Oh look, Hatem Ben Arfa’s been at it again.
No, he hasn’t missed yet another training session. Or gone AWOL for several days. Or had a bust-up with a manager/team-mate. In fact, he’s only gone and scored a bloody magnificent goal having just dribbled past half the opponent’s team as if they weren’t there.
Here it is, from Rennes’ Sunday evening game against Angers:
Outrageous from Ben Arfa? pic.twitter.com/GYm1zjEgsX
— FourFourTwo ⚽️ (@FourFourTwo) April 7, 2019
Every now and then he does something like this and, briefly, Dumb and Dumber-style, totally redeems himself for a decade of petulance, insouciance and generally just acting the boll*cks. When Ben Arfa is generous enough to share with us what he can do, it’s partly wonderful and partly infuriating.
What a player, you think. Then you remember these fleeting Ben Arfa moments are exactly that: flashes of a rare gift punctuating years spent, well, simply not bothering.
Football loves a “what might have been” story. The Troubled Genius is a character with which we’re all familiar: with great creativity often comes great madness (or stupidity), or so goes the narrative. It’s one that rarely loses appeal, particularly when the protagonist is so extravagantly gifted as Ben Arfa.
Sure, there are probably rubbish, jobbing centre-backs playing in League 2 with equally mercurial and outlandish personality trait. But it’s just not the same.
A Deadspin article from back in December, after a virtuoso Ben Arfa performance against Nantes, pretty accurately summed up the Frenchman’s USP. The title alone is probably enough to cover it: “Brilliant Sh*thead Hatem Ben Arfa Is Yet Again Back From The Dead.”
Yep. Ben Arfa just keeps on doing this. He keeps reminding us how good he is at football, without it ever being possible to forget that, at 32, he’s already too old to ever truly do himself justice as a sportsman. He’s too far gone now, a figure no-one will ever again trust to do it on the big stage.
And why would they? As far back as 2008, Ben Arfa had laid down a marker for what was to come when he forced through a transfer from Lyon to rivals Marseille, including what would become a trademark not-showing-up-for-training move. He later accused Lyon of lacking class.
About a fortnight into his OM career, he’d been involved in a training ground scrap with Djibril Cisse. Not long after, there was another bust-up, this time with Modeste M’Bami in the warmup for a Champions League match, followed by a refusal to come off the bench during a tie against PSG. The next season, he missed another training session and was fined, before later having – shock – a bust-up with Didi Deschamps.
Still, Ben Arfa was sheer class as a player and he duly earned a big move to, er, Newcastle. (After, of course, the obligatory training no-shows). Unfortunately, he broke his leg not long into his Magpies career, yet still managed to show occasional flashes of brilliance.
ON THIS DAY: In 2012, Hatem Ben Arfa scored a magical solo goal for Newcastle during a 2-0 win over Bolton. pic.twitter.com/2SLGDQoxkU
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 9, 2015
Then, in December 2014, he simply decided he’d had enough of England and left. Steve Bruce, manager of Hull City, where he was on loan, said he had no idea where Ben Arfa was. A year later, HBA pitched up at Nice where he had an exceptional season, and a big move to PSG followed.
It didn’t work out well. Which is why he now plays for Rennes where, as at Nice, he is performing to something resembling the best of his ability. It’s tempting to suggest on this basis that he enjoys being the big fish in the medium-sized pond, but that seems a bit too obvious.
Then, of course, there’s always the possibility that, maybe, he’s just not that good? Maybe we’ve just been suckered in by a flighty, mediocre player for whom the ball occasionally runs well. That seems an unlikely theory, but who knows?
Whatever the case, this brilliant sh*thead continues to come back from the dead. Ben Arfa’s story may be one of the classic might-have-been variety, but it’s worth appreciating the sporadic moments of magic he has provided us so far.