Ben Arfa: Peace in the north east for Newcastle midfielder
As a youngster, he found it hard to cope with his own brilliance; now Newcastle's brightest star has found contentment with maturity, as he tells Martin Hardy
Hatem Ben Arfa seizes the conversational reins from his interpreter as he looks for a way to explain a new-found maturity. "Against Liverpool, in the first 30 minutes, I lost every ball," he says, animatedly. "Everyone was saying, 'What are you doing?' and the gaffer was thinking, 'What's going on?' When I was younger, if that had happened after 30 minutes, I would have lost confidence. I would have gone in my shell. Now, I keep going, it is my responsibility.
"I had to keep going, and then tick, tick. The ball came to me. I went past Jose Enrique, crossed to Yohan [Cabaye] and we scored."
The clock on Ben Arfa's life runs at a more calm pace now. He will return to the Newcastle United team tonight at Fulham after a hamstring strain and spoke of serenity at the Tyneside training ground during preparations.
There is relevance to the peace of mind he has found in the north-east of England, for this is a player who has carried a burden of responsibility since he was first spotted, as a child, playing football with his friends in the Parisian suburb of Clamart.
"I was about six or seven when I used to play in the area where I grew up," he says. "When I was young I played with my friends and people around my home. They would come and say, 'Ah, we want you in our team,' and, 'You're going to be a good player.'
"It came naturally to me. Football came naturally. The control, the touch, the balance, it is natural. Even the tricks, they are natural. When I'm on the pitch, I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do. It is instinctive.
"Of course, when I was young you see the people believe in you, sometimes you want to go and play on your own. Sometimes you feel shy. If I did not play well, people would say, 'Oh, what is wrong?'
"The pressure has always been there. I grew up with that. Of course it was hard as a child. It is hard growing up, and people said I would be the next big thing."
At the age of 12, Ben Arfa went to Le Centre Technique National Fernand-Sastre at Clairefontaine (he would return there 11 years later with his leg badly broken following a challenge by Nigel de Jong). He left home to become a boarder, to learn about football, education and life. A documentary was made of his and his peers' progress; it is an insight into Ben Arfa's character when he was young.
"It was hard when I started," he says. "I was 12. I had left my house. I grew up with a lot of guys, there were a lot of us together. I have good memories of Clairefontaine. I look back and it was one of the best experiences of my life. When you are young, you do not care what people say. Then you have the years when you are 17, 18 and 19 when you wonder what people are going to say about you and you don't have a lot of the pleasure of playing football.
"Then, with maturity, you enjoy it more and you have pleasure. That is the difference between now and before. I am happier within myself."
After three years at Clairefontaine, Ben Arfa left to sign for Lyons. In 2008, he moved to Marseilles for £10m. He won the Ligue 1 title in 2010, and that summer, at the end of August, he moved, initially on loan, to Newcastle. In his fourth game, his leg was snapped in two places. He broke his tibia and fibula. He did not play for nine months.
Much of his rehab was spent back at Clairefontaine. He was visited by members of Newcastle's staff, including then manager Chris Hughton, managing director Derek Llambias and owner Mike Ashley. He signed a permanent deal.
"It was a very hard period, when your leg is like that and you don't have power. You're in hospital and in pain, and you see football on the television; it is very difficult. But I learned from it as well.
"I think there is a reason I had that experience, maybe to learn more. I am happy to have had that experience today – but not then. I can be philosophical about it now. It is a very good thing. I have learned from the experience."
He would compare his legs in the hospital, in Clairefontaine, and finally, in the Newcastle dressing room, asking his team-mates if they were now the same size.
"I do not do it now, no," he adds, laughing. "Now it is finished, but I used to do that, over and over, 'Same or not? Same or not?' I would say to everyone in the dressing room, 'Is it the same as the other leg? Come, look, are they the same size?' Always asking.
"Sometimes they would wind me up and say 'no' and I would train on it again. Now it is finished. When I came back it was hard but now I am OK."
There have been nine goals and eight assists in 35 appearances since his return.
Last month, Ben Arfa's mesmerising goal against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup in January was short-listed for Fifa's Puskas Award for the "most beautiful" goal of the year. No other player in the Premier League made it to the final 10.
"It was in Newcastle and all the stadium saw the goal. I am very happy about that. I was very happy. I like to do a trick, to do something different. Here I have the confidence to do that.I want to give the fans something back," Ben Arfa says.
"One time in Clairefontaine I went around the goalkeeper and could have scored. Three times I came back and went round him again. Then I missed. Claude Dussault, my old trainer, made me run around the pitch for the rest of training."
Dussault recently spoke of Ben Arfa. "Before arriving at Clairefontaine, he was already known throughout the Parisian football scene," he said. "He was making the headlines. He was younger than the others. He definitely had the technical qualities of a good left-footed player.
"He worked and analysed his technique and his speed. He is one of the most talented players that has ever come out of Clairefontaine. He is the Nicolas Anelka type but he only uses 75 per cent of his potential. He has just begun to understand football, which is also defensive and collective. At Clairefontaine, he could do more in tiring his opponent and recovering the ball, as he is starting to do now." Alan Pardew, the Newcastle manager, made Ben Arfa conform, then gave him licence. He recently repeated the trick of going round the goalkeeper multiple times.
"I did it here I think, yes, yes, I did it again, but I lost. This time I did not have to run around the pitch.
"It is a job but I love what I am doing and I enjoy it every day. It is very important to enjoy. Of course you have to win but football is a spectacle, you know. The fans come to see the game for spectacle. They want us to win but they want to see something special as well. I want to give them pleasure.
"I feel very happy in Newcastle, I feel welcome, I feel loved here. I love the city, I love the place. I love it when the fans come to meet me, or they come to see me.
"This is the most confidence I have been given in my career and I want to do well for the club and the fans. I have realised that it is 30 per cent talent and the rest is hard work. Here in the Premier League you have to be very strong first. After that you can play."
With age has come understanding. "I am happier now because I understand myself better," he says. "I slow down, I don't bite. I have more control. I am more mature. I am 25, I am relaxed. I have serenity now.
"Every experience I have had in my life has been to make me like that. Not just football, you know, everything that happens in your life helps to improve you. I am growing up more and more and more. Every time you learn from your life, from every situation.
"Sometimes we learn the easy way, sometimes we learn the hard way; sometimes you don't want to learn. If you do not learn, in maybe two days it will happen again. Life will give you something to understand. If you don't, it will come back again and again.
"Am I more mature because I understand what is expected of me now? Of course."
Troubled past: Ben Arfa’s previous bust-ups
Sebastien Squillaci, 2008
Reportedly insulted his Lyons teammate Squillaci after a training session, which was thought to have resulted in a fight in the dressing room. The pair were left out of Lyons' next match, and Ben Afra didn't last long at Lyons, moving to Marseilles in July despite signing a two-year deal with Lyons in March.
Djibril Cissé, 2008
Ben Arfa had been at Marseilles for a matter of weeks when there were reports the pair had clashed during an Evian training camp in pre-season. Cissé was rumoured to have fouled the young recruit before the clash although a rift was never confirmed by Marseilles.
Modeste M'Bami 2008
Was involved in another altercation, this time with the Cameroon midfielder M'Bami before a Champions League tie with Liverpool, with the pair having to be pulled apart by Ronald Zubar. Just a month later Ben Arfa refused to come off the bench to warm up in the 4-2 loss to Paris Saint-Germain.
Marseilles fine 2009
Ben Arfa was fined €10,000 for failing to notify the club's officials of his pending absence. Ben Arfa had joined family members in Tunisia following his performance in a defeat to Monaco at the weekend. He blamed airport delays for his slow return.
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