With his loan move to Hull in the books, Hatem Ben Arfa's Newcastle career is officially over. (Unofficially, it was obviously done as soon as he was completely ignored in the club's summer plans.) There's no better way for me to sum up the connection fans had with Ben Arfa, irrational though it often was, than with this passage I wrote for an unfinished project last year. Consider it a look into the world that might have been for Newcastle, had the circumstances and personalities involved been different.
Ben Arfa began his year by starting the FA Cup match against Blackburn Rovers. It wasn't a surprise, as early rounds of the competition were usually full of backup players. The match had no TV coverage whatsoever, which gives you a sense of how insignificant it was in the eyes of the English media. Those fans who wanted to follow it live had to make do with local radio coverage. Overseas listeners settled for Radio Tyneside, a "hospital radio" station which happened to be streaming live coverage that day.
Listening to soccer on the radio can be an extremely disorienting experience. To get a sense of what's going on, you really need to see the whole field, surveying the attack patterns and defensive coverage. The laser-like focus on the man with the ball, which radio commentary demands, causes you to lose perspective. Luckily, Ben Arfa decided to help the listening audience by putting on a one-man show.
Receiving the ball just on the attacking side of the halfway line, he blew past one Blackburn defender, then split two more before charging into the penalty area. With one defender in front of him and a trail of yellow shirts in his wake, he shook his shoulders to give himself space to shoot from a tight angle. Despite the lack of space, he had no trouble with the finish, blasting a shot so hard that it looked like it could have torn the roof of the net off. Journalist Iain MacIntosh referred to it as a "thunderbastard," which certainly captures the pure venom of the effort. In his post-match press conference, Pardew called it the best goal he had ever seen. Nobody except for the people at the stadium saw it live. And though the attendance was just over 30,000, probably 300,000 or more will tell their kids and grandkids they were there.
The Blackburn goal, which eventually made it to the Internet via shaky, one-camera highlight footage, illustrated exactly what was so seductive about this player: he captured the zeitgeist perfectly. Unlike much bigger stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Ben Arfa wasn't overexposed, meaning that soccer hipsters could appreciate a player most people didn't see every week. His staggering skills were made to be packaged in YouTube videos and shared via social media. You could even generate a highlight reel of his off days, and many enterprising video editors did just that. And for Newcastle fans, his involvement in a match virtually guaranteed excitement. A team that managed to be both successful and adventurous was the ultimate Tyneside fantasy, and thanks to Ben Arfa, it looked like it could come true.
It's hard to believe that's written about a moment that happened just two and a half years ago, given how disastrously things have gone since. For my co-bloggers, and for me personally to some extent, who have since soured a bit on Ben Arfa, it's instructive to reflect on why people became so attached to this particular player, and what his rather anonymous departure represents.
Why do we follow sports? It's not to watch a club play out the string as it wanders aimlessly in the middle of the table. We're hoping for our team to captivate us, if only just for a moment. In lieu of a cup run, or a challenge for the Champions League, the brief rush of excitement that Ben Arfa could offer was something worth tuning in for. While this end has been written in the cards for a while, seeing it written in black and white still stings.