French striker Hatem Ben Arfa's career hasn't exactly been of the storybook variety. The 25-year-old son of Tunisian immigrants went on strike at Olympique Marseille, became involved in a whole series of escapades, and finally moved on to Newcastle United, where he became the victim of a career-threatening foul. Now, it seems, he has finally come of age. André Tucic reports
When he is not scurrying down the left wing, or supporting the strikers, he is knocking in crosses, feinting and dribbling his way into the penalty area, looking for a shot at goal. But, irrespective of the club he is with or the position he is playing, Hatem Ben Arfa never fails to hit the headlines.
He joined the youth set up at Olympique Lyon when he was just fifteen years old. Three years later he signed his first professional contract for the same club. It was a very successful period for the son of Tunisian immigrants; Lyon won the French championship four times in a row, the cup once and made several appearances in the Champions League.
Eager for a new challenge, however, Ben Arfa was transferred to Olympique Marseille in 2008 for 15 million euros. The move seemed to pay off. His new team won both the French championship and the cup in season 2009/10. But it was during his time in the south of France that Ben Arfa's temperamental problems began to show. He reported back from his summer break four kilos overweight and later absconded from the training camp.
There was more to follow: a punch-up with team mate Djibril Cissè, and a fall out with coach Eric Gerets after Ben Arfa refused to come off the bench for a substitute appearance. Training sessions under new coach, Didier Deschamps, were also less-than-peaceful affairs.
Hatem Ben Arfa made up his mind that he would leave the club, vowing never to train or play for Marseilles again. He wanted to leave, but the club, according to him, was demanding an inflated, unrealistic transfer fee. "It's finished. I have my pride and my self-respect. I am not here to fill in. Time will show that I am right. Just because we are paid does not mean we are slaves," Ben Arfa stated.
In order to bring an end to the sorry chapter for both sides, he was loaned to Newcastle United in the English Premiership in 2010. However, after just a few minutes of what was only his fourth league match, in October 2010, he found himself, tragically, on the receiving end of a brutal foul. A crunching tackle by Manchester City's Dutch international Nigel de Jong left Ben Arfa with a broken fibula and tibia. He had to be stretchered off and needed an oxygen mask. He would be out of the game for a long time.
Even at this time, however, Hatem Ben Arfa would attract press attention for the wrong reasons. Along with fellow French internationalists Frank Ribéry, Sidney Govou and Karim Benzema, he was said to have had contact with an underage prostitute at a Paris disco. No legal action was taken against the players, but the episode nevertheless left a nasty aftertaste.
During the 2-0 European Championship defeat by Sweden, Hatem Ben Arfa was substituted after 56 minutes. Afterwards in the dressing room he told coach Laurent Blanc that he could send him home if he wished, and went on to tell assembled members of the French press that other players had played worse than he had.
In spite of his pension for attracting controversy, and the lengthy injury, his club kept faith with him. In January 2011 they signed him on a contract worth six million euros. For the best part of a year his club, Newcastle United, had to make do without the services of Hatem Ben Arfa. It was not until September of that year that he was able to resume training, his first league matches coming in October.
The confidence and patience of his club were not misplaced. From then on he was playing better than ever; darting speed and agility combined with team spirit and goal threat. The high point came in the FA Cup match against Blackburn Rovers in January 2012.
It was in this game that Ben Arfa scored a goal reminiscent of Maradona's mazy solo effort against England in the 1986 World Cup: taking the ball in the midfield, he left six opponents in his wake before thrashing the ball home under the crossbar from close range.
It was a return to the kind of display that had previously earned him rave reviews and predictions of a great career. Back in 2004 he had been part of the under-17 European Championship-winning team that also boasted Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema. In October 2007 he made his debut for the senior team, but was ignored for both the European Championship of 2008 and the World Cup of 2010.
Coach at that time, Raymond Domenech, chose not to select him. Current coach Laurent Blanc has a different opinion: "there is no doubting his talent; no one can take that away from him. He has improved and seems to have become more mature," he commented recently.
In France's first game of Euro 2012, the 1-1 draw with England, Hatem Ben Arfa came on as a substitute in the 84th minute. He did not play in the next game, the 2-0 win against Ukraine. So far, he has played only twelve times for France and scored two goals. Had he opted to play for the Tunisian national team, the country of his father, it is likely that he would have played considerably more international games.
Like so many others, however, he chose to represent the country that would give him the opportunity to play in major events such as the European Championship or the World Cup. And that happens to be France. That this choice would not endear him to everyone was something he was made very aware of in October 2008 when he played for France in a friendly against Tunisia in Paris – he was booed every time he touched the ball.
© Qantara.de 2012
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de