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How search for lost spark led Hatem Ben Arfa into Ronaldo’s arms

June 2, 2020

HATEM Ben Arfa’s public pronouncements over the past 12 months have sounded more like the words of a jaded pop singer or washed-up film star than the sort of thing you might expect to emerge from the mouth of a 30-something professional footballer.

Where most players contemplating a potential transfer might talk about a desire to win trophies or the need for a new challenge, Ben Arfa has spoken only of “excitement”. He justified his decision to leave Rennes at the end of last season by saying that he wasn’t enjoying himself enough on the pitch and when last summer’s transfer window closed without the former Newcastle United winger having found a new club, the explanation that he offered up sounded like something from a Swiss Toni sketch.

“None of the proposed challenges excited me,” Ben Arfa wrote on his Instagram account. “It’s like with a woman. If she doesn’t excite you, let it go my brother.”

Ben Arfa had, fleetingly, seemed happy at Rennes, the club he joined in September 2018 after over a year of frustrating inactivity at Paris Saint-Germain. He was a key figure in the Breton club’s run to the Europa League quarter-finals, notably dazzling in their last 16 success against Real Betis, and enjoyed a moment of supreme satisfaction when Rennes stunned PSG on penalties in the final of the Coupe de France. There were flickers, just occasionally, of the old Ben Arfa, not least in April last year when he left a trail of defenders in his wake to score a stupendous solo goal in a 3-3 draw at Angers (see below).

But as ever with Ben Arfa, the light at the end of the tunnel turned out to be the light of an oncoming train. He was critical of his team-mates after Rennes fell to Arsenal in the Europa League last eight, accusing them of “narcissism” and “complacency”, and began to speak openly about leaving the club, even raising the prospect of retirement if he could not find “something that excites me”.

A run of nine games without victory towards the end of the campaign condemned Rennes to an underwhelming 10th-place finish in Ligue 1. After being whistled by his own supporters when he was substituted during a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to bottom club Guingamp in mid-May, the former Lyon prodigy gave full vent to his frustrations.

“These last few matches are informing my plans for next season,” he said. “I’m all about the game. I’m not enjoying myself and you have to be guided by that. What we propose [on the pitch] is pretty limited and that has an impact on my decision.”

Ben Arfa decided not to trigger the option of a one-year extension in his contract and was released by Rennes at the beginning of June. The list of his reported suitors seemed to grow with each passing day over the months that followed – Nantes, Nice, Le Havre, Sampdoria, Genoa, Real Betis, Espanyol, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Eintracht Frankfurt, Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe, Los Angeles FC, LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact – but Ben Arfa remained a free agent, electing to spend his time working on his fitness in a west Paris gym and playing five-a-side with his friends.

He briefly emerged from the wilderness last October to make an appearance at an industrial tribunal in Paris. Claiming €7.7 million in unpaid bonuses from PSG after being frozen out by the club between April 2017 and June 2018, Ben Arfa took to the stand to assert that “even Neymar” couldn’t understand why his impressive performances in training weren’t being rewarded with first-team action. His case was dismissed in December and he launched an appeal.

By January this year he had gone eight months without playing, but then he finally came across a project that set his pulse racing: Ronaldo’s Real Valladolid. The club from Spain’s historic northern heartland may have been embroiled in a relegation battle, but Ben Arfa had always dreamed of playing in La Liga and with a legend of world football at the Valladolid helm in the form of majority shareholder Ronaldo, there was enough stardust to get his juices flowing.

“He convinced me to come here,” Ben Arfa said of Ronaldo’s involvement in the deal. “It was an easy choice to make. I felt that the club was very interested. And as I work by instinct, I thought that it was the right place. I wanted to play in Spain. I’m going to get stuck in.”

Presented to the media at Estadio José Zorrilla after signing an incentive-based six-month deal, Ben Arfa was on characteristically idiosyncratic form, refusing to head the ball during an on-pitch photo shoot for fear of messing up his hair and explaining that he had picked three as his squad number because the digit’s curls “looked pretty” on the back of the club’s purple and white striped jersey.

But he has been a hit with Valladolid’s fans, who turned up in impressive numbers for a signing session with him at the club shop and afforded him a rapturous reception when he came on to make his debut in a 1-1 draw at home to Villarreal. The 33-year-old made a further substitute appearance in a 4-1 home defeat by Athletic Bilbao last month before the coronavirus outbreak brought the season – and his comeback – to a juddering halt.

Holed up at the club’s training base, after the city-centre hotel where he was staying was forced to close, Ben Arfa will have to wait to begin his latest attempt to relaunch his career. For someone so desperate for excitement, these days of confinement will feel especially long. But then again, if any modern footballer is used to sitting around and not playing, it is him.