received a €10,000 fine for missing a training session and later fell out with Didier Deschamps. Despite his form toward the end of 2009/10 season picking up, another move was right around the corner.
Electric Inconsistency in England
Ben Arfa’s move to Newcastle United came about in a similar fashion to his Marseille transfer. He had publicly stated that he would not return to training with Marseille, despite the club’s owner denying the existence of any bids for him. More missed training sessions, and his number ten shirt taken away, a move to Tyneside beckoned.
Initially joining the Magpies on a season-long loan, Ben Arfa made his full debut against Everton, scoring a thumping long-range effort. However, an injury sustained from a challenge by Nigel de Jong meant he missed the rest of the season.
Returning in 2011/12 after joining permanently, Ben Arfa could finally make his mark on English football. The season started slowly after his return from injury, but magical moments were on the horizon; a mazy run against Blackburn Rovers culminated in a powerful finish past Paul Robinson. Then, against Bolton Wanderers, Ben Arfa dribbled practically the length of the pitch, beating four players and dinking the ball past the goalkeeper. He was key to the side’s fifth-placed finish that year.
Yet, these moments were sparse in his Newcastle career, as more injury problems followed. For all his electric attacking potential, he had his drawbacks. Many teammates saw him as selfish on the ball, and his unwillingness to track back and defend irked Alan Pardew. A loan spell at Hull City lasted just three months, with Steve Bruce admitting he was unsure where Ben Arfa had gone by the end of it.
Glorious Return To France
Ben Arfa’s return to France with Nice would have to be delayed by six months after already playing for Newcastle and Hull. But in 2015/16, he returned with a vengeance. His 18-goal return that season featured some stunning finishes; a glorious double against Saint Etienne, a hat-trick against Rennes. Ben Arfa became a terrifying prospect for all of Ligue 1’s defences once again.
Claude Puel had made Ben Arfa his star, the side’s creative linchpin. He thrived on the freedom of being the club’s star, able to dribble past defenders like a care-free child. He nearly even scored the goal of the century against Rennes, nipped away on the line.
Oh, how it all came crashing down at PSG. His contract with Nice expired, and he joined the champions on a two-year deal. But his time in the capital was not pleasant; he was a squad player in his first season, not afforded such luxuries as under Claude Puel. His second season ended with him ironically celebrating ‘one year in the cupboard’ after not making a single competitive appearance.
His time at Rennes was as short-lived as his spell with Nice. One year was enough time for him to sprinkle some magic on Ligue 1 again before disappearing. Now yet to find a new suitor, Italy or the United States could be calling. His career will go down as ultimately disappointing, having shown so much promise as a French prodigy, but marred by attitude problems. Here’s hoping his next stint can provide world football with some vintage Hatem Ben Arfa stardust again.