These are testing times for mercurial ex-prodigies.
Take Freddy Adu. No, seriously, take him. If you don’t, someone else will. He’s seemingly on track to play professional soccer in every FIFA-affiliated country in the world before he turns 30. Which is not until 2019, so time’s still on his side.
Sadly, despite his teenage potential, Adu is proving the Tab Clear of American exports. He arrives amid great hype and respect for his pedigree, but his contributions turn out to be colorless and he’s quickly discontinued. Including loan moves, he’s now appeared for 10 clubs in seven countries.
On Mario Balotelli, nothing else need be said. But what about Hatem Ben Arfa, the sometime French international attacking midfielder? On loan at Hull, under contract at Newcastle, possibly on the Champs Elysees.
“He is not AWOL,” Hull manager Steve Bruce told reporters. “He could be in Paris though. I’ve no idea where he is. He could be in Hull for all I know.” Ben Arfa hasn’t played since being hauled off after 35 minutes of Hull’s loss to Manchester United on November 29. Hull don’t want him any more, and Newcastle don’t want him back.
“There has been no fallout — he has been omitted from the squad because when you are up against it, then I believe you need to show a bit of resilience and unfortunately Hatem sees it differently,” said Bruce.
The best clubs don’t have “luxury” players — those whose energy and enthusiasm strangely vanishes when they’re asked to run towards their own goal — because to play at that level you need absolute commitment as well as immense talent.
But the lesser teams see them as Hail Mary passes. The coach says: “OK, I’m out of ideas. Nothing’s working, so go on for the last 20 minutes and be a crazy genius”. They’re expressions of managerial desperation at struggling sides such as Hull. And when they don’t work they’re quickly discarded because they symbolize individualism, irreverence and indolence, the exact opposite of the values managers want to instill. They become more of a risk than a reward.
Adel Taarabt saw plenty of action in 2012-13 because amid QPR’s relegation struggle. Manager Harry Redknapp viewed him as a potential savior, a roll of the dice that might produce a six. Usually it brought a one or a two.
“The one thing they ain’t going to do is change. You have to find a way of getting the best out of them without changing them,” said Bruce, who seems to view Ben Arfa as the archetypal maverick: unpredictable, unteachable, a charismatic rebel. Wingers are outsiders by nature – standing alone on the edge of the field, distant from teammates – and by temperament. Unwilling to compromise their style or yield to their employer’s authority, they’re always on the edge.
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew signed Ben Arfa even after his left leg had been badly broken by an appalling Nigel de Jong tackle (is there any other kind?) when he was on loan from Marseille in 2010.
Pardew once called Ben Arfa “magic.” While magic is showmanship, wonder and miracles, it can be built on deception and manipulation. There was evidently a behind-the-scenes falling out that caused Pardew to effectively exile one of his most skillful players. And this is a less indulgent era.
Anders Limpar was perhaps England’s most exciting winger in the years immediately before a threesome between big club owners, Rupert Murdoch and Mammon gave birth to the English Premier League in 1992. After all, Arsenal’s Swedish winger could score from halfway.
Before Arsene Wenger made pace, technique and creativity the norm, Arsenal were reputed as one of England’s most dour teams. This was not always a fair accusation, but they were certainly well-drilled under a martinet manager, George Graham. But Limpar (and to an extent Paul Merson) was Highbury’s licensed Lord of Misrule, appointed to provide on-field revelry, a certain amount of puckish mischief within a tightly-regimented regime.
These days, pure flair doesn’t cut it at a time when the world’s two most exciting players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are also among the hardest-working. There’s intolerance for the inconsistency that is the inevitable byproduct of being someone who takes risks in possession and is reliant on teammates for service. Wingers rarely look average.
Yet there’s always someone willing to take a chance on talent. On someone who can do this.
Brek Shea’s $4 million-odd move to Stoke City produced three Premier League substitute appearances in nearly two years and cost him his place in the U.S. national team, yet there appears genuine excitement, in central Florida at least, that he has returned to MLS with Orlando City. Should he struggle in Orlando his career will still retain a certain fascination, because once an athlete’s captured our attention, he or she rarely loses it. There’s a soap operatic fascination with their decline, mixed with the hope that they can recapture their former brilliance and entertain us once more.
The mesmeric 40-yard run, the outrageous piece of trickery, the lambent volleyed goal; we remember and admire those who provide these fleeting moments more than we do the solid consistency of a player who’d give you a six-out-of-ten performance every week. Who’d never let you down, but never lift your spirit up.
Ben Arfa’s in the former category, which is why even though he carries the twin stigmas of poor recent performances and a reputation for being hard to manage, he’s certain to resurface somewhere else, soon. And then, perhaps, somewhere else, and somewhere else …