The man with all the flair, composure and skill to be tipped as the next Ronaldinho. One of few who could stand around and do nothing for 89 minutes, and then pull out an exquisite piece of magic in the last to win his team the game. The man who let himself go – in more ways than one – when he had it all to conquer. The man who’s now kept quiet and formed his remarkable resurgence.
Gérard Houllier once described Ben Arfa as “a genius”, Didier Deschamps says that “He has the ability to make the difference with one move,” and David Ginola was also quick to add praise, “Hatem is an amazingly talented player from France… He is a player that can produce magic when nobody expects it.”
It’s been some turn of events for the player who started his professional career with Lyon. Just last season, Ben Arfa was barred from playing professionally by Fifa after representing both Newcastle United and Hull. The French international had to take an enforced six months out of the game – a perfect timescale to regain his thoughts and composure.
Ben Arfa is emblematic of a player who can produce the desired and extraordinary magic when nobody expects it. From absolutely anywhere on the pitch, too. That’s the utter brilliance that you just can’t teach.
Ben Arfa’s career have reached highs, playing for France in Euro 2012 and being on an established list of winners for winning Trophées UNFP du football. And lows, being banned by Fifa and gaining a vast amount of weight. However, we can only focus on the present and not the past or the future, and the form he is in right now is truly too good to ignore.
With his time off, Ben Arfa went back to his roots – in Tunis, Tunisia. “I went back to the Tunis neighbourhood where I grew up,” he revealed in a recent interview. “It was important to go back. I found old childhood friends. In Tunis, I forgot I was a footballer. I lived a different life. I went to cafes. I found the images and sensations of my childhood.”
“I stayed in the fog a long time, a little lost, a little disorientated. Last winter I was going through an inner conflict. In my head a little devil was telling me to ‘let it [football] go’ and an angel [was] saying ‘don’t let it go’. It was a real fight. I was a prisoner. I had the feeling of being locked in a dark place without a door. I saw hell.”
It was obviously important for Ben Arfa to remind himself of where his origins lay and how far he’s come. To recover his football ability, he’d first need to regain control of his own mindset. And he did just that.
It’s like the Ben Arfa of old has come back out to play. Magical, magisterial runs from half-way, dizzying six defenders, giving the keeper the eyes and slotting it past him with supposedly his weaker foot – and yes, that did happen, in a Ligue Un match vs St Étienne back in September.
Scoring seven goals in 13 appearances, at a rate of a goal every 154 minutes, is truly spectacular from an attacking midfielder who sits behind two strikers. Ben Arfa tucks in-behind the two strikers – Alassane Pléa and Valère Germain – in a 4-1-2-1-2 formation deployed by Claude Puel.
Why Ben Arfa excels in such a tactical formation is the pure freedom he gets in-behind the two focal points of the team. When attacking, Pléa and Germain can peel off into wider areas, with Ben Arfa rising through the middle and taking on defenders one-by-one, something he’s perfectly suited for.
Ben Arfa’s always had a good footballing brain, he just hasn’t always applied it, because he loses concentration and becomes incredibly lazy. Although we are only three months into the new season, the Nice playmaker seems committed to his new team and approaching games with a more matured stance. With this type of demeanour, it has earned him a call-up to the France squad for the first time in three years.
He played well vs Germany at the Stade de France, finding pockets of space in-between the German midfield and defence, but like against England at Wembley on Tuesday night, there were greater matters that dwarfed those of football.
Hatem Ben Arfa’s now 28-years-old, he’s only got one more real chance of showing the world that he can perform consistency at the level that we all know he’s capable of. It would be such a shame if he derailed again and wasted such a special gift.
About the author – Liam Canning
Liam is a free-lance journalist who has featured on The Mirror, Telegraph, London Evening Standard, Independent, Squawka and FoutFourTwo.