FEATURE | Hatem Ben Arfa: A Gamble Worth Taking for Real Valladolid

In the 2007/08 season, two young players broke through into the first-team squad at then perennial French champions Olympique Lyonnais.

One of those players was Karim Benzema, who since his move to Real Madrid in 2009 has become one of the most decorated players in world football, an indispensable player for managers including Mourinho, Ancelotti and Zidane and currently enjoying some of the best form of his career.

The other was a man who Benzema himself said is one of the few players around who has talent on the level of Lionel Messi. But unlike the Argentine, or indeed Benzema himself, the talent that Hatem Ben Arfa showed has largely gone unfulfilled and his surprise short-term move to Real Valladolid this week is largely being seen as a last chance in one of Europe’s big leagues.

After his initial breakthrough, his early career was defined more by his spats with successive managers and disagreements with his teammates than his exploits on the pitch. A training ground scuffle with Sebastian Squillaci led to his departure from Lyon in 2008 and conflict with managers Eric Gerets and Didier Deschamps punctuated his turbulent spell at Marseille.

Between 2010 and 2014 he was a fan-favourite at Newcastle despite being plagued by injuries but even there it eventually turned sour. He was shipped out on a season-long loan to Hull City which was terminated early and left in limbo.

A return to France proved to be what Ben Arfa needed and he produced one of the best seasons of his career in 2015/16 at Nice. This earned him a move to PSG but after a promising start, he slipped out of the picture and didn’t make a single competitive appearance during the 2017/18 season. A move to Rennes brought a French Cup triumph but he left last summer and was out of the game until his move to Valladolid was finalised this week.

This is a potentially fascinating move. Valladolid are a solid team but one desperately crying out for a spark of invention. Only Leganés, who have spent most of the season rooted to the bottom, have scored fewer goals than them and last weekend’s clash with Real Madrid highlighted their weakness in the final third. With a bit more guile they could have stolen a point or even all three against a Madrid side who rode their luck a little.

That’s where Ben Arfa can make a real difference. At his best, he can both create and score himself. He can pick passes that no one else can, create a chance out of nothing. The fans are going to love watching him and should he hit the ground running there’ll be plenty of his number 3 shirts sold in the club store.

But the baggage the former France international has accumulated throughout his career will never be far away. Can manager Sergio González successfully integrate such a maverick into his well-drilled unit? A local newspaper columnist reporting on the signing described him as “a player in love with the football of Cruyff, but allergic to coaches”. 

Things might be different because of the man who played a key role in bringing him to Pucela – the club President Ronaldo. Ben Arfa says that it was a personal call from the Brazilian legend which convinced him to make the move and the thought of playing for someone who he grew up idolising be the motivation he needs.

Whatever happens, it’s sure to be an interesting six months at the Estadio José Zorilla.

Andrew Gillan

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