1st May 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
There has been a breakout star in French football this season, making waves with Nice. An exciting winger capable of dribbling past several opponents in a single move, and with a wand of a left foot able to bend the ball into the top corner from almost any angle.
This exciting new star is not some teenage sensation. He is not a newcomer to Ligue 1, imbued with the confident swagger of youth. He is 29-year-old former Newcastle United player Hatem Ben Arfa.
Ben Arfa has been in outstanding form this season. His 17 league goals from 31 games has elevated Nice to fourth position in Ligue 1, just two points behind second-placed Lyon and genuine contenders for Champions League qualification.
The former Olympique Lyonnais player has regularly produced individual trickery and showboating skills that have been shared around the world in the form of GIFs on twitter or YouTube highlight videos. But in addition to the eye-catching flair moves, Ben Arfa has also been incredibly effective, having garnered five assists, five man of the match awards and an average rating of 7.56, per WhoScored.com’s metrics.
Ben Arfa’s arsenal of breath-taking skills and finishing prowess was evidenced perfectly by the hat-trick he recently plundered in a home match against Rennes.
With Paris St. Germain the runaway champions of Ligue 1, the rest of the top half remains incredibly competitive – as it stands at the time of writing, just seven points separate second and seventh-place. Rennes are one of the teams rivalling Nice for the coveted Champions League and Europa League qualifying spots, so their April encounter at the Allianz Riviera had plenty riding on it.
A close match was anticipated, but Ben Arfa had other ideas, leading his side to a resounding 3-0 victory having scored all three goals. The first, a confident, left-footed penalty fired into the bottom corner, followed by a tidy right-footed finish from 10 yards, and a solo run rounded off by a spectacular 20-yard strike – the full repertoire had been exercised.
Ben Arfa’s spectacular displays have led to a nomination for French footballer of the year, alongside the likes of PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Angel di Maria. So why has such a gifted footballer ended up at Nice, a team who finished 11th last season?
Well, he went there to try to rebuild his career. A career that promised much in it’s infancy, but has mostly failed to deliver.
Having broken into the Lyon first-team as a teenager, at around the same time as Karim Benzema, much was expected of Ben Arfa. The Clamart-born player made his professional debut on the opening day of the 2004-05 season – ironically, against the club he now represents, Nice. Predominantly used as a substitute in his first few seasons, Ben Arfa would have to wait until the 2007-08 season to nail down a place in the starting eleven at the Stade Gerland.
With the departures of Silvain Wiltord and Florent Malouda, a place had opened up for Ben Arfa on the left of Lyon’s front three. An impressive campaign, having made the left-wing spot his own, lead to Ben Arfa being named UNFP (the French equivalent of the English PFA) Young Player of the Year.
However, all was not rosy at Lyon for Ben Arfa. Questions had begun to be raised over the young player’s attitude, as rumours of a falling out with Benzema gathered pace. A training ground bust-up with defender Sébastien Squillaci in 2008 proved to be the final straw and Ben Arfa was sold to Olympique Marseille.
Ben Arfa moved to the Stade Vélodrome for a fee of around €12m – the final figure had to be settled by an independent tribunal as Lyon tried to cancel the transfer, but the player was insistent on it going ahead. The new surroundings did not conjure a new attitude for Ben Arfa, however, as, just weeks into his spell with Marseille, he was involved in another training ground altercation, this time with France international striker Djibril Cissé.
Ben Arfa’s performances on the pitch were largely excellent during his time at Marseille, and he was a key figure in their 2010 title triumph. But his immaturity off the field was a continual thorn in the side for the club. Multiple disagreements with teammates and manager Didier Deschamps, meant that the league-winning 2009-10 season was to be Ben Arfa’s last with l’OM.
Ben Arfa joined Newcastle United on a season-long loan with a view to a permanent deal – but not before further controversy had ensued.
With Newcastle and Marseille unable to agree upon a loan fee, the transfer seemed dead in the water. In a move similar to the one he had pulled when agitating for a move away from Lyon, Ben Arfa told the French press that he would not be returning to pre-season training with Marseille. Without the authority of the club, Ben Arfa then travelled to Tyneside to try to push the move through. The clubs eventually reached an agreement over the financials and Ben Arfa moved to St. James’ Park.
After making a flying start to his Newcastle career – including a goal on his full debut against Everton – Ben Arfa’s maiden Premier League campaign was truncated when he suffered a horrific leg break thanks to a malicious tackle from Manchester City’s Nigel De Jong.
Newcastle didn’t give up on Ben Arfa though, and in January, they announced that a deal had been reached to make the Frenchman’s loan move permanent for an undisclosed fee.
Ben Arfa made a full recovery from his injury, and was able to put in some stellar performances for the Magpies during the 2011-12 season. The highlight of which being a goal of the season contender scored against Bolton Wanderers on Easter Monday: showing an incredible burst of pace to see off the challenges of four Bolton players, Ben Arfa surged from his own half, into the opposition’s penalty area where he displayed impressive coolness in calmly slotting the ball beyond Adam Bogdan in the Bolton goal.
Ben Arfa’s form earned him a call-up to Laurent Blanc’s France squad for Euro 2012. Despite an underwhelming quarter-final exit, Ben Arfa maintained his good form with Newcastle into the 2012-13 season. But things would go steeply downhill from there.
At the beginning of last season, with his performances for Newcastle having fallen off a cliff, Ben Arfa was loaned to Hull City. After making only eight Premier League appearances for the club, he returned to France in December, without Hull’s permission. Manager Steve Bruce admitted that the French international would not be welcome back on Humberside, and Ben Arfa’s contract with Newcastle was cancelled.
In a recent interview with L’equipe Ben Arfa admitted that his spell with Hull marked the nadir of his time in football. “At Hull, I was in the bottom of a hole,” The former Lyon prodigy said. “I could only see darkness, I was in a nightmare.”
“For me, it was all over.” He continued. “I saw myself as a fallen prospect, like many before me. And then I said to myself that I could not accept it. But it was very, very difficult to lift my head up again.”
So the answer to the question of how Ben Arfa ended up at Nice is simple: he was desperate and they offered him a chance. He initially signed with Les Aiglons in January 2015, but FIFA regulations state that a player can only represent two clubs in a single season, and having already appeared for Newcastle and Hull, Ben Arfa could not play again until August.
So the contract was cancelled, but Nice came back for Ben Arfa in the summer, and their faith in the fallen prospect has been repaid.
Ben Arfa has since made a return to the national team, and at Euro 2016 this summer, he’ll hope to add to his modest collection of 15 caps since his debut for Les Bleus in 2007. With the tournament taking place on home soil, the stage is set for Ben Arfa to write another chapter into his fairy-tale comeback.