Marseille already in the eye of a storm

When Patrice Evra pointed out to Lilian Thuram that “walking around in glasses and a hat does not turn you into Malcolm X”, he could equally have been referring to Hatem Ben Arfa, albeit in a completely different context.

The richly talented, if inconsistent, France international bore a faint resemblance to the human rights activist while posing for a moody portrait to accompany an interview with L’Equipe at Charles-De-Gaulle airport over the weekend. Ben Arfa’s beard and his choice of spectacles meant he certainly carried off the look of a freedom fighter, even if his behaviour has once again divided opinion.

Ben Arfa refused to train with Marseille on Thursday after his return from Norway where he made a glittering cameo for France, scoring a goal in Laurent Blanc’s first game in charge of Les Bleus.

No sooner had he arrived back in the Old Port than he got into an impromptu slanging match with Marseille president Jean-Claude Dassier, telling him to take responsibility and that he was done with talking.

“I will not return to La Commanderie [Marseille’s training ground],” Ben Arfa told L’Equipe on Sunday. “It’s over. I am ready to not play this season. I have my pride, my dignity. I am not a makeweight. I am not washed up. I am not fucking awful.”

Whether channeling his inner Cristiano Ronaldo or Sepp Blatter, he then added: “Over time, people will see that I was right... Just because we are paid doesn’t mean we are slaves.”

Naturally, it wasn’t long before the knee-jerk stereotype merchants that make up the football ecosystem were quick to call a spade a spade, compare Ben Arfa’s actions with those of the mutinying French players at the World Cup and cast him as an enfant terrible for the Nth time in his short but silverware-ridden career.

After all, the list of people Ben Arfa doesn’t get on with reads like a who’s who of French football. He has already fallen out with Gerard Houllier, Paul Le Guen, Alain Perrin and Eric Gerets, had a notorious bust-up with Arsenal’s Abou Diaby at Clairefontaine, caused dressing room unrest while at Lyon, told his Marseille team-mate Mathieu Valbuena to change position during a League Cup match against Sochaux and was rumoured to have been the precocious young pipsqueak who told William Gallas to “fuck off and worry about your own game.”

Unsurprisingly, Didier Deschamps has also been on the end of Ben Arfa’s famous temper, the most notorious outburst coming in November when the 23-year-old told him to “stop breaking my balls.” Deschamps had expected it anyway, famously telling reporters just a couple of months earlier that “I’m not David Copperfield”, the inference being that he couldn’t make Ben Arfa’s penchant for trouble-making miraculously disappear.

Yet despite his track record as something of a hot head, there is a genuine feeling that while Ben Arfa’s way of expressing his grievances with the club were ever so slightly childish and in the end played to type, he was in fact justified in taking act with his treatment.

Visit Marseille’s club shop, pick up a catalogue and you’ll soon see pictures of Lucho Gonzalez, Brandao, Steve Mandanda and a selection of other stars from last year’s double-winning team. Ben Arfa is conspicuous by his absence despite the odd virtuoso display, making no secret of the club’s intentions for him.

 

“I didn’t want to leave,” Ben Arfa explained. “At our first pre-season training camp in Brittany on July 9, the coach wished to discuss something with me. The discussion took place in his office. He made me understand clearly that he didn’t wish to keep me. As for my exit, he told me that it would be better if I went sooner rather than later. From that moment, everything was clear in my head. I was leaving. He even recommended England as a destination.”

Agents soon lined up a move to Newcastle United and Chris Hughton showed a strong interest, apparently even going so far as to promise Ben Arfa a role as his chief playmaker at St. James’ Park. The prospect of following in the footsteps of Laurent Robert and David Ginola, whose fall out with PSG presaged a move to St. James’ Park in 1995, clearly enticed him.

“If I had any small doubt, I would have dropped Newcastle from the beginning,” Ben Arfa said. “I know that the manager thinks about me. He understands who I am, what kind of player I am. It’s for this reason that I would like to join Newcastle.”

But then Marseille’s captain Mamadou Niang threw a spanner in the works by announcing his desire to leave for Fenerbahce and the club’s transfer strategy changed. Ben Arfa was taken off the market. “Hatem will not leave,” Dassier said on Thursday. “He is under contract and will stay at OM.”

Deschamps also changed his tune. “Hatem is, as ever, a Marseille player and I have the habit of counting on the players who are here for the next match.” Is it any wonder Ben Arfa flipped? After being told to leave, Dassier now wanted to give him a new contract, all in the space of just a few weeks. 

“Its because my directors don’t give a damn about me that today I’m announcing that I’m ready to put my career on hold if they don’t accept Newcastle’s offer, as was predicted from the outset,” he said yesterday.

To say the whole thing is an unmitigated disaster is an understatement as it has already made its impact felt on the pitch. Marseille suffered a 3-2 defeat, having been 3-0 down to Valenciennes on Saturday, making them the first reigning champions to lose their opening two league games since Nantes eight years ago.

Seeing his side lie 19th in the table, Lucho for one is at a loss to describe the atmosphere in the camp. “It’s a delicate situation, a little strange. We are talking a lot about players who are coming or going… Even if you try not to think about it when you are on the pitch, all the things that have happened during the week perhaps have an influence on the match.”

Marseille’s veteran anchorman Edouard Cisse elaborated further with a rather more lyrical analysis. “If there’s one wish, it’s that the mist fades so we can see the sun arrive,” he told France Football. “For the moment, it’s still seven o’clock in the morning... There are too many uncertainties.”

Whether the close of the transfer window brings any closure to Marseille’s problems remains to be seen. After all, Ben Arfa isne’t Deschamps’ only concern. The World Cup winner is reportedly no longer on speaking terms with West Ham target Benoit Cheyrou. Nigeria international full-back Taye Taiwo doesn’t intend to renew his contract, which only has a year left to run. Mamadou Samassa has made no secret of his desire to return to Valenciennes on loan while influential Cameroon international midfielder Stephane Mbia has been told to “make up for his stupidity on the pitch” after being fined for reporting to pre-season training late.

Mbia is said to be still smarting at being asked to play centre-back as he did in the second half of last season.

The backdrop to this story is that, come what may, Marseille’s board would like to slash the wage bill by 10 per cent this year, frustrating Deschamps’ efforts to bring in “whales and not sardines”, the big fish being Bordeaux midfielder Alou Diarra and Sevilla’s Luis Fabiano, reinforcements that he feels are absolutely essential if the club is to progress in Europe.

“You would think that after three titles in three months, there would be support to keep our players and support in our recruitment,” Deschamps’ assistant Guy Stephan said. Not so Guy. Not so. Marseille are a club in the eye of a storm.

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