Arjen Robben: More class than controversy
Kees van Wonderen, the captain of Feyenoord and Dutch international, was standing in the players’ tunnel ahead of his side’s away match against FC Groningen. Looking to the player next to him, he saw a fragile 16-year-old boy ready for his full debut in professional football. Van Wonderen, as the myth goes, asked his teammates with a sneering tone “Who the hell is this?”. After the game, though, that tone had turned to one of shock “Who the hell was that?!” he asked, desperate to know the name of the forward who had tormented him for 60 minutes. The day after, the young boy had turned from a teenage football phenomenon back to a school boy again, sitting between his fellow scholars following lessons.
Arjen Robben has always been a player who has defied expectations and stigmas. When he made his debut in the Eredivisie, against RKC, most media thought of it as a desperate move of then FC Groningen coach Jan van Dijk. But the youngster gave a good account of himself, seducing comments from their main striker and cult hero Martin Drent, who stated “I don’t think I was that good at his age”. An understatement, it turned out to be. In his first season as a professional footballer, Robben was still peddling his bike between Bedum and Groningen on a daily basis. Carrying both his football bag and his books so he could attend both school and football practice. By the end of the season however, he was named ‘FC Groningen player of the season’ and had earned himself a move to PSV for a fee of €4.2 million (the transfer practically saved FC Groningen from bankruptcy) rejecting, among others, Ajax, who by voice of Leo Beenhakker infamously showed a file to Arjen Robben labelled ‘Arjan’. It didn’t help either that Beenhakker had told Arjen’s mother “Missy, make us a cup of coffee”, when he visited him.
Skip forward to the present day and everyone in football knows the name Arjen Robben. A World Cup finalist, Champions League winner and former player and league champion with Real Madrid, Chelsea and PSV. The current Bayern Munich star has achieved a great deal in his career, developing into one of the fastest and most clinical players in world football.
While clearly one of the most decisive players in the game, he is also one of the most divisive. Much like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Robben is a player who is loved by many and hated by many more. Seen as a one-trick pony and a diver, the 30-year-old’s detractors don’t simply ‘dislike’ him, he generates a deep-routed rage from within. He is seen as a villain and a cheat who is vastly overrated by the sycophants. There are few players who can generate such heated debate as Arjen Robben. Even discussions and emotions about Ronaldo and Messi are rarely as fierce or as intense as those of the Netherlands international, perhaps the only player who succeeds him in that regard is another former Groningen player – Luis Suarez.
After he missed golden opportunities to make the difference for Netherlands and Bayern Munich in the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Champions League final respectively, Robben gained a reputation as being someone who bottles it on the big stages. But stating such a thing about a player like Robben is not only fairly simplistic, it is also simply not true. The winger was the most important player for his side in each competition, including both finals and has been talismanic in many previous seasons. Regardless, the fallacy was enough for his detractors to use it to hammer him into the ground.
Robben set the record straight in Wembley in 2013 when he knocked home the late winner for Bayern Munich against German rivals Borussia Dortmund to make sure the Bavarians didn’t go a third Champions League final defeat in a row. Big game bottler? Nonsense. Robben has never been anything of the sort. A thing only emphasized by his record of 13 goals in 37 knockout games in the Champions League (compared to 9 in 42 in the group stages) and the fact that he has scored in four of the last seven finals he has played.
At 30, seemingly having put his previous injury proneness behind him, the player has been absolutely crucial for the German giants and Bundesliga champions. Furthermore, he has been absolutely central to the current Netherlands team’s magnificent and completely unexpected World Cup campaign.
As coach Louis van Gaal switched from his favoured 4-3-3 formation to a 5-3-2 just weeks ahead of the competition in Brazil, meaning the burden of carrying the team lay on the front three of Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Robben. The three players have all done their bit as the Oranje disposed of Spain, Chile, Australia and Mexico before eliminating Costa Rica through penalties in the quarter-final.
But whereas Sneijder and Van Persie have only showed their class in moments, it has been Robben that has been decisive in each and every game. His blistering pace, magnificent skill, delicate touch and close control as well as his powerful shot sees him threaten any defence he comes up against. He is almost impossible to contain. He chipped in with two world class goals against Spain, gave Netherlands the opener against Australia and contributed with a class assist, bursting down to meet a Nigel de Jong pass in injury time to square it to Memphis Depay and let the youngster finish the game against Chile. The controversial penalty he won against Mexico ensured Oranje progressed to the quarter-finals, while he had to endure an onslaught of fouls (resulting in four yellow cards) from Costa Rica, who were desperate to stop him.
Robben’s influence off the field is almost as great as that on it, a significant step up from earlier days. He is the true leader in the Dutch national team, despite Robin van Persie carrying the armband. The current vice-captain of Oranje has become more of a team player, lauding the team after every performance and putting his in own performances in the shade. Tellingly enough, it was Arjen Robben who gave the team talk before extra time against ‘Los Ticos’ and in an earlier interview with NOS, Georginio Wijnaldum admitted that Arjen Robben was the true leader of this team. Another youngster in the current Oranje Squad in Memphis Depay has also been effusive with praise for Robben, telling De Telegraaf: ‘Robben is fantastic. It’s great to train with him every day. I can’t believe my eyes how fast he can dribble the ball and I think he’s one of the fastest players in the world. He’s a top player and it’s nice to play in a team with him.’
While a lot of Robben’s generation have been accused of being past their best in Wayne Rooney, Wesley Sneijder and Fernando Torres, it is the forward previously known as ‘the man of glass’ who is still growing, both as a person and a player. On a personal level, he has made his mark being involved in a book to encourage kids in his birth region to develop more of an interest in reading and for his first professional club FC Groningen, he has been a wonderful ambassador. And as a player, he is now ready to put all questions on his class beyond doubt with the World Cup semi-final against Argentina as the next hurdle to cement his legacy. After cancelling out that taint from the 2012 Champions League final by scoring the winner in 2013, he is now determined to right that other wrong by winning the Dutch their first World Cup.