By Andrew Misra
Controversy is never far away from Hatem Ben Arfa and now he’s suing PSG.
Ben Arfa is seeking £7 million in compensation from former club Paris Saint-Germain for not playing him at all during the last fifteen months of his stint in the French capital. If that seems bizarre given the lofty earnings of players employed by the Qatar Sports Investments owned-club, consider that Ben Arfa’s contract was largely weighted with performance-based bonuses and incentives. The player’s lawyer, Jean-Jacques Bertrand, said that a lawsuit has been filed with a Paris labour tribunal. In the suit, the argument is made that the club’s treatment of the Frenchman was tantamount to workplace harassment. After scoring twice and assisting another in a 4-0 French Cup quarterfinal victory over third-tier side Avranches on 5th April 2017, Ben Arfa didn’t feature again for the first team to the end of his contract in June 2018. That absence meant missing almost seventy matches over that period.
Such a contract was put in place because of Ben Arfa’s career being blighted with persistent injury problems, but likely also because of his frequent attitude issues. Still, quite why this long exile was imposed on Ben Arfa is slightly ambiguous. Bertrand claims that a few days after that French Cup match, the Qatari Emir and club owner visited a training session. During this, it is said that Ben Arfa made a comment to the Emir that he had sent a few messages to the club president but hadn’t received a reply. The club, however, maintain that Ben Arfa was left out of the first team squad for such a long period of time for sporting reasons alone.
Regardless of who you believe, it seems a fall out with the club’s hierarchy took place. If proof was needed of that, it came back in April 2018, one year on from the beginning of his omission from the first team. He posted a picture of himself with a birthday cake on Instagram, with the caption ‘Happy birthday to me. Celebrating one year in the cupboard’.
🗣 “Happy Anniversary to me. One year in the cupboard is worth celebrating.”
– Hatem Ben Arfa after playing his last competitive match exactly one year ago. 😂🙌 pic.twitter.com/zDppxxOwsW
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) April 6, 2018
It would be eighteen months in total until Ben Arfa played again, in a Europa League group game for Rennes.
If somebody had told you this is how Ben Arfa’s time in Paris would have played out in 2016 when he joined the club, the truth is that you probably wouldn’t have been wholly surprised. This is just another episode in a curious career. The narrative of a talented player who never manages to make the most of it is well-known and well told. Ben Arfa feels different though. For one, he’s been involved in an astonishing number of disagreements with teammates across the teams he has played for. But more strikingly, the ceiling of his ability is higher than the rest. Simply, he can do things with the ball that aren’t normal. In an era where Messi comparisons are bandied around far too easily, Ben Arfa conjured up the jaw-dropping demonstrations of skill that the Argentinian demonstrates routinely. Few players have looked more natural than the Frenchman with the ball at their feet.
Ben Arfa was born in 1987 into a family of footballing pedigree. His father was the former Tunisian international footballer Kamel Ben Arfa. Hatem was chosen to attend the famed Clarefontaine academy in 1999. While there, he featured in A la Clairefontaine, a documentary series offering a glimpse into the daily lives of France’s top young footballers during their time at the academy. It was in this series that an episode showed Ben Arfa getting into an argument with Abou Diaby, suggesting an argumentative streak that would rear it’s head often in the years to come.
At under-17 level, Ben Arfa was a star of the team that won the 2004 UEFA European Under-17 Championship. Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema and Jeremy Menez were also stars of that side, defeating a Spain side featuring Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Pique in the final. That quarter has been touted as the lost ’87 generation, who promised so much but delivered so little. All were 28 or 29 at the time of Euro 2016, yet not one made it into Didier Deschamps national team squad.
Soon after returning from junior international duty, Ben Arfa signed his first contract at Lyon after spending two years in their youth academy and was promoted to the first team squad, along with Benzema.
This was the peak-era Lyon who swept all before them in France and while Ben Arfa won the league in each of his four seasons at the club, he didn’t feature all that much in the first three. Seen more as a centre forward, he was often used as a substitute rather than starting player, replacing the likes of Sidney Govou from the bench. That changed in the 2007-08 season when he began to shift towards the wing after Florent Malouda and Sylvain Wiltord departed, with new manager Alain Perrin favouring a 4-3-3 formation.
That was a productive season for Ben Arfa, returning a respectable eight goals. However, rumours of a rift with Benzema and a training ground bust-up with Sébastien Squillaci were followed by Ben Arfa’s departure to rivals Marseille for €11 million in the summer of 2008. Naturally, it wasn’t long before his first training ground bust-up there, this time with Djibril Cisse. The latter was subsequently shipped off to Sunderland to accommodate Ben Arfa.
His two seasons at Marseille were successful, winning the league in 2009-10 as well as the Coupe de la Ligue in 2010. However, the controversy continued. A dispute with teammate Modeste M’bami before a Champions League match against Liverpool wad followed by a refusal to leave the bench during a 4-2 defeat to PSG. He apologised for the latter, but it wasn’t long before he was fined €10,000 for missing a training session in October 2009.
In the summer that followed, Ben Arfa began to agitate for a move, claiming that his relationship with then manager Deschamps had turned sour. A loan move to Newcastle was agreed, with a £2 million fee set to rise to a £7 million permanent move after 25 league appearances.
He scored a quite brilliant goal on his debut for Newcastle against Everton at Goodison Park to give them a 1-0 win. With little happening in the final third for Newcastle, Ben Arfa shifted the ball to the left of Johnny Heitinga and released a howitzer across the goal and into the top corner.
Just two weeks later, he suffered a broken leg against Manchester City. In January 2011, Marseille and Newcastle reached an agreement for the permanent transfer of the player but he ultimately would not feature again during the 2010-11 season.
The following three seasons at Newcastle were mixed. There were sparks of brilliance, inconsistencies and injuries. The most fondly remembered moments were in the 2011-12 season.
There was the FA Cup goal v Blackburn in which a poetic dribble led to a finish that crashed up into the roof of the net.
To show that really wasn’t a one-off, he gave himself a bit more room to glide through when repeating the trick against Bolton in April 2012.
The brilliance came slightly more sporadically over the next two seasons and in September 2014 he joined Hull City on loan. A few months later in December 2014, it appeared that Ben Arfa had left England, with manager Steve Bruce declaring his Hull career over. The next month, Newcastle released him.
Hitting the Heights in Nice
He signed for Nice soon after in January 2015, professing his happiness to be back in France:
“There are people here who trust me, who do not judge me as some people want to judge me through the press.”
However, he was ineligible to play for his new side because he had already played for two teams in the 2014-15 season, which is the maximum allowed. Less than a month later, the player declared that his contract had been terminated.
However, in typical Ben Arfa fashion, he rejoined the club four months later in preparation for the 2015-16 season.
And what a season it was.
He turned in the season of his career, scoring 18 goals in 37 games as the talisman of the side. He wore number 9 but he was the 7, 9 and 10 all rolled into one. He ran the show.
His dribbling ability was always recognised, but at Nice he did it so consistently. Susceptible previously to accusations of being a scorer of great goals rather than the converse statement, Ben Arfa showed a deadly finishing ability – often at the end of his own enchanting runs.
Perhaps that was always the issue with Ben Arfa, he needed to be the undisputed star. Some of the things he did that season were utterly ridiculous and genuinely suggest a rare, generational level of ability. But usually, it was just him. I’ve watched my fair share of YouTube compilations, but Ben Arfa’s are different gravy. It’s shocking in the best way imaginable.
His is a twisted tale of joyous flair tempered by the regret of attitude eating into ability. It’s a lesson too. The signs were always there in terms of ability, but equally for his behaviour. Dealing with the latter is just as important as nurturing the former. Football is a team sport and no great of the game has ever secured their place amongst the pantheon of greats on ability alone.
He played his 200th French Ligue 1 game at the weekend. At 31 years old, the attitude is surely still there so maybe the ability is too. And for what it’s worth, I’m with Ben Arfa suing for £7 million for all that lost time. One of his solo runs is worth that alone.
Andrew Misra is a founder of 5WFootball, presents the weekly podcast and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here. He also contributes to The Anfield Wrap and you can follow him on Twitter here. He also maintains a general sports blog.