Newcastle United

The trouble with Hatem Ben Arfa

August 30, 2010
By Andy Brassell
(Archive)

Most transfer sagas, like soap operas, stretch themselves out to a ludicrous degree before finally reaching a thoroughly predictable conclusion. But Hatem Ben Arfa is a master of the unexpected on every level, and his long-awaited transfer to the Premier League has been to a surprise destination.

Hatem Ben Arfa celebrates a goal for France
GettyImagesHatem Ben Arfa celebrates a goal for France

Many believe that the arrival of the French international heralds a marriage made in hell, the combination of a temperamental overseas player and a club only recently delivered from perpetual melodrama by the steady hand of phlegmatic head coach Chris Hughton. What is clear is that this unlikely alliance promises to evolve into one of the more intriguing subplots of the English season.

The foundations of Ben Arfa's enfant terrible reputation were laid in 2002's A La Clairefontaine, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the young prospects coming up through France's fabled national academy. The precocious youngster, the junior in his age group, was shown rowing with Abou Diaby in one ugly scene.

It didn't seem to harm his considerable self-regard. In fact, the perception in France was that that the national television exposure had only inflated his burgeoning ego. After leaving Clairefontaine and joining Lyon's youth system, he remained the centre of attention - this time, for his extraordinary talent.

His pace, balance and ability to weave around defenders at will saw Jose Mourinho make extensive efforts to persuade the 17-year-old Ben Arfa into becoming one of his first signings for Chelsea before he finally inked his maiden professional contract for the then-French champions.

Ben Arfa made his debut for the first-team shortly after, on the first day of the 2004-05 season, but despite sporadically participating at Ligue 1 and Champions League level didn't become a regular until some three years later. Along with fellow youth-team prospect Karim Benzema, Ben Arfa suffered in the Gerard Houllier reign (2005-07) from the former Liverpool coach's reluctance to trust the club's youngsters.

Questions about his demeanour became commonplace as he established himself under Alain Perrin in 2007-08 (on the left side of a front three), especially as the relationship between Ben Arfa and Benzema came under increasingly close scrutiny with the team now revolving around them.

The pair had played together for years, both having had important roles in France's 2004 European Under-17 Championship victory. As they enjoyed an excellent technical understanding on the field and were both from north African families, nobody (outside the club, at any rate) had really considered that these two divergent personalities didn't really get on off the pitch.

They never had clicked on a personal level. Ben Arfa had crossed words with Benzema's mother at a youth team game at Lyon, and the temperature between the two seldom rose above frosty in the subsequent years.

When Benzema failed to shake hands with Ben Arfa as the latter replaced the former as substitute in a match against Lille in March 2008, the speculation hit fever pitch. It was suggested that this shared enmity authored Ben Arfa's Lyon exit, with Benzema indispensable and thus the clear winner in a straight-up choice between the two.

In fact, Ben Arfa had sealed his own fate. Encouraged by Perrin, he had made fine strides over the early part of the campaign and his useful contributions included a stylish brace in the Champions League against Stuttgart and six league goals. But even Perrin became exasperated with him in the second half of the season, feeling that he wasn't pulling his weight, and Ben Arfa didn't start a game after February. A dressing-room punch-up with Sebastien Squillaci after training one day in April signalled the end.

Rumours of interest from Real Madrid and Arsenal morphed into the reality - a move within Ligue 1 to Marseille, with Ben Arfa requiring the assistance of the league's board to finalise an acrimonious departure. He was soon up to his old tricks, scrapping with Djibril Cisse in training before the season had even begun, but started the season strongly, scoring a flurry of goals and pulling the strings from a more central position.

Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema didn't always see eye to eye
GettyImagesHatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema didn't always see eye to eye at Lyon

However, Ben Arfa yet again failed to continue a promising beginning, incensing coach Eric Gerets when he refused to come on as substitute in a match against Paris Saint-Germain and failing to score at all after November. He almost came to blows with a team-mate again, this time with Modeste M'Bami during the warm-up for a crucial Champions League clash with Liverpool.

Gerets' successor Didier Deschamps never really took to Ben Arfa, and tried to ditch him during the winter 2009-10 transfer window. With Deschamps unsuccessful, Ben Arfa (along with fellow persona non grata, Mathieu Valbuena) came back to figure heavily in Marseille's late season surge to a first league title in 18 years.

He has the support of his national coach, at least. Laurent Blanc selected Ben Arfa for his first match in charge of France, against Norway in Oslo, and the 23-year-old responded by scoring a stupendous long-ranger within minutes of coming on as substitute. Blanc has also made it clear that he has only left Ben Arfa out of the squad for the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifying games because of his lack of training during his bitter dispute with Marseille.

The pattern of his problems - and his triumphs - suggests that Ben Arfa responds best when he is made to feel important and loved; the brash exterior masks a degree of insecurity. Feeling unwanted is what made his final fallout with Marseille so irreversible, and prompted him to go on strike to force a move.

He could well find his perfect match with Newcastle, and Hughton. The coach has promised to build his team around Ben Arfa, who should occupy a central playmaker's role in an area where an admirable but essentially limited team lack pace and guile. The player himself has already shown on the south coast of France he can handle the expectations of a football-obsessed city.

Newcastle aren't renowned for picking up bargains on the continental market, but if they can coax anywhere near Ben Arfa's best out of him, they will have hit the jackpot. And he will find the respect he has always craved.