It wasn’t quite Ronaldinho being applauded by Real Madrid fans at the Bernabeu, but the standing ovation given to Hatem Ben Arfa by Rennes fans on Sunday night was perhaps a moment no one in French football every thought they would see.
The former Newcastle United midfielder had just orchestrated Nice’s 4-1 away victory at Roazhon Park – scoring the second and setting up the third and fourth – cementing his wonderful run of form through the first quarter of the season.
He has certainly come a long way since leaving English football under a dark cloud just 10 months ago.
There has always been a feeling of doubt over Ben Arfa’s career, and when spells at Newcastle United and Hull City ended without his potential being reached, there was a sense of last-chance saloon to his transfer to Nice.
Originally, the move was done in January, but after being registered for three different clubs in one season – although one was Newcastle’s under-21s – and the fact he had already been paraded with shirt in hand, the move was deemed invalid and his career at Les Aiglons was stalled before it had even begun.
Part of the much maligned class of ’87, along with Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez, controversy has never been far away. All of them have had issues, and whilst Benzema is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch his international career has never matched his Real Madrid exploits.
"In 10 minutes, my choice was made. Even if Real Madrid had come, I said yes to Nice," Ben Arfa quipped during his first-ever press conference at the club back in January. Rather than getting his head down and working to find form and fitness, there were still ideas of grandeur.
"[The coach] Claude Puel is a person of integrity, with true human values. His speech I liked immediately.
"Nice will be the perfect place to grow. They have a history. This club built something. Its leaders are ambitions. It is very good for me."
Now 28 years old, gone is the time for Ben Arfa to grow, he potential must be realised or it risks falling away forever.
Already this season, the former Lyon and Marseille playmaker has seven goals and two assists – better late than never.
His goal on Sunday was a beautiful piece of individual skill. Playing down the right, he shaped suggesting he was going to come inside, suckering Sylvain Armand towards him, skipped to the right before blasting his shot into the far corner.
It demonstrated beautifully the confidence he is playing with at the moment. There wasn’t a sense of the player trying to do everything himself, more a signal of intent – "I've got this guys", his smile seemed to say.
With 10 games gone, Nice have been a revelation this season – highlighted by Sunday’s stunning away victory. They are easily the best team to watch in France’s top flight, with Ben Arfa are the forefront.
Sunday was no fluke. Before the international break Ben Arfa scored twice as Nice thumped Bordeaux 6-1 at the Allianz Riviera, then his tremendous solo effort against Saint-Etienne, beating four Les Verts defenders, helped them to another 4-1 away victory.
It’s been understood for years that away teams in France play conservatively – a point on your travels is deemed a success, Nice however, are going against the grain, and it has been a pleasure to watch.
After every win and every performance from Ben Arfa, people are starting to wonder – has the prodigal son finally grown up?
No longer is he the up and coming espoir. He is one of the most experienced players in the Nice squad. With the likes of Jean-Michael Seri, Wallyson Mallmann and Said Benrahma all breaking into the first-team, Ben Arfa is the player they are all looking up to for leadership – unthinkable 12 months ago, but so far he hasn’t let them down.
Under Claude Puel, Ben Arfa has the chance to make this his team…if he wants it. That was never afforded him at Lyon, Marseille, Newcastle United or Hull City. Nice is a fresh start, but it also gives him the limelight he has always wanted.
Next summer, France will host the 2016 European Championships, and if Ben Arfa’s form continues, the pressure for Didier Deschamps to name the playmaker is his 23-man squad will grow and grow.
If he can show that his attitude has finally changed – there has never been any doubt over his ability – then a rejuvenated Ben Arfa would deserve the chance to spread his wings for Les Bleus once again.
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