I remember being a poor young kid and not knowing what to do. The times when it felt impossible to come to conclusions, when everyone told you what you needed to do but you didn’t have it in your head to understand their words.
In football nowadays we have come to expect…but expect what?
Expect our managers to win games – yes.
Expect our owner to spend money – yes.
Expect our club to try to win cups – yes.
Deeper, we expect players to love their clubs.
We expect players to try and to flourish and to kiss the badge. We love it when they do, and they know we love it. They put their lips to the stitching and we all go nuts.
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This is wonderful and this is exactly what football is. Even deeper though, we expect players, as we do in life, to grow into mature and disciplined workers, whatever the specifics of their talents.
Whatever happened to Hatem Ben Arfa?
Yes, we’ve all been asking it. Remember against Blackburn in the FA Cup. Against Bolton? Against such-and-such and this-and-that.
He was, and remains, an incredible footballer. But that is not what works anymore. HBA is being (has been?) swallowed up by the madness of this global football machine. Still, of course, a very young man, who had our city on his shoulders. Who never asked to bear the sole responsibility of entertainment for our club, but who nevertheless took on the burden, unsupported by his company.
He went both ways. One moment he did something impossible; next moment he did something stupid. The thing Pardew et al cried about him was that he had this amazing talent but was preposterous in his behaviour. Irrational, delusional, crazy, inscrutable. Yes, I imagine so. He was that unfortunate case in the modern game. He was a footballer who was so obviously a human being.
He got lost somewhere along the line.
Perhaps he didn’t understand what was expected of him? Perhaps, actually, he didn’t enjoy the pressure that he was under? Perhaps was stuck in a way of life that he couldn’t ultimately excel in? Perhaps he didn’t like his job?
I know, this is all a bit weird. But you only have to look at HBA’s interview after the match. There is a delicacy about his manner. He has a tiny voice. He doesn’t look at the camera. He is happy when he has scored and played well. He is baffled by the interview. He always mentions the fans (and not in the way that many players mention the fans). HBA meant it. There’s no way of verifying that for us (we’re fans) – but I’m sure he meant it. I know he felt it when he kissed his badge.
So how should we feel about Hatem Ben Arfa?
In my eyes, he was one of the most beautiful and understandable symbols in our club’s recent history. He represented us. Each week, he tried to be amazing.
He woke up and went to so cold Benton and tried to blaze. He walked, headphoned, into St James’ Park each week and tried to make a show. This young man stepped up and in the end he failed.
But, God, he was good.
God, he was fun.
God, he was frustrating.
God, he was loved.
I am close to saying that however much he didn’t get right, Hatem Ben Arfa should still be playing in the Black and White.
Do you know what I mean?