It has been a year since the former Newcastle man last played competitively after a spectacular fall from grace at Parc des Princes
This time two years ago, there was a clamour for Hatem Ben Arfa to be included in Didier Deschamps’ squad for Euro 2016.
The 31-year-old playmaker was coming off the back of a stellar year for Nice, in which he had scored 17 goals and directly created six more. He had shown an eye for the spectacular, often cutting through packs of defenders to score goals in a style reminiscent of Lionel Messi. It was thrilling to watch.
He may have been snubbed by Deschamps, but his form was sufficient for Paris Saint-Germain to gamble on him as a Bosman signing.
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It was a deal that backfired for the club as it has been a year this month since he scored twice against Avranches in the Coupe de France quarter-finals – the last time he appeared for the first team.
Ben Arfa, meanwhile, has been content to be on the periphery of things, working in training, despite the knowledge that regardless of his form or performances he would never be selected by Unai Emery.
“Soon my PSG adventure ends and despite the difficult moments, I am happy to have worn his shirt,” he told his Instagram followers as he confirmed his imminent departure in June, when his two-year contract will expire.
“I will retain wonderful memories of my team-mates, I appreciate their continued support and I will always love this club.”
Indeed, his reputation among the playing staff is considerably higher than it is with the club’s leaders. Dani Alves has even taken to calling the former Newcastle man ‘The Phenomenon’ due to his exploits on the training field.
Speaking to Canal+ in October, the Brazilian defender said: “He’s someone very professional. He’s never created any problems, either with the squad or on the training ground. Every day we laugh with him and he trains very well.”
Maxwell, now sporting coordinator at the club after retiring, agrees.
“He has tremendous talent. I’ve seen a lot of good players in my career, but he has different qualities from all the others in one-on-one situations,” Maxwell told TF1, which given that he once turned out with Lionel Messi at Barcelona speaks volumes of Ben Arfa’s technical qualities.
Only, Ben Arfa cannot – or perhaps more accurately, will not – get things right off the pitch.
“Happy birthday to me. One year without playing calls for a celebration”
Trouble has invariably followed him for the duration of his career. Spells at Lyon, Marseille and Newcastle ended in acrimonious circumstances, and his time in Paris will be the same. Only at Nice has he left with the recognition his qualities on the field deserve.
A simple joke to Shaykh Tamim al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, about never being able to get in touch with president Nasser Al Khelaifi lit the fuse that ended his time at the club. Furious, Al Khelaifi swore the player would never again turn out for the team – a promise he has made good upon.
Emery was not going to complain: Ben Arfa had perfected an impression of him that had his team-mates, who have had his back throughout his troubles, in stitches. Furthermore, the free-spirited player had allegedly been spotted in the club carpark eating kebab after training.
In an effort to push him out of the club, PSG relegated him to training with the reserves at the start of the season.
“He’ll be the Neymar of the CFA,” agent Jean-Jacques Bertrand complained to RMC. “We’ve seen so much about players who have not respected their contracts being called to order. But this is a case to the contrary we want the club to respect their obligations towards the player.”
While with the reserves, he made a positive impression on his team-mates.
“You had the impression that Hatem could nutmeg anyone when he wanted but I was surprised by his mental strength,” admitted Romain Habran. “For a great player like Ben Arfa to be put into the CFA side, that’s not easy. He knew how to manage it. I now consider him like a big brother.”
Amid threats of legal action, PSG reintegrated him back into their first-team squad only to wilfully ignore him on matchdays. For his part, Ben Arfa has been happy to pick up his reported €75,000-per-week wage, turning down less lucrative offers to depart in January from the likes of Saint-Etienne and Nice.
It is as if he is wilfully goading those who have made his life difficult.
Indeed, France Football reported earlier this week that he even considered ordering pizza for the whole squad on April 5 in order to celebrate a year since his falling out with the PSG establishment.
What should have been two years at his absolute zenith have been largely frittered away doing tricks in the shadows in training. It is lamentable that such a thrilling player should have spent his time this way, but with a wage in the region of €4 million a year, it is easy to see why he might have chosen to spend it this way.
A glut of clubs are ready to move for the free agent come the summer, but Ben Arfa is set to be typically haughty with his demands. Turkey and Greece do not interest him and neither, apparently, does MLS. Instead, he is ideally targeting a Champions League club.
Harnessed in the right way, he could prove a devastating arrival, but PSG can attest that the mercurial attacker comes with a warning.