He's had a rocky road to the Premiership, but the Frenchman is finally fulfilling the potential he showed as a youngster at Clairefontaine
Hatem Ben Arfa is being lauded as the jewel in Newcastle’s impressive crown this season, with some even stating that the diminutive playmaker is the most naturally gifted player currently gracing the Premier League.
It has been a rocky road from precocious starlet to admired professional for the attacker, who is set for inclusion in the France squad for the upcoming European Championships. But here Ben Arfa is, lighting up English football as the creative fulcrum of a flying Geordie side.
Once more accustomed to starting arguments and creating rifts than instigating attacks and scoring goals, the Frenchman is finally starting to live up to the billing he carved out as a prodigious youngster in his home country. But don’t think it was easy going.
Hatem Ben Arfa was born in 1987 in suburban Paris. His father was a former international for Tunisia, and with the help of sports journalist and agent Michel Ouazin, five-year-old Hatem began to follow in his footsteps.
After playing for local sides in the Parisian region, Ben Arfa junior was selected for the renowned Clairefontaine Academy at the tender age of 11. The famous French footballing school was so impressed with the youngster that they took him on despite being a year younger than his contemporaries, believing he may be the next Thierry Henry, Nicholas Anelka or Louis Saha to come through their ranks.
the Frenchman is finally starting to live up to the billing he carved out as a prodigious youngster in his home country
Light was shed on Ben Afra’s development through a documentary entitled ‘A La Clairefontaine’, and a particularly engrossing episode shows the baby-faced midfielder embroiled in a heated exchange with Arsenal’s Abou Diaby. Diaby had clearly developed further physically than the youthful Ben Arfa, with the video offering an insight into the tough love that the Frenchman must have endured as the runt of the litter.
This trivial example of conflict was to set the tone for a player whose reputation as a bad-boy began to outweigh his undoubted talents soon after graduating from the academy.
Much hype surrounded Ben Arfa when he made the move to Lyon aged 15. He signed a professional contract in 2004 despite interest from European heavyweights Chelsea and Ajax, and broke into the first team squad along with striker Karim Benzema.
On the pitch he looked every bit the potential superstar during his four years at the club, winning the French domestic title every year and picking up the Young Player of the Year award in 2007-08. However it was away from the action that things began going wrong for Ben Arfa.
Rumours of a rift with former youth team colleague Benzema seemed likely when coach Alain Perrin admitted “I wouldn’t say they go out as best mates” ahead of Lyon’s Champions League quarter final clash at Old Trafford in 2008.
Ben Arfa looked to have put the issue behind him when he signed a contract extension with the French Champions later that month, but a training ground bust-up with another current Gunner, this time Sebastien Squillaci, signalled an end to his time at Stade de Gerland.
Supposed interest from English big hitters Man United and Arsenal, as well as Real Madrid, failed to materialise in the wake of doubts surrounding the 21-year-old’s temperament, despite his clear ability.
At the end of 2008 Ben Arfa stuck the knife into his former club, telling a local newspaper that Lyon ‘lacked class’ and ‘weren’t a great side’.
A potential switch to a bigger club can’t have been helped by Ben Arfa publicly announcing his refusal to return to Lyon for pre-season training that summer, who finally cut their loses with the player and sold him to Marseille for around £10million ahead of the 2008/09 campaign.
The transfer was further complicated by involvement from the Ligue de Football Professionel, who were forced to intervene after negotiations between the two clubs turned sour. At the end of 2008 Ben Arfa stuck the knife into his former club, telling a local newspaper that Lyon ‘lacked class’ and ‘weren’t a great side’.
Less than a month into his spell with Marseille, Ben Arfa had another training session scuffle, this time with Djibril Cisse, who was promptly loaned to Sunderland.
He played well in patches for the southern French outfit, but he continued to court controversy. Clashing with teammate Modeste M’bami during a warm up did little to alter public image of the eccentric forward, whilst a refusal to leave the bench and come on as a substitute drew the ire of boss Eric Gerets.
The season after he was fined nearly £10,000 for skipping training, and argued with new manager Didier Deschamps shortly into his reign. Despite their conflict, Deschamps rated Ben Arfa and he found some of his best form under the former Chelsea player.
At the end of the 2009/10 term, Hatem repeated his trick upon leaving Lyon and refused to return to Marseille’s training facilities. He spoke of his intention to travel to Newcastle in the hope that a deal could be struck, and talked with contempt about Deschamps.
He was forced to return to France, but didn’t stick around long. A move to Werder Bremen never materialised, but finally an agreement was struck between Marseille and Newcastle. Ben Arfa had got his way once again.
Initially moving on a season long loan deal worth £2million, Newcastle were set to pay an extra £5m to sign the player outright if he made more than 25 appearances for the North East outfit.
Despite breaking a leg early into his stint with Newcastle, the club indeed made him a permanent member of the squad in January 2011 on a long-term contract. With an injury hanging over him and lingering concerns over his attitude it was quite the risk.
This season that gamble has paid off spectacularly with Ben Arfa finally banishing the argumentative demons that blighted the early part of his career, with the quick-footed star now letting his football do the talking.
Either way Ben Arfa has begun to conquer English football, and he will have one eye on damaging the national team at the Euro’s when France clash with England
Five goals in his last 12 games, including stunning individual efforts against Blackburn, Arsenal and West Brom have proved the Frenchman has found the attitude needed to be successful at the highest level. Praise for his emergence should be attributed to manager Alan Pardew. Or perhaps it was just a change in culture that the player needed.
Either way Ben Arfa has begun to conquer English football, and he will have one eye on damaging the national team at the Euro’s when France clash with England.
Whilst Three Lions fans hope that is not the case, Geordie supporters are just pleased they are seeing the best out of their talented playmaker. And now Ben Arfa is causing chaos against opposition sides rather than his own he can finally achieve the career in the game his talents intended.
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