Mention the name of Hatem Ben Arfa at almost any club where the maverick forward has played and you’ll either be met with a sigh of wonderment or, more likely, one of irritated frustration. A lot will depend on whether you rejoice in talent, or get hacked off by wasted opportunity.
Hatem Ben Arfa’s spell at the Clairefontaine academy was followed by a highly successful four years with Olympique Lyonnais, collecting four French titles along the way. Despite scoring a mere seven league goals in 64 games for Les Gones, Ben Arfa was one of the stars of the team, first under manager Gérard Houllier, and then Alain Perrin, and was named as (UNFP) Young Player of the Year in 2008. A new two-year contract seemed to set his future in place. Things never go smoothly with Ben Arfa though, and following a reported training ground bust up, his time with the club came to an unsavoury end, and after a typically messy transfer, he arrived on France’s south coast with Olympique de Marseille.
Early form at the Stade Vélodrome suggested that the €12 million OM had laid out for him, to beat off reported approaches from a number of Premier League clubs, was good value, despite reports of another training ground kerfuffle, this time with Djibril Cissé. Six goals in his first eleven games promised much, but a simmering mood of discontent soured any feeling of optimism. During the warm up for a Champions League match with Liverpool, Ben Arfa and Cameroon international Modeste M’bami had to be separated when the pair looked like coming to blows. This was becoming a habit.
Things would continue in a similar vein at the Stade Vélodrome. During a match against, PSG, Ben Arfa refused to come from the bench when requested by Eric Gerets. It hardly endeared him to the manager, and a claim later that he was injured was hardly convincing as others would suggest that it was more to do with a fit of pique for not being selected to start. Of course, the player always had his talent to try and heal wounds and on his return to the first eleven against Saint-Étienne he scored and created the other two goals to lead the team to victory. Was it a way of apologising, or merely trying to prove a point? Inevitably some would suggest the latter.
A new manager, Didier Deschamps, hardly engendered an improvement in the player’s conduct. In October 2009, the club fined Ben Arfa €10,000 for missing a training session and a month later he publicly rowed with Deschamps during training. Things weren’t going well and by the end of the year, despite appearing 15 times that season for the club, he would complete the 90 minutes on only two occasions.
The 2010 portion of the season would be better though. Playing more regularly, his form improved and he was named as Player of the Month in February, when he also notched his first league goal of the season. OM won all four games during that month, with Ben Arfa starting in every one of them. It was a run that took the club to the summit of Ligue 1, where they stayed until the end of the season to lift the title.
During the summer reports of an approach by Newcastle United seemed to have been the tipping point for Ben Arfa and his relationship with Deschamps. As with his move from Lyon, he seemed committed to making the transfer happen regardless of how others may view his actions. He declared that he would not play for OM again and that the relationship with his manager was broken beyond repair. He even flew to Newcastle, without the permission of his club, to try and push things forward. Negotiations continued and when a proposed deal to Werder Bremen collapsed, OM felt compelled to take a £2million loan fee from the Geordies and Ben Arfa moved to the north-east of England. Newcastle would later make the deal permanent – or at least as permanent as these things can ever be. A goal on his debut for The Magpies was encouraging but a few days later, a broken leg stalled any progress. Complications followed amid rumours that the injury was more serious than first thought. Although he returned to the club in April, he wouldn’t play again until the following season.
A couple of pre-season games ahead of the 2011-12 season seemed the ideal way of easing the player back into action, but an ankle injury meant another enforced absence. On his return, a glimpse of the talent that no-one had ever doubted Ben Arfa possessed, made him look like a star. Two magical goals after the turn of the year, one against Blackburn and the other against Bolton, where he danced through a forest of defenders illustrated that he was surely back to his best form. As always though, this seemed to herald a turn for the worse.
Despite starting the 2013-14 season well, form and favour drained away and in September 2014, a loan move was agreed with Hull City. Ben Arfa’s time with Newcastle was like a microcosm of his career. So much promise, outstanding play, and yet still the sad taste of disappointment and disillusion would linger after his departure. His time at the KC Stadium under Steve Bruce would be short and not very sweet. He appeared in eight games before reportedly leaving the country. Bruce had
no idea where he was. Just after the turn of the year, Newcastle terminated his contract. It was another sad way to leave a club.
The next stop was Nice, where Ben Arfa claimed he would be happy and not “hounded by the press.” Signing a deal on 5 January until the end of the following season, however, someone at the club appeared to have miscalculated. Having already played for two clubs in the season, regulations prevented him appearing for a third. Nice would have to wait until August 2015 to see their new player in action. Some would argue that it was well worth the wait. In a spurt of dazzling form, he would score 18 goals in just 37 matches, the best return of his career, whilst delivering some emphatic displays.
In July 2016, with the contract at Nice expiring, Ben Arfa was signed by PSG on a two-year deal. The oil-rich club had attracted a number of top stars, and he was now on the biggest stage in France, and one of the biggest in Europe. If there was a time to prove his ability, this was it. Sadly, it all fell flat. In an all-star squad competition for places was intense and Ben Arfa failed to prove his worth. A mere 23 league appearance in his first season without troubling the scorers was followed in 2017-18 without a single appearance for the first team. His contract wound down with no chance of renewal and he signed for Rennes.
The history of football is replete with accounts of players who flattered at times only to deceive at others. There seems to so often be a chain that links outlandish talent with outlandish behaviour and for many, the tale of Hatem Ben Arfa fits right into that category. For others though, those moments of supreme talent, the magical slaloming runs of those goals for Newcastle and his season with Nice, offer an enchantment that pays for so much of the unwanted baggage. There’s always the wonder though of what might have been.