Eurospot: Ben Arfa back in spotlight

Whatever Alan Shearer may have you believe, Hatem Ben Arfa's is a talent so bright that it has never been obscured.


Though sporadic controversies and one horrific injury have served to arrest his development somewhat, in recent weeks some wonderful performances for Newcastle have provoked renewed debate in France as to whether he is deserving of a place in Laurent Blanc's Euro 2012 squad.

Much has happened in the 20 months since he last represented his country. In August 2010, Ben Arfa played in Blanc's first game as the new national head coach, scoring a brilliant goal in a friendly against Norway in Oslo; two weeks later he signed for Newcastle from Marseille; by October, he was lying in a hospital bed after Nigel De Jong snapped his leg in two.

It is only now, following a prolonged recuperation and a change in formation necessitated by the signing of Papiss Cisse in January, that this wonderfully gifted midfielder has been able to recapture his best form. With three assists and three goals in his past six games - the most recent of which was a stunning solo effort against Bolton as he sauntered through the opposition team from his own half - Ben Arfa is again living up to the hype that has always accompanied this very unique and forthright talent.

Though Shearer memorably felt inspired to declare "we don’t really know much about Hatem Ben Arfa" after the France international's multi-million pound move to England, in reality the enigmatic 25-year-old has always been a figure around whom expectation and attention has been placed.

As a child at the French national academy at Clairefontaine he famously starred in a fly-on-the wall documentary, memorably scrapping with Abou Diaby and being locked outside on a balcony as his tempestuous nature flared up in full view of the TV cameras. Yet his extreme ability meant such incidents were forgiven.

His talent was rewarded in the senior game with four league titles and a Coupe de France triumph with Lyon and another Ligue 1 victory and a Coupe de la Ligue with Marseille, yet his departure from both clubs was preceded by some inflammatory behaviour. At Lyon he also fell out dramatically with Karim Benzema, a rift that remains unclear whether it has healed. In such a context, his philosophical reaction to a long time spent on the bench at Newcastle has been rather uncharacteristic.

Ben Arfa, it is clear, has lived his adult life in football's unforgiving public glare - he told France Football recently that "since the age of 13 or 14, people always said that I had to go all the way to the top. That can mess with a kid’s head" - yet he has never been given the chance to star on the biggest stages having been excluded from the France squads for Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. Indeed, he has won only eight caps for his country.

Given Blanc recently said he has decided on 18 of his 23 players to take to Poland and Ukraine, Ben Arfa’s chances of going to Euro 2012 do appear slim. But at least the debate has been reinvigorated by his recent form for his club. Stationed on the right of the 4-3-3 that Alan Pardew has employed following the acquisition of Cisse from Freiburg in January, Ben Arfa has been a revelation, drawing comparisons with Lionel Messi from his manager, who is in no doubt that France should take a chance on the playmaker.

“As I’ve said before, I’ve been pushing the issue that he should definitely be part of the French squad,” Pardew said following Ben Arfa’s wonder goal against Bolton. “There are not a lot of players who can do that and the French manager (Laurent Blanc) needs to understand that.”

A factor working clearly in Ben Arfa’s favour is that his new position as a right-sided forward gives him a better chance of forcing his way into Blanc’s plans. While Franck Ribery is in a strong position to play off the left following his tremendous season with Bayern Munich, and Benzema will play as the central forward after a prolific campaign for Real Madrid, no one player has made the right side their own for France, with Jeremy Menez, Mathieu Valbuena and Loic Remy all flitting in and out. Though Florent Malouda offers versatility, his disappointing season for Chelsea has also left him at risk, despite featuring in nine qualifiers.

Ben Arfa offers something a bit different; something a bit unpredictable. Though he undoubtedly represents a risk, in a squad of 23 Blanc may well decide he has room to take one.

Luis Fernandez – a titan in the history of the French midfield having formed one corner of ‘Le Carre Magique’ (The Magic Square) alongside Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana in the 1980s – has certainly urged Blanc, a former international colleague, to take heed of Ben Arfa’s recent form in the Premier League.

“He has to go to the Euros, France cannot do without him,” Fernandez said. “He can weight a pass and has this incredible ability to destroy his opponents. He can play left, in the hole or on the right and he can bring something different to Blanc’s squad. He must be there.”

Another former team-mate of Blanc’s, Patrick Vieira, picked up the refrain on Thursday: "Ben Arfa deserves to go to the European Championship. He has very strong claims to go, and you’ve got to say well done to him for coming back to his best after his injuries.”

Blanc has so far remained silent on the matter, even as the reaction in the French media to Ben Arfa’s performances has grown ever more frenzied of late. Too much so, perhaps. The former child star – who generated headline after headline during fiery yet highly successful periods with his two French clubs - remains big news in L’Hexagone despite departing for England and a lovely assist, brilliant goal or tricky dribble is afforded rather more scrutiny than it deserves as a result. Blanc is unlikely to be swayed by such coverage; his decision will be based on real merit.

It is real merit that has ensured Benzema and Samir Nasri - Ben Arfa’s former colleagues from the enthralling French side that won the 2004 European Under-17 Championship and came to be known as ‘la generation 87’ – have both overcome the disappointment of missing out on the 2010 World Cup and have come to assume central roles in Blanc’s France team.

If Blanc does see merit in Ben Arfa's recent performances and Newcastle's greatest French icon since David Ginola joins Benzema and Nasri in travelling to Euro 2012, it would represent quite the renaissance for a player who has suffered more than many for his art: both in terms of that wretched injury and his various clashes with team-mates and figures of authority.

 "My time will come," he told L'Equipe in January. "I have to be patient. I know that I'm ready, physically and mentally. I want to remain the enfant terrible but I want people to say that I was the enfant terrible who was able to grow up."

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