“In football, there is no such thing as a sure thing,” a saying that video game makers Konami no doubt understand more than most. You may be asking, Why would that be something that they’d understand? Well, let me tell you about the curious case of Hatem Trabelsi’s failed transfer to Arsenal in 2004. The transfer was considered so advanced that the video game creators included the Ajax defender in Arsenal’s squad for their upcoming game, Pro Evolution Soccer 4. And it has become football heritage.
During the pre-season of 2004, Hatem Trabelsi seemed destined for Arsenal. Trabelsi had caught the eye of Arsène Wenger after excelling in Ajax’s matches against Arsenal in the second group stage of the 2002/2003 UEFA Champions League. In Amsterdam, the high-flying Tunisian kept the deadly duo of Robert Pires and Thierry Henry in check as the sides drew 0-0. This was enough evidence for Arsène Wenger to give him a trial at the club. At that time, Hatem Trabelsi not only fell out with Ajax but with manager Ronald Koeman as well, to the point where there was no return for him at the Amsterdam club.
Suing Ajax to Leave The Club
The Tunisian at the time made it clear that he wanted to move on at the end of the 2003–04 season and move to the Premier League. His contract was expiring, and he wanted to leave on a Bosman transfer, but Ajax had the option to renew for a further two seasons. He eventually took them to court, which saw him frozen out at the end of the season. Trabelsi and Ajax went to court, and the case was found in favour of his employer, Ajax. This meant that a fee would now be required for any club to sign him.
The stage appeared set for his move from Ajax to the English champions at the time. The transfer was so advanced that Pro Evolution Soccer 4 even included Hatem Trabelsi in the Arsenal squad. However, the deal crumbled over what people believed to be salary disagreements, price disagreements, and injury concerns. And Trabelsi returned to Ajax, leaving a trail of what-ifs.
Ajax director Arie van Eijden expressed optimism initially, stating that only minor details remained to be resolved. The anticipation was high, but the rules stopped. Non-European Union players must be proven internationals who have played in 75 percent of their country’s most recent matches.
“Trabelsi only came to 71 per cent of Tunisia’s international matches in the past two years,”his lawyer Bas Beenen explained.
Despite attempts to restructure the deal, it eventually fell through, and the player was stuck in Amsterdam. Koeman eventually resorted to going to the player’s house to talk through their issues, and he eventually re-joined the first team setup at Ajax. In a weird twist of fate, Arsenal later signed Emmanuel Eboue, who had impressed Wenger (while on trial from Berveren) against Ajax in the Amsterdam Tournament.
The story of Trabelsi’s near-move to Arsenal in 2004 gained notable attention, partly due to video game developers Konami including him in Arsenal’s squad for Pro Evolution Soccer 4. This was mainly based on transfer speculation, but a number of publications had said it was done. The Daily Mail even had a headline saying, “Arsenal sign Trabelsi in £4m move“. While the exact reasons for the deal’s collapse were unclear initially, his lawyer, Bas Weenen explained it was due to work permit issues.
We have lost our case in court but that’s not important. We still have our doubts about the one-sided options a club makes in a player’s contract. I have also heard the story Hatem’s agent [Franklin Sedoc] blocked a move to Arsenal. That’s rubbish. The only reason he’s not at Highbury is not getting a work permit because he played less then 75% of his country’s matches.Trabelsi’s lawyer, Bas Weenen, also spoke about the Arsenal rumours.
Finally, Hatem Trabelsi gets his move to England
In 2006, Trabelsi’s career took a different turn as he joined Manchester City on a free transfer. His debut was delayed due to injury and, once again, work permit issues. But he eventually scored his first goal for the club against Manchester United, a team that he was previously linked with. Despite finally getting his dream move to the Premier League, Trabelsi lost his position in the team to Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha and was released at the season’s end.
Hatem Trabelsi’s brief Premier League career ended at Manchester City, where he played for one season. This was his final club before retiring from professional football. His contract with Man City was predatory; there are no two ways about it. Manchester City reportedly paid him £15,000 per appearance without a base salary, a structure that was later challenged for not meeting minimum wage standards in the UK.
The Tunisian defender did agree to move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, but the deal fell through after he agreed to a deal worth $1 million with the Riyadh-based club. Hatem Trabelsi’s career was over at 30. This was despite having offers from clubs in France, Germany, Turkey, and his native Tunisia. Both Le Mans and Marseille were interested in securing a move, but neither moved.
Today, Hatem Trabelsi works as an analyst for Bein Sports channels. Hatem Trabelsi’s football career probably isn’t best known for Konami’s mishap, but it is still an interesting tale of how football deals can fall at the final hurdle.