Dazzling Ben Arfa on road to redemption
Sixteen years ago this week, a 12 year-old boy with tousled hair and a cherubic face made his way up the long driveway of a handsome chateau south-west of Paris.
He had a spring in his step, and soon after meeting up with the other 23 boys arriving at what would effectively become their home for the next three years, quickly established he would not be one of the shyer individuals in the class.
He was introduced just as Hatem, and well before he turned 16, hundreds of thousands of French people felt on first-name terms with him.
He aspired to become a star footballer, but before he could predict with any certainty how far he might rise in that precarious profession, he had become a TV star, thanks to the popular documentary series, À la Clairefontaine, a fly-on-the-wall study of the ups and downs of Hatem and his contemporaries as they grew from boys into young men at the French Football Federation's elite Clairefontaine academy.
Hatem Ben Arfa was among the youngest of that intake, and ended up the most successful, by far, if you measure success by his league championships - he has five - and his 13 caps for France. But having charmed television audiences as an apprentice, he has often frustrated compatriots since.
Those who rooted for him through the instalments of À la Clairefontaine then watched him compile an adult career comprising of as many cul-de-sacs as dazzling man-of-the-match weekends.
After a long period of being low profile, the brilliant Ben Arfa returned to French TV screens on Saturday night.
Wearing the No 9 jersey of Nice, his fifth club since he graduated from Clairefontaine, he scored the first goal of the 2-1 win against Caen.
And in between taking possession of the ball, out on the left wing, 10 yards from the corner of the penalty area, and his rocketing left-foot drive into the roof of the net from an acute angle, there were manoeuvres, gestures recognisable as uniquely his, tricks of close-control and balance that he first practised as a showy young student groomed for greatness.
He confused one defender with a feint, making as if to pass. By the time he had finished, three more opponents had been passed, none of them daring, or coming close enough, to take him on.
"A moment of genius," said Nice captain Nampalys Mendy, "from the best footballer I've ever been in a team with."
All Ben Arfa's Nice team-mates would be forgiven for wondering how long his gifts will be available to them. To label him the enfant terrible of French football would be inaccurate - there are so many other candidates, and he was not among 23 who went on strike at the 2010 World Cup - but he does have some previous when it comes to reliability and surly exits.
He fell out with each of his past three employers, Marseille, Newcastle United and Hull City, where his loan, from Newcastle, lasted only seven Premier League fixtures and 35 minutes. It ended last November when the exasperated Steve Bruce substituted Ben Arfa during a heavy defeat against Manchester United.
Against Caen, Ben Arfa was playing only his third competitive match since, another reason to swoon at the sharpness and acceleration of his goal.
For most of this year he has been unemployed. He initially tried to join Nice in January, when they first offered him use of the last-chance saloon at their smart new stadium, but because Newcastle and Hull had both registered him last season, Fifa blocked the move. A player can represent a maximum of two clubs in one campaign.
Classic Ben Arfa, one or two observers in France remarked. However obscure the rule, he will find a way to break it.
He apparently thought briefly of giving up football altogether. Instead, he seems to have acted with a resolve some of his past coaches doubted he possessed.
He put in the hours in the gym, played five-a-side with his friends, and spent time with the director of À la Clairefontaine, Bruno Sevaistre, who filmed Ben Arfa during his time in limbo with another documentary in mind.
Ben Arfa explored new cultural interests. He was spotted in museums and galleries in Paris and developed his chess.
He woke up yesterday morning to some happy headlines. L'Equipe's reporter signed off with a gushing: "We already can't wait to see him next weekend." Supporters of Newcastle will remember plenty of days when he left them with that sensation. For all his recidivist habits, Ben Arfa, the child prodigy who had a camera on him from the age of 12, wins hearts easily because of his capacity for the exceptional.
Much of France, and Ligue 1, would be pleased if his run of two goals from three Nice matches is the foundation of a genuine renaissance. It would mean a genuine star playing for a club other than Paris St-Germain; it might, just might, mean Ben Arfa dazzling his way into the France squad by the time the country hosts Euro 2016.
"Softly, softly," Ben Arfa replied when it was put to him he was back playing at his very best after just three games for Nice. "I am just happy to be here. But it was a nice goal." (© Daily Telegraph, London)