The Story of Hatem Ben Arfa's Disastrous Spell with Hull City
By Tom Williams
September 29, 2016
Hatem Ben Arfa made his ninth and final Hull City appearance on Nov. 29, 2014, against Manchester United. He was substituted after just 35 minutes.
Hull were only 1-0 down, but manager Steve Bruce had seen enough. A changing-room source confirmed to Bleacher Report that Bruce asked his analysts to call up the data on how much distance Ben Arfa had run. He was stunned to learn Allan McGregor, his goalkeeper, had covered more ground. Presented with this fact, Ben Arfa scoffed.
As a decorated former United captain, Bruce's pride was on the line at Old Trafford. This was also his 700th game as a manager. Hull's 3-0 loss was their fourth straight defeat and left them 17th in the table. As far as Ben Arfa was concerned, it was his last chance spurned.
At a meeting with club officials the following week, the Frenchman was told his services were no longer required. He accepted the news calmly and, with Hull's knowledge, returned home to Paris almost immediately. Within days, reports emerged in the French press that he was working with a personal fitness coach and would never play for Hull again.
Two weeks later, following Hull's 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, Bruce told the media he did not know where Ben Arfa was but said he was "not AWOL." In truth, Bruce did not care for the questioning. He had already moved on from the maverick talent who might have been his saviour.
Hull's officials kept themselves abreast of Ben Arfa's movements to comply with Premier League doping regulations. He was a loan player under their registration, and it was important they could reach him.
Within Ben Arfa's inner circle, his state of mind at that moment was described as "determined"—both to find a new club and prove his critics wrong. We can only assume he felt a sense of relief that his grim east Yorkshire exile was over.
"I'm disappointed more than anything," Bruce told BBC Radio Humberside. "We brought him in on a wave of publicity, and there has been no fall-out or slanging match.
Bruce asked his analysts to call up the data on how much distance Ben Arfa had run. He was stunned to learn Allan McGregor, his goalkeeper, had covered more ground.
"His views of the game are different to mine. At any club, you need to have a certain work ethic to get in the team. That's the frustrating thing.
"I hope Hatem takes in what I've had to say to him because his talent is there for all to see. But talent without hard work means you won't live up to your potential.
"Unfortunately, to play for me, you have to know you are playing for the team. To be a great, you have to be a team player."
Hull were relegated at the end of the season. A pre-season transfer splurge had proved counter-productive, unsettling the changing-room dynamic and diluting the team spirit that had propelled the club from 16th in the Championship in August 2012 to within a whisker of FA Cup glory against Arsenal in May 2014.
Summer signings Ben Arfa, Abel Hernandez and Gaston Ramirez proved less than capable replacements for George Boyd and Shane Long, both of whom were sold early in the season. Hull finished the campaign having failed to score in 17 of their 38 league matches. Ben Arfa was an emblem of Bruce's thwarted ambitions.
This is the story of Ben Arfa's ill-fated loan move to Hull. Was it the perfect storm to stifle his talents? Or might this enigmatic genius, this season on show at Paris Saint-Germain, be forever destined to underachieve relative to his prodigious gifts?
Ben Arfa makes his official Hull debut against West Ham in September 2014.
Night had long fallen at the Grand York Hotel when Ben Arfa hurried into the lobby in a state of mild distress.
It was Sept. 1, 2014, transfer deadline day, and he was supposed to be in Hull. Somehow, en route from Newcastle, he had wound up in York. With the clock ticking towards the 11 p.m cut-off, he urgently needed to send a piece of paperwork to Hull City to keep his hopes of joining the club on loan alive.
Accompanied by his advisor, Michel Ouazine, Ben Arfa walked across the hotel's opulent Edwardian reception area—black-and-white tile floor, elegant stone arches—and asked the concierge at the check-in desk if he could use their fax machine.
Ben Arfa called the club secretary at Hull, Matt Wild, who talked the concierge through what needed to happen. A Premier League deal sheet was faxed to the hotel from Hull, Ben Arfa signed it and the concierge scanned it and sent it back by email. The paperwork dispatched, giving Hull an extra two hours to complete the transfer, Ben Arfa said thank you and returned to the slightly dilapidated black BMW parked outside.
Ironically, the concierge was a Sunderland supporter.
"Anyone leaving Newcastle is fine by me," he says.
Ben Arfa was eating dinner in Newcastle with Ouazine when he got the call to travel to Hull. Frozen out by Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, he had turned down offers from Turkish club Besiktas and Championship side Birmingham City and was beginning to resign himself to the prospect of a long winter with the reserves at Newcastle's Benton training ground.
Bruce thought his deadline-day business was done. He had already signed Mohamed Diame from West Ham United and completed a club-record £10 million transfer for Hernandez from Palermo, while a season-long loan move for Ramirez was due to be announced.
Bruce had already secured the services of Jake Livermore, Robert Snodgrass, Tom Ince, Harry Maguire, Andrew Robertson and Michael Dawson during the transfer window, so Hull's squad looked well-stocked for the campaign ahead. Bruce had had his eye on Ben Arfa, but it took a tip-off from Peter Beardsley, Newcastle's football development manager, to alert him that there was an opportunity to sign Ben Arfa that day. A deal was agreed at around 8 p.m., and the race to get the paperwork completed in time began.
It was the day that transfer deadline day reached new heights—or plumbed new depths—of giddiness. Manchester United signed Radamel Falcao on loan, Arsenal bought Danny Welbeck and Southampton narrowly beat the deadline with moves for Sadio Mane and Toby Alderweireld. Fans waved a blow-up doll behind Sky Sports reporter Mark McAdam outside Aston Villa's training centre. At Everton's Finch Farm base, another Sky reporter, Alan Irwin, had a purple dildo poked at his left ear.
There was the same dizzy sense of anticipation at Hull's training ground in the village of Cottingham, a 20-minute drive northwest of the city centre. The excitement had crept up over the course of the afternoon and evening, as Hull announced the signings of Hernandez at 3:49 p.m., Diame at 6:51 p.m. and Ramirez at 10:22 p.m. With news that Ben Arfa was also on his way, around 100 supporters gathered expectantly at the gates to the training complex. Ben Arfa, however, had got lost again.
Hull ascertained he had found his way to Cottingham but had taken a wrong turn near the train station. A club official who lived in the village was dispatched to track him down on foot. He located him thanks only to a strange glow being emitted by Ben Arfa's car. Ben Arfa had invited Bruno Sevaistre, a French filmmaker making a documentary about his life, to accompany him on the ride to Hull, and the light from Sevaistre's camera turned the car into a beacon in the darkness.
Ben Arfa eventually made it to Hull's training ground around 11:30 p.m., and Sky's camera was there to capture his arrival. The bespectacled Ouazine was at the wheel of the left-hand drive BMW, with Ben Arfa in the passenger seat and Sevaistre filming from the middle of the back seat. Clad in a grey crew-neck sweater with long black sleeves and light blue jeans, Ben Arfa was a picture of boyish excitement. Grinning from ear to ear, he leaned out of the window, waving and shaking hands with cheering supporters.
The camera followed him inside and showed him greeting Bruce and the club's chairman, Assem Allam, and his son, Ehab, inside the club secretary's office. An Arabic speaker thanks to his Tunisian roots, Ben Arfa made a good impression on the Egypt-born Allam. After signing the contract, Ben Arfa and Bruce embraced. There was relief all round. Hull announced the deal at 12:40 a.m., posting a photograph on their website of a smiling Ben Arfa holding a black and amber Hull home shirt in front of the club crest.
"The manager wants me here, and that is very important," Ben Arfa said. "... The welcome was amazing.
"I was almost crying at the warmth of it. I was shocked to see so many people there at midnight waiting for me. It was great, and I thank them."
During his playing days, Bruce had witnessed the impact of another wayward French forward when Manchester United signed Eric Cantona from Leeds United in November 1992. But he knew the Ben Arfa move was a gamble.
"Whatever's happened at Newcastle has happened," Bruce told BBC Radio 5 Live. "He wants to come here and play and get his career kick-started again. Hopefully I can bring the best out of him."
In an interview with Le Parisien that summer, Ben Arfa's former Lyon team-mate and fellow one-time prodigy Karim Benzema said: "If Hatem had followed the path that was predicted for him, today he'd be playing at Barcelona with Messi. Technically, he's at the same level. But he has other problems."
Ben Arfa, who had started just 10 league games for Newcastle over the previous 12 months, knew he was running out of opportunities.
"There's huge pressure," he acknowledged in an interview with L'Equipe 21. "I've used up all my credits. It's like I'm playing Super Mario. I have one life left."
Ben Arfa arrives at Hull's KC Stadium to play against Crystal Palace in October 2014.
Ben Arfa made his unofficial Hull debut on Sept. 9, 2014, scoring in a behind-closed-doors friendly at West Bromwich Albion. His official debut came six days later in a 2-2 draw at home to West Ham.
Ben Arfa, wearing the No. 34 shirt, made his bow in the 79th minute, and Hull's fans were quick to appreciate his effortless technical ability and flashing footwork.
"He looked really exciting," recalls Andy Dalton, editor of the Hull fanzine Amber Nectar. "He had a fantastic touch that we'd all looked forward to seeing, and you thought there were good things to come from him."
Ben Arfa found himself back at St. James' Park, Newcastle's home ground, for Hull's next game. The conditions of his loan deal prevented him from playing, but it did not stop him making the most of the occasion. In an interview with the Yorkshire Postprior to the game, he said it would be an "emotional" day for him and joked about needing to remind himself to turn left rather than right when he came out of the tunnel.
Ben Arfa insisted on travelling to the game by train, rather than on the team bus with the rest of the Hull players. Sitting behind the dugouts in a purple Hull hoodie, he happily posed for pictures with Newcastle fans, many of whom had taken him to their hearts, as his new club and his old club played out a 2-2 draw.
His full Hull debut came in a Carling Cup tie at West Brom four days later, and the 10,496 spectators in attendance at the Hawthorns that evening saw flashes of Ben Arfa at his brilliant best. With the score 1-1 early in the second half, he produced a tantalising snapshot of his qualities—jagging infield from the right flank and taking four opponents out of the game with an exquisite diagonal pass into the box to Robbie Brady, who scored.
West Brom fought back to win 3-2 with two goals in the last three minutes. Ben Arfa's pass was his finest moment in a Hull shirt.
By the time Hull travelled to Arsenal in mid-October, Bruce had started deploying Ben Arfa as a No. 10 in a 3-5-1-1 formation. Alexis Sanchez put Arsenal ahead, but Diame equalised almost immediately, and within seconds of kick-off in the second half, Hernandez had headed the visitors in front. In the last minute of normal time, Ben Arfa released Ramirez with a lofted 40-yard pass from inside his own half. A goal would have put the game beyond Arsenal, but Ramirez's shot was saved. Moments later, the home side equalised.
Seven days later, Hull secured a creditable 0-0 draw at Liverpool. Ben Arfa played for 71 minutes and quickened the pulses of the travelling supporters with a handful of thrilling incursions into Liverpool territory. He was yet to taste victory in a Hull shirt, but with the team ninth in the Premier League table, Bruce was satisfied with what he had seen.
"I thought long and hard about Ben Arfa, believe me," Bruce told reporters in Anfield's snug press conference room. "With his ability, why should I be able to loan him to come and play for Hull? Obviously it means he's not everyone's cup of tea. But the past seven weeks, he has been terrific. He's been back in the afternoon, done everything I've asked of him. As long as you come in and try hard, that's all I ask."
Like many of Hull's new signings, Ben Arfa spent his first three weeks living at the Hallmark Hotel, just off the A63 to the west of the city centre. In late September, he moved into a detached four-bedroom house in North Ferriby, a quiet, leafy village of neat lawns, gravel driveways and imperturbable dozing cats eight miles west of Hull.
He shared the house with his advisor, Ouazine, a former neighbour of the Ben Arfa family in the Chatenay-Malabry commune in the suburbs of southwest Paris. Ouazine and Ben Arfa's father, the former Tunisia winger Kamel Ben Arfa, had a public run-in in front of journalists outside the offices of the French Football Federation in July 2012—the latter accusing the former of "stealing" his son. Ben Arfa told L'Equipe in 2012 he had been starved of paternal affection as a child.
"My father never told me he loved me," he said.
There were regular visits to the house from Sevaistre, whose 2002 documentary series A la Clairefontaine first brought Ben Arfa to national attention in France.
Ben Arfa was a 12-year-old new boy when filming began in 1999 and was playing alongside players a year older at France's national training centre—unprecedented at the time and unrepeated since—because of his extraordinary precocity and innate dribbling ability. One of his coaches, Claude Dusseau, occasionally banned him from touching the ball with the sole of his foot to force him to play more simply.
Ben Arfa's appearance in the documentary, broadcast over 16 episodes, was chiefly memorable for an angry altercation with a young Abou Diaby in a hotel in the Spanish resort of Lloret de Mar, where Ben Arfa's age group were competing in an international tournament.
"I get annoyed quickly," Ben Arfa told the cameras when tempers cooled.
Sevaistre got in contact with Ben Arfa again in 2010 and has been working on a self-funded documentary about him on and off ever since.
"I felt a bit responsible for the media exposure around Hatem and the impact it's had on his career," Sevaistre told 20 Minutes in December 2014. "This film is a way of redressing the balance."
Ben Arfa was on friendly terms with his neighbours on the cul-de-sac where he lived, but was not seen around the village. There were no trips to the Duke of Cumberland, North Ferriby's only pub, and no meals at the local Italian restaurant.
Given two days off after the game at Arsenal, a large group of Hull players stayed in London to enjoy the capital's nightlife, but Ben Arfa made the five-hour journey home on the team coach with the backroom staff.
As he later told Le Parisien, he had recorded some episodes of the French reality TV shows Koh-Lanta (France's version of the Survivor franchise) and Danse avec les Stars that he wanted to watch. He spent his free time playing chess with Ouazine, reading and watching films. Friends from Paris came to stay from time to time, as well as Ben Arfa's mother, Sonia.
The move to Hull reunited Ben Arfa with Diame, whose path he had crossed at Clairefontaine. Yannick Sagbo was another Francophone ally, but the popular Ivory Coast international left the KC Stadium at the end of September, joining Wolverhampton Wanderers in an emergency loan deal. Although those who encountered Ben Arfa on a day-to-day basis say he was personable and eager to please, one former club employee describes him as "a strange character" and a bit of a loner, prone to fits of juvenile behaviour.
On the last day of October, Ben Arfa drove his black Mercedes into a white Fiat Panda parked on a residential street barely two minutes after leaving his house to go to training. The impact ploughed the Fiat into a neighbouring garden, where it came to rest against a concrete post.
"I looked outside and the Fiat, which had been parked in front of our house with the handbrake applied, was gone," the car's owner, Lynne Gill, told the Hull Daily Mail.
Initially, Ben Arfa drove away, only to return once to pass on his details and a second time that day to hand over his insurance documents. Although he was unhurt in the incident, it stands as a turning point in his time at Hull.
Things went rapidly downhill thereafter.
Ben Arfa chases down Arsenal's Hector Bellerin at the Emirates in October 2014.
The day after his car mishap, Ben Arfa turned in an anonymous performance in a 1-0 home defeat by Southampton. He was dropped the following week for the trip to winless Burnley and made no impression after coming on with half an hour remaining as Hull fell to another 1-0 loss.
By this point, Bruce was beginning to be deeply concerned by what he saw as Ben Arfa's refusal to engage in defensive work. Hull were being dragged into a relegation battle, but Ben Arfa is not the kind of player who rolls up his sleeves.
"[Ben Arfa] was brought on at Burnley and you thought, 'Go on, go and rescue this game for us,' and he just moped around," Dalton says. "He didn't have any defensive discipline. You could just about forgive that if he was setting the world alight at the other end of the pitch, but he wasn't even doing that."
Two weeks later, Hull were 1-0 up against Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur at the KC Stadium when Ramirez attempted a cross-shot from the left that Hugo Lloris parried straight into Ben Arfa's path. He had the goal at his mercy but from 10 yards out curled the ball over the crossbar. After Ramirez was sent off in the 50th minute, Bruce withdrew Ben Arfa and sent on David Meyler to bolster his midfield, but Harry Kane levelled and Christian Eriksen snatched a last-minute winner.
Next up for Hull was a trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United. It proved to be Ben Arfa's last appearance and the end of a curious chapter for all concerned.
Hull exercised a break clause in Ben Arfa's contract on New Year's Day 2015. Three days later, he was released by Newcastle.
Hull wanted to move new signing Dame N'Doye into Ben Arfa's house, but a month after leaving the club, he had not removed all his belongings. There was a car on the driveway, and the fridge was full of rotting food. Hull asked the company hired to clean the house to box up Ben Arfa's things and leave them in the dining room. They were collected in early February.
It was not the first time in his career that Ben Arfa had left in a hurry. After he joined Marseille in July 2008, staff at Lyon reportedly found a cheque for €90,000 in his locker.
Ben Arfa makes his Hull debut against West Ham as a substitute in September 2014.
The Hull Daily Mail named Ben Arfa the second-worst Hull signing of the past 10 years behind Jimmy Bullard, who made only 24 appearances for the club during a costly and injury-ravaged spell between January 2009 and January 2011. Some fans, though, felt for Ben Arfa.
"Bruce's treatment of him is akin to buying a kitten and then getting annoyed with it because it won't bark," one commented on an online message board.
Ouazine says the issue between Ben Arfa and Bruce was "a human problem." He believes Bruce betrayed Ben Arfa by promising him he would play in a team where he would receive the ball to feet, only to resort to a more direct approach when Hull started to slither down the league table.
"All artists, all talented players, are fragile," Ouazine says. "Maradona is an artist. Messi is an artist. You have to love them. You have to allow them to provoke."
Within the club, sympathy was in short supply.
"He showed an awful lot of ability in training, but you just wanted to bang your head against a wall," centre-back James Chester told reporters in May 2015. "... It's the least you expect, for someone to run around, and the most frustrating thing for us was that you could see the ability that he had."
Ben Arfa is unveiled at Nice in January 2015.
If Ben Arfa thought leaving Hull would bring an end to his woes, he was wrong. A day after being released by Newcastle, he was pictured on the website of French side Nice holding a red and black club jersey after signing an 18-month contract.
But FIFA ruled that an appearance Ben Arfa had made for Newcastle's under-21s in the Professional Development League in late August had to be considered an official match, putting him in contravention of transfer regulations that prevent players from representing more than two clubs in a season. On Jan. 30, 2015, France's Ligue de Football Professionnel ruled Ben Arfa's move to Nice could not go through. Three days later, the club terminated his contract.
Ben Arfa said he was prepared to go "to the North Pole" to play football again. Distraught, he even contemplated retirement but instead stayed in Paris and over the following five months did what he could to ensure that if Nice came in for him again, he would be ready.
As detailed by David Loriot in L'Equipe Magazine in December, Ben Arfa hired a personal trainer and worked hard in city-centre gyms to build up muscle strength and explosiveness. He played five-a-side games with a team of friends at UrbanFootball centres dotted along the city's periphery in Ivry-sur-Seine, Puteaux and Meudon, drawing disbelieving stares—and covert smartphone snaps—from youngsters on adjacent pitches.
It was football reduced to its base elements—touch, movement, sleight of foot—and it helped Ben Arfa rediscover his love of the game. There were shopping trips with friends, trips to the Musee d'Orsay, games of Uno and Monopoly in his apartment in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. He also visited Tunis, his father's home city, where he had spent his summers as a child.
"All artists, all talented players, are fragile. Maradona is an artist. Messi is an artist. You have to love them. You have to allow them to provoke."
On June 9, 2015, he re-signed for Nice, taking the No. 9 shirt vacated by the departure of French striker Xavier Pentecote. The move brought him under the orders of Claude Puel, whose arrival at Lyon in 2008 had come too late for him to persuade Ben Arfa not to leave for Marseille.
The soft-spoken Puel held a two-hour meeting with Ben Arfa after Ben Arfa left Hull, and he went to great lengths to make his new recruit feel wanted. In return, beneath the warm sunshine of France's Mediterranean coast, Ben Arfa rewarded his new manager with the most spectacular season of his turbulent career.
The creative spearhead of an enterprising young Nice team, Ben Arfa finally started to look like the player he had always threatened to become. Typically playing just off striker Valere Germain, his game shimmered with invention, mischief and, above all, rediscovered confidence. Ben Arfa felt Puel was the first club coach to truly understand him.
"Hatem is the same sort of player as Ibra," Puel, now the manager of Southampton, told RTL recently. "You have to build the team around him."
Nice finished the campaign in fourth place, two points off a Champions League berth. Ben Arfa amassed 17 goals, and they included some of the best he has ever scored: a bobbing, weaving run and clinical drive at Saint-Etienne; an Arjen Robben-esque slalom and curled finish against Gazelec Ajaccio; and a darting sprint and blistering shot into the roof of the net at home to Caen.
His touch was pin-sharp, his finishing crisp. Some of his dribbles and nutmegs had to be seen—and then seen again in slow motion—to be believed.
Ben Arfa in action for PSG against Metz in August.
In November 2015, he was recalled to the France squad by Didier Deschamps, ending three-plus years in the international wilderness. Returning to the remodelled Clairefontaine, he got lost looking for the toilets.
He was named on the standby list for Euro 2016 but did not make the final cut. L'Equipe reported on Sept. 22 that Ben Arfa told Deschamps he would only be a part of the squad if he could be accompanied by Pierre Maroselli, a former player-turned-practitioner of magnetic therapy—a pseudoscientific alternative medicine—with whom he came into contact at Nice. Ben Arfa is said to have relented, but Deschamps took Kingsley Coman instead anyway.
Looking back on his four months at Hull, Ben Arfa said he had hit "rock-bottom."
"I was in a nightmare," he told L'Equipe in April. "For me, it was over. I saw myself as a failed young hope, like one of so many, and then I told myself I couldn't accept that. But it was very, very difficult to pick my head up. So yes, you could call it a miracle. Because I battled. I really battled."
By the end of the season, the doors to some of Europe's biggest clubs were open to him again. Ben Arfa was linked to Barcelona but chose Paris Saint-Germain in the city of his childhood.
PSG are entering a new phase in their development under Unai Emery, and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic no longer on the scene, there is a vacancy for a figurehead. Emery, though, has been less than impressed by his new recruit's application in training and defensive efforts. Ben Arfa was a notable omission from the squad for four straight games before being ruled out of Wednesday's Champions League clash against Ludogorets with shin splints.
French football's eternal enfant terrible turns 30 in March. This is likely to be his last chance to prove he belongs at the top.
All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated. Photos courtesy of Getty Images.