One of the most entertaining, enigmatic footballers of his generation is on his umpteenth comeback and could line up for his new club in the Europa League on Thursday
Rennes the latest stop on the rollercoaster career of Hatem Ben Arfa
Hatem Ben Arfa, it seems, is never so menacing as after a long period of inactivity.
One of the most entertaining, enigmatic footballers of his generation is on his umpteenth comeback, one gathering enough momentum that he can eye a first start in European club competition on Thursday night for his latest employer, Rennes, as they host Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League.
Ben Arfa has already given the French club, whom he joined last month, their kick-start in Europe, coming off the bench after 65 minutes to score an injury-time penalty, the winning goal of their opening group fixture against Jablonec of the Czech Republic.
It was a typically theatrical entrance. Ben Arfa, making his Rennes debut, had been all but unemployed for over a year, having fallen so far from favour at Paris Saint-Germain in 2017-18 that he made no first team appearances while seeing out the second and last year of his contract there.
The reasons for that freeze-out at PSG were several. Ben Arfa, now 31, of course faced severe competition for a place in the side, from Neymar, Kylian Mbappe, Edinson Cavani, Julian Draxler and all the rest of the star-studded Paris ensemble.
But in truth he and the then PSG manager Unai Emery had never found much of a happy dialogue. Emery’s early criticisms of Ben Arfa’s work-rate hinted at a martinet-v-maverick relationship.
By the beginning of last year, there was barely any mention of the player at all. A thrilling idea that one of French football’s most original, watchable talents might, as he hit 30 years old, find fulfilment at France’s wealthiest, most ambitious club had fizzled into fantasy.
On the rollercoaster arc of Ben Arfa’s career, the plunge at Paris hardly ranks as the low point. For that you might pick out the day when he was substituted in a game against Manchester United at Old Trafford after just 35 minutes by a manager infuriated by a lack of tracking-back or visible signs of defensive responsibility.
This incident happened not when Ben Arfa was playing in the Uefa Champions League for Olympique Lyonnais, or Marseille, two of the gander clubs he has starred at, or even in the Premier League for Newcastle United, where he enjoyed a period of happy adoration from supporters.
No, the humiliating hooking of Hatem happened in the colours of Hull City in November 2014, an incensed Steve Bruce, then in charge of Hull, making the substitution of a player loaned from Newcastle. Ben Arfa was never picked for any English club again.
That setback grew into a crisis, and the following January, prevented by Fifa regulations from joining a third different club in the same season, Ben Arfa was effectively unemployed.
He was then 27, and appeared lost to a sport that made made him a national celebrity at 12, when he featured in a popular documentary series on French television that followed the students at the France national academy at Clairefontaine.
A star had been identified; the public warmed to him. At 17 Ben Arfa was making his Champions League debut - for Lyon, against Manchester United - and at 20 won the first of his 15 caps for France.
Those caps have been spread over almost a decade. The last of them came to him in 2015, and were an endorsement of his capacity to bounce back. He bounced back after his leg was broken by Nigel De Jong - his dribbling has always made him a target of the rugged - early in his career at Newcastle; he recovered from his six months of post-Hull limbo, when he joined Nice. He had a dazzling season there, which led him back to Les Bleus, and to PSG.
Now Rennes, the fifth Ligue 1 club on his resumé. Sabri Lamouchi, their young manager, is the latest to puzzle out how best to use this singular talent. Lamouchi, a former France international with, like Ben Arfa, Tunisian heritage, is reported to have built a strong understanding with the player already.
He has eased him back into action steadily, stressing that “with Hatem, you don’t need 90 minutes from him to win a match.” He can though, still supply a very productive 90 minutes: he provided an assist and then a fine goal, from 25-yards, in the 2-1 win at Monaco earlier this month.
Ben Arfa shone again at the weekend, in the 1-1 draw at Saint-Etienne, although he squandered a chance, from the penalty spot, to deliver all three points. Lamouchi was forgiving. “Hatem is on the right path, and I think we are too.”