x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Hatem Ben Arfa is fulfilling his promise

Frenchman putting injury and history of bad behaviour behind him to realise his potential at Newcastle, writes Ian Hawkey.

Hatem Ben Arfa has showcased his talent during his time at Newcastle so far. Michael Regan / Getty Images
Hatem Ben Arfa has showcased his talent during his time at Newcastle so far. Michael Regan / Getty Images

Hatem Ben Arfa was a super-starlet long before he was a star. A decade ago, when the France of Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly were reigning world and European champions, a documentary crew followed the fortunes of the supposed next generation of Bleus, the young teenagers enrolled at the Clairefontaine academy outside Paris.

Abou Diaby, now of Arsenal and frequently of their injury list, was among the talents closely followed. So was Ben Arfa.

The film's director was enchanted by his dribbling skills, his brimming self-confidence on the ball.

Being the junior star of "A la Clairefontaine", as the film was titled, gave Ben Arfa an unusually high profile for a 15 year old.

In his first match for the Olympique Lyonnais Under 16s after the documentary had aired, the crowd swelled well beyond the few dozen who normally watch junior games, because Lyon fans wanted to see this prodigy up close.

"There were 200 teenagers calling out his name during the warm-up," said Robert Valette, the Lyon youth coach. "They all wanted his autograph. He needed a bit of protecting from all that."

In the years since, Ben Arfa has not been entirely helped, or protected, from some of the side effects of his prodigious, youthful fame.

The Newcastle United winger, on a fine run of form in the Premier League, has acquired reputation as a difficult individual in France.

His out-of-the-ordinary skill is appreciated but his temperament suspected. Both will be factors weighed up carefully by Laurent Blanc, France's national head coach, ahead of this summer's European championship.

Ben Arfa turned 25 last month. He would be entitled to regard that as an important frontier to a maturity he acknowledges to having struggled to attain.

"I always thought Hatem was a couple of years behind in some respects," Armand Garrido, another youth coach at Lyon, told France Football magazine recently. "and I said that, by 25, he will really start to thrive."

A bad injury suffered early in his Newcastle career partially explains why the promise of Clairfontaine has not been realised in the form of world-class status and glittering prizes at senior level, but it is far from the only explanation.

Diaby, despite his series of injuries, has won nearly twice as many caps for Les Bleus as his more talented contemporary.

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, a year younger, and a striker with whom Ben Arfa played in the youth and senior teams at Lyon, is a far more established world star.

Benzema and Ben Arfa were close as boys. They fell out as men. Their famously frosty relationship at Lyon may have contributed to Ben Arfa's departure from the club he grew up at and where he won four league titles, to Olympique Marseille, where he won another league crown, but so did a number of incidents, including a practice ground bust up with his Lyon teammate Sebastian Squillaci.

His two seasons at Marseille would include similar fracas, with colleagues Djibril Cisse and Modeste Mbami. There, he also fell out with his coach, Eric Gerets.

Incorrigibly difficult? A French version of Mario Balotelli? No so, Ben Arfa would reply.

Last month, in a rare and revealing interview with L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper, he conceded to an "arrogance" that had made him unpopular as a younger man. He also spoke emotionally about his relationship with his father.

Kamel Ben Arfa was a footballer, good enough to have represented his native Tunisia internationally. He then moved to Paris, where Hatem was born, and by his son's account, pushed him hard into a potential career as a professional footballer.

At school, Hatem struggled with discipline, and was at one stage excluded. He later became estranged from Kamel.

"He did a lot for me and put me on the path to being a footballer, but he couldn't show his feelings. In that way he was not a good father to me," Ben Arfa told L'Equipe.

According to Ben Arfa, he realised he needed to change his ways, grow up, in his second season at Marseille, when Gerets had left and Deschamps had taken over as the head coach.

He was still regularly used as an impact substitute, as he had been under Gerets, but he made decisive contributions to Marseille's first league triumph for 18 years.

But the relationship with club, and Deschamps, soured, when, pushing for a transfer to Newcastle, he failed to turn up for practice.

He suffered some very bad luck soon after his move to England, his leg broken by Manchester City's Nigel de Jong. The challenge had been crude, De Jong widely condemned for it and broad sympathy was extended to Ben Arfa.

Newcastle had glimpsed enough of his talent to make permanent three months later the deal with Marseille, which had started as a loan agreement. He had scored on his first start for the English club.

Because of the seriousness of the injury, and a further, ankle problem sustained late last summer, Ben Arfa did not play again, in a competitive match, until last September.

It was after the turn of the year that Ben Arfa began to truly flourish in a team who had gained confidence throughout the autumn.

He scored a very fine goal against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, and a brilliant virtuoso one, having taken the ball from within his own half and accelerated past several opponents, against Bolton Wanderers earlier this month.

Alan Pardew, the Newcastle head coach, still criticises Ben Arfa from time to time as being too much of an "individualist". Moments like that compensate.


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