Hatem Ben Arfa, individualism and the mistake of moving to PSG

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 27, 2018

While the eyes of the world were trained on record signing Neymar last summer, Paris Saint-Germain’s other flamboyant maverick was all but forgotten about. There was a newer and far shinier toy to play with. Hatem Ben Arfa had fallen by the wayside once more, lost in an overstocked squad that could find no use for his uniquely mercurial skills.

After resurrecting his career with a sensational season at Nice, where he scored 17 goals in 34 league appearances, Ben Arfa made a terrible misjudgement in joining PSG. The wages on offer, together with the chance to compete for silverware at a club targeting the Champions League, proved irresistible to a player who had lost his way during a five-year spell in England. But he was always likely to prove expendable to a project for which money is no object.

Ben Arfa’s time in the Premier League, much like his career as a whole, was curiously unfulfilling. A broken leg caused by a thunderous Nigel de Jong challenge in just his fourth game on loan from Marseille saw him ruled out of action for almost a year, yet Newcastle United had seen enough to risk making the move permanent during his rehabilitation. It was a significant show of faith.

There were moments when Ben Arfa hinted at what he was truly capable of, particularly during the 2011/12 season when Newcastle finished fifth, but he was never able to convert those flashes of brilliance into something more consistent. His highlights reel of beguiling skills, superb individual goals and long-range strikes bears comparison with the very best in the world but it’s a misleading representation of a rather more patchy contribution.

Goals against Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers at St. James’ Park showcased Ben Arfa’s sublime ability to expose defensive indecision. Driving at opponents, putting them on the back foot and evading tackles with excellent close control, in both instances he weaved effortlessly past several players before finding the net. In the process Ben Arfa became a cipher for the club’s potential, and its frustrated ambition under the stewardship of Alan Pardew and Mike Ashley.

An outstanding dribbler and technical footballer, Ben Arfa has never fit neatly into a truly successful team. Despite picking up plenty of trophies in his career, the majority of which came during his formative years at a dominant Lyon, he was often peripheral to their achievement. Introduced from the bench, or substituted after an hour or so, he was someone who couldn’t necessarily be relied upon to deliver when it mattered most.

Yet a more mature Ben Arfa seemed to relish the responsibility that he enjoyed at Nice, a club that has developed a reputation for trying to reignite the careers of a few rebellious spirits in recent times – Wesley Sneijder, Younes Belhanda and Mario Balotelli amongst them. Away from the spotlight, he played with freedom and rediscovered his best form.

That year at Nice had the desired effect of proving what Ben Arfa could do and putting him back on the radar of leading clubs. He wasn’t short of offers but elected to join PSG on a free transfer when his contract expired. He was also placed on the standby list for the French squad for Euro 2016, after a four-year absence from international duty.

Ben Arfa’s relationship with Les Bleus has often been far from straightforward. He made his debut for the senior team at the age of 20, when he scored in a crushing 6-0 win over the Faroe Islands, but has picked up just a further 14 caps in the years that have followed, and taken part in a single major tournament. He has started on four occasions, a pitiful return for someone so gifted. Unfortunately, Ben Arfa’s match-winning abilities have often been paired with a questionable temperament.

A product of the prestigious Clairefontaine academy, as a teenager he featured in a French documentary series about how the system worked and what life was like there for the country’s most exceptional young footballers. At one point, Ben Arfa got into a heated argument with roommate Abou Diaby about a stolen keycard and other players had to intervene to prevent a fight breaking out between the two of them. A video of the incident endures online.

A public reputation for testiness and unreliability has stuck with Ben Arfa ever since. One of Clairefontine’s many illustrious alumni, his individual skill has always been beyond reproach, although he’s sometimes had difficulty in applying it for the common good. A virtuoso soloist, getting Ben Arfa to mesh together with less talented teammates has proved a challenge.

Growing up he was part of a special generation of French players who won every game en-route to claiming the UEFA Under-17 Championship on home soil in 2004. There was a strong North African influence to the squad, with Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema particularly prominent in their success. A famous image exists of the three of them clutching the trophy in celebration after beating Spain 2-1 in the final. Flanked by his fellow prodigies, Ben Arfa is at the centre.

While Nasri and Benzema also carry certain reputational baggage, and ran into notable difficulties with national team managers and the French Football Federation that contributed to premature retirements, both picked up far more caps than Ben Arfa. It’s a shame that, due to various factors, he has been so sporadically involved.

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At a club level, mistakes have certainly been made. Having worked so hard to re-establish himself, the thinking behind his move to PSG was particularly hard to fathom. At his unveiling in 2016, Ben Arfa spoke enthusiastically about a future that ultimately failed to materialise. “Signing with Paris Saint-Germain is a very happy and a proud moment. Paris Saint-Germain has always been a very special team for me, so to wear this jersey at the Parc des Princes is a childhood dream,” he said.

“It is an honour that the club is giving me this opportunity, making this dream come true. I will do my utmost to represent my new team to the best of my abilities and to make our supporters proud. Finally, I would like to thank OGC Nice, who helped me get back to enjoying my football again and gave me another chance to show French fans what I am capable of on the pitch.”

Regrettably, during his two years at PSG, Ben Arfa rarely saw the pitch. Last season he didn’t play a single game. He left at the end of June, after a turbulent spell during which his talents went to waste and he ended up falling out with the club hierarchy and training with the reserves. A fascinating player and character, Ben Arfa has an unfortunate predilection for getting into these kind of difficulties.

Back in April, he posted a picture of himself with a birthday cake on Instagram, provocatively captioned ‘Happy birthday to me. Celebrating one year in the cupboard’. It was the anniversary of Ben Arfa being exiled from the first team. At 31, and still to be signed by another club, his wait for competitive football continues. Utterly devastating on his day, it’s come around all too infrequently during a career that promised so much more.

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