Hatem Ben Arfa finally grows up and sparkles as Newcastle’s latest wing wizard
A 12-year-old Hatem Ben Arfa stands on a balcony behind french windows, barking at Abou Diaby. ‘Your father is a son of a bitch’, he goads. Diaby, 10 months older but almost a foot bigger, screams back: ‘I will kill you’, while four friends battle to hold him back.
The incident took place at the Clairefontaine Academy in Paris, and was filmed as part of a television series looking to get behind the scenes at France’s ultimate training centre for young footballers.
Later in the episode, Ben Arfa is pictured in his room, alone, discussing the scuffle. He cuts a totally different figure to the intimidatory aggressor he was moments earlier, now seemingly more delicate, shy and frightened. He then opens up. ‘I am a character. I’m a little nervous, because I am small. This has bugged me a lot.’
It was just an example of how Ben Arfa, son of a Tunisian immigrant who worked as a blacksmith while trying to carve out a football career, has never felt worthy of the opportunities bestowed upon him, and rebelled at any opportunity. Three youth clubs in five seasons summed it up, before Lyon added him to their ranks after that now infamous but troublesome year at Clairefontaine.
At 16, Ben Arfa was labelled a prodigy. It was never a tag he felt comfortable with, and during four years at Lyon and then two at Marseille, he mixed wizardry with infantry, dazzling and frustrating in equal measures. For every moment of genius, there was a spat, a row, a show of petulance and immaturity, that left many questioning whether he was worth the hassle.
Newcastle United then rescued Ben Arfa from his French misery in August 2010, paying a £2m loan fee. He would join known troublemakers Andy Carroll, Joey Barton and Nile Ranger, in a first-team squad threatening to implode at any sign of trouble. Four appearances and a goal later, 23-year-old Ben Arfa saw his career flash before his eyes. His leg, broken in two places, his future uncertain. It was the type of focal incident that, however horrible, Ben Arfa needed to have, before his boundless potential slipped away.
These days, Ben Arfa is thriving under a French renaissance on Tyneside. Signed to a permanent deal six months into that loan move, he recovered from injury, and is now sparkling in a new role as goal maker, not headline creator. Manager Alan Pardew has grounded his pocket rocket, and with new maturity, he is focused, for perhaps the first time ever.
Pace, skill, agility and a delightful left foot, Ben Arfa is no longer ‘bugged’ by being small – he now uses his size to tease and torment. A smashed effort against Arsenal at the Emirates combined with a brilliant brace away to West Brom have boosted confidence, but it was a majestic performance versus Livepool at St James’ Park yesterday that confirmed Prince Hatem had finally matured.
As the aforementioned Carroll struggled to relinquish the ghosts of his chequered past at one end, Ben Arfa kept his cool in a fiery atmosphere, to tease José Enrique and cross for Papiss Cissé to turn home the opener. The magical wideman tormented Liverpool before his clever run helped create space for Cissé to grab his and Newcastle’s second.
Ben Arfa was substituted in stoppage time – to rapturous applause. It was the type of humble, simple but effective performance that is becoming common now, and making many believe he has finally put the bad boy antics behind him.
In a part of the world that has enjoyed the delights of Chris Waddle and David Ginola, Hatem Ben Arfa is convincing people he has the attitude and application to become the Toon’s latest wing wizard.Tagged in: Andy Carroll, football, Hatem Ben Arfa, Liverpool, Newcastle, pre
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