Could France’s forgotten bad boy Ben Arfa be resurrected at Leicester?
Wind back 18 months and Hatem Ben Arfa was one of the hottest players in France.
The gifted attacker was in the midst of arguably the best season of his career. He scored 17 goals for Nice in 2015-16 and was credited with six more assists as the Allianz Arena side finished a very creditable fourth in the table, just two points behind second-place Lyon and the same number behind the Monaco side that would draw widespread praise the following year.
When he was not named in Didier Deschamps’ France squad for Euro 2016, there was general disappointment and claims that the coach was holding a personal vendetta against the forward following his time at Marseille.
Now, though, Ben Arfa’s name is almost forgotten. Aged 30, he finds himself barely on the periphery at Paris Saint-Germain, having moved to the capital on a Bosman deal in the aftermath of his triumphant renaissance on the south coast.
He is at the very back of the queue in an attacking line that is arguably the best in Europe. Not once has he been stripped for action even as a substitute, with the last match he played coming against Avranches in the Coupe de France quarter-final in April 2017. He scored two and created another in a 4-0 win.
Unai Emery, who saw the player reject Nice and Saint-Etienne in the summer, dropped him a not-so-subtle hint that he was not welcome at the club by casting him to the reserve side.
“He be the Neymar of the CFA,” agent Jean-Jacques Bertrand said, referring to France’s amateur ranks, where Ben Arfa could find himself playing. “In any case, I hope he will be!
“We’ve seen so much about players who have not respected their contracts being called to order. But this is a case to the contrary, we want the club to respect their obligations towards the player.
“It’s as if Hatem had no contract: you leave, you have nothing and you ask for nothing. We can’t do things that way.”
While the decision to cast him to the amateur ranks was designed to be embarrassing, Ben Arfa appeared to embrace the role for the few days he was there.
“He arrived with a smile,” reserve team forward Romain Habran told SFR Sport. “On the field, he was really impressive. He always wanted the ball. When he wanted to score, he scored. You had the impression that he could nutmeg anyone when he wanted.
“I was surprised by his mental strength. For a great player like him to be put into the CFA side, that’s not easy. He knew how to manage it. I now consider him like a big brother.”
Ultimately, it took the threat of legal action against PSG to cause them to back down, but though Ben Arfa has been welcomed back into the body of the squad, Emery has shown no interest in using him.
Ben Arfa’s time in Paris is up – at least from a first team perspective. Until a suitable offer that matches the player’s expectations arrives, he could remain on their books until the summer.
That is not a solution that is optimal for either, though. PSG would be delighted to simply wash their hands of him.
And this is where Leicester City come in. Having recently appointed Claude Puel as their manager following the dismissal of Craig Shakespeare, they could use his influence to draw the former Newcastle man back to the Premier League.
If Riyad Mahrez were sold, Ben Arfa would offer the correct profile to replace him. “He’s a player that I appreciate and a person I appreciate, too,” Puel told RMC earlier this week.
Indeed, the Leicester boss even took part in a charity match with the player a month ago and found him in good touch.
“He’s in shape – I know that,” the former Southampton manager said. “I’ve met him from time to time and we’ve talked and we’ve even played together, which was new. He was very sharp, despite his difficult situation.
“The club that is lucky enough to get Hatem will have a good deal.”
His attitude, of course, would be a worry for Leicester fans, yet Puel has proven previously that he can get the best from the mercurial figure, whose mentality has been the reason he has never enjoyed a sustained period of success.
Ben Arfa’s decision to stay at PSG last summer, in spite of the signals, was a clear indication that, with Deschamps still in charge of France, he had given up on playing at the World Cup.
If he gives up on playing entirely simply to train and pick up a wage packet, it would be a tragedy for fans, who have already seen him lose too much of his career.