My first memory of the beautiful game is back from 1994. On the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Gheorghe Hagi scored a brilliant goal against Colombia, with a long-range shot with his left foot. In more than 20 years of watching football, I have rarely seen quality left-footed players. I’ve heard stories about Liam Brady, I grew up with Frank De Boer’s set-piece wizardry, I enjoyed Ryan Giggs’ raids and nowadays I am amazed by Lionel Messi’s cool finishes.
As an avid fan of the Premier League, the 2011-2012 season when Newcastle United finished 5th cannot be forgotten easily and although many can remember only Papis Cisse’s unbelievable goal at Stamford Bridge, for me, there was only one outstanding player that season – Hatem Ben Arfa.
If there is one word that can describe Ben Arfa’s career so far, that word is: Roller coaster – Moments of pure genius that we don’t see every weekend in Europe such as his amazing dribbles and his sublime goals after terrific runs through opposition’s defences that have always been intersected with multiple arguments and fights he has had almost every season since the youth leagues – a curse Hatem hasn’t been able to get rid of.
Being the son Kamel Ben Arfa, a former Tunisian footballer, football was running through the veins of Hatem from an early age and his future was always going to be in the beautiful game. His first experiences were at ASV Châtenay-Malabry and at CF Montrouge 92. After the World Cup hosted by France and a short move to AC Boulogne-Billancourt, Ben Arfa was selected to train at the prestigious French academy Clairefontaine. There, the staff could see the first signs of his temper and it did not take long until he had a reputation for causing trouble at INF. An argument with former Arsenal player Abou Diaby after a silly joke was even caught on tape when a documentary about the academy was filmed by Canal +.
Hatem Ben Arfa was part of the team that won the 2004 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, also becoming the top scorer of the tournament. Even with team-mates like Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri or Jeremy Menez no-one could doubt that Hatem was the most talented Frenchman in the squad. You can still observe this nowadays. Nasri has the perfect technique and great vision, Benzema is a goal-machine who can surprise you with a finish from anywhere inside the box, but Ben Arfa is the player who has something different.
After impressing at the European Championship, scouts from all across Europe had Hatem under their gaze and although Ajax, Chelsea and Arsenal were interested, he signed his first ever senior contract with Olympique Lyonais where he was promoted to the first team along with his good friend, Karim Benzema. His professional debut was in the first game week of the season against his current team Nice. Lyon’s team at that time included world-class players such as Giovane Elber, Juninho Pernambucano, Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal.
Hatem developed well in Lyon and he soon began to be recognized as one of Europe’s prodigies. Following the departure of Malouda and Sylvain Wiltord, he became a key-player for the team, winning the French title in each of his four seasons at the Stade de Gerland and being named Young Player of the Year in France in the 2007-2008 season.
The talent that Ben Arfa was showing in Lyon’s games was matched by his strong character and by his questionable attitude off the pitch. Rumours of a fight with Benzema appeared in the French press and in 2008, a massive argument in training with the respected Sébastien Squillaci was the end of the road for Hatem’s career in the small city of Lyon.
When everyone in the football world expected a move to England, the Frenchman surprised us once again, with a shock move to Olympique de Marseille where he proved his ability. It did not take long until he had another training session bust-up, this time with Djibril Cissé. His second season on the Velodrome was one to remember for Marseille. Ben Arfa was given the number 10 shirt, he led the team ending Lyon’s hegemony in The Hexagon and he became part of the French national team.
And when the interest from the Premier League clubs came for Hatem, he could no longer refuse the chance to play in Europe’s most spectacular league, signing for Newcastle in 2010, initially on loan and then on a permanent basis. As you can imagine, Ben Arfa’s departure from France was not a quiet one. Similar to his actions when leaving his previous club, Hatem travelled to England without the permission of his team and sent messages to the board using the press.
In the Premier League, the Frenchman was under the spotlight and after an unconvincing start and a couple of injuries in his first year, in 2011-2012 he had the best season of his career – scoring a couple of incredible goals after remarkable individual plays, helping The Magpies reach the Europa League. Like always, things didn’t go well for long for the rebel born in Clamart.
When everyone thought he is ready to make the next step to an even bigger club, by the end of the 2012-2013 season, after a conflict with Alan Pardew, it looked like the Frenchman was added to his manager’s blacklist and he rarely featured even on the bench for the Premier League games. In one year, Hatem went from hero to almost zero and the next season, a loan offer from Hull City seemed a good chance to regain match fitness and to prove everyone wrong.
However, in December 2014, despite of all the optimism felt by Steve Bruce when he brought Hatem from Newcastle United, the deal went sour, with the Hull City manager shocking everybody by telling the press that he didn’t know where the player was and that there seemed that there was no way back for him at the KC Stadium. He was soon released on a free by Newcastle and it looked like it was the end of the world for the Frenchman. It was only January but having played for two clubs, he had to wait until the summer to be able to sign for a new club and feature in an official match again.
It’s been a tumultuous eight months for the left-footed midfielder and perhaps a tumultuous career but Claude Puel thought he could use Ben Arfa’s talent at Nice and as a long-time admirer of the Frenchman’s ability, the deal was done quickly. “There are people here who trust me, who do not judge me as some people want to judge me through the press.” These are Hatem’s words after the announcement was made. He also added: “I am having a lot of fun at Nice, I want to enjoy myself.” Judging by his last words and his past, you simply can’t avoid thinking how long it will take until he will get in trouble again.
But Hatem, now 28, has proven so far that his career has been a roller coaster. When you think he’s down and that his playing days are over, he always gives us a surprise. And what a nice surprise it it has been on the football pitch at Nice, with six goals in his first eight games and with some incredible displays.
You just cannot take away the amazing talent that he possesses.