As Bayern Munich dominate German football and Oranje plan for the 2014 World Cup, Ryan Ferguson profiles Arjen Robben, a Dutchman at the heart of it all.
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The first time I saw Arjen Robben play, he actually had hair. He was also a direct left winger, preferring to out-pace full-backs down the touchline rather than cut inside with verve and imagination. Whilst the younger Arjen had the same infectious desire to be in possession of the ball and make things happen as the global superstar we see today, many aspects of his style have developed with experience. The physical strength and mental toughness, required characteristics for any elite performer, are fairly recent additions to his game; additions which have confirmed Arjen Robben’s transformation from raw prodigy to world class force. It’s been an emotional journey.
My fascination with Dutch football began whilst watching late night Eredivisie re-runs on Channel Five as a child. It was a golden epoch for football in the Netherlands. The domestic league was awash with young starlets who would become superstars. Ajax had Ibrahimovic, Sneijder and van der Vaart; Feyenoord had van Persie, Kuyt and Kalou. However, I fell in love with PSV after watching the special teams of Guus Hiddink, with players like Mateja Kežman, Mark van Bommel and Phillip Cocu becoming true heroes. It was a special period.
One of my earliest PSV idols was the wispy-haired Robben, who was running Eredivisie defenders into the ground when I first started watching. Arjen was more whirlwind than finished product in those days, but he was incredibly exciting to watch. I recall how the ball would be funneled out to his left flank endlessly, with the entire strategy of PSV centred around Robben’s natural ability to beat full-backs and create danger. He was a live-wire, always producing goal-scoring opportunities for teammates or beating the ‘keeper himself following a typically mesmeric run. After watching him weekly during the early 2000s, I became a huge Arjen Robben fan. In debates about favourite players or the most exciting wingers in world football, many people would mention Thierry Henry or Ryan Giggs; my suggestion of Arjen Robben would draw frowns because nobody had ever heard of him. I always remained confident that, one day, he would be a superstar known to every football enthusiast in the world.
So did Arjen. He dreamed the typical dreams of every young boy; his back garden in municipal Bedum, a Groningen satellite town, no doubt playing host to imaginary European Cup finals in which he would score a late winner. In time, it became obvious that young Arjen had the natural ability to pursue such dreams, and he became an influential player for local amateur side VV Bedum during the late 1990s. The intelligence with which Robben played for Bedum made him distinguishable. Indeed, the youngster had the mental consciousness to begin adapting his style in readiness for the professional game, adopting the revered Coerver Method during his amateur career. The Coerver Method, a concept adapted by the eponymous Wiel Coerver, is a coaching technique which attempts to enrich a players’ inherent skill with a comprehensive academic understanding of the games essentials. It encourages players to gain awareness of how attributes such as ball mastery and offensive movement impact the tactical strategy of a team. In essence, players are taught to be altruistic in their thinking. If you watch Arjen Robben today, many of these early traits are still evident within his game.
Eventually, Robben’s rising star shone so bright that executives from FC Groningen, the regions largest professional club, were dispatched to sign him. At the age of twelve, Robben was ushered into the clubs youth academy. In time, his rapid development could not be contained within youth football, with Groningen manager Jan van Dijk awarding the pacey winger a professional debut on December 3, 2000. Robben was just sixteen years of age.
He established himself amongst the brightest prospects in Holland, with many impressive performances over two seasons. Even as a raw teenager, Robben looked comfortable playing in the Eredivisie; winning Groningen Player of the Year and alerting major clubs to his potential.
Ultimately, the winger quickly outgrew his mid-table surroundings. It was time for the next major step in Arjen Robben’s development. Initially, Ajax seemed close to clinching a deal; Arjen liked the idea of playing in Amsterdam and developing at a club renowned for its exemplary youth policy. If you believe the popular legend, Robben’s father nixed a deal after de Amsterdammers misspelled Arjen’s name on a contract. Hans Robben, Arjen’s de facto agent, concluded that Ajax could not be the right club for his son if management couldn’t even spell his name correctly on official documentation. Accordingly, negotiations with other clubs continued.
PSV seized the opportunity, agreeing a €3.9m fee with Groningen and managing to spell ‘Arjen’ correctly in the small print. Robben became a PSV player prior to the 2002-03 season. He became a crucial component in the dynasty created by Hiddink; Robben teaming with Dennis Rommedahl to provide natural width and balance on either flank whilst also striking a formidable partnership with prolific Kežman. I was completely awestruck by the synergy between the two, affectionately dubbed ‘Batman & Robben’ for their combined acts of heroism. Robben, at this time gaining a reputation for deadly accurate ball control even when travelling at searing pace, would create chance after chance for Kežman, who rarely missed. I’ve watched Eredivisie football for nearly a decade, and I’m still yet to see a more iconic sight than van Bommel swooshing the ball out to Robben, bedecked in the red-and-white stripes of PSV, who then beats the full-back with a jolt of pace, pin-point ball control and fearless determination before squaring for Kežman to wrap home another goal. It was vintage Dutch football. It was a combination which caught the attention of world football media, and helped fire PSV to success.
During his two years at the Philips Stadion, Robben won one Eredivisie title and a further Johan Cruyff Shield. He also made his International debut in spring 2003; representing Oranje against Portugal. In somewhat more feverish terms, he won the eternal admiration of PSV fans worldwide. It seems strange that Arjen Robben left four months after I became an avid PSV watcher. When you’re a football-obsessed child, everything seems bigger, brighter and to last longer. I have so many vivid memories of Robben playing left wing for PSV that you’d think were accumulated over years rather than weeks.
Nonetheless, the air was thick with transfer speculation during those early days. I recall the competition between Robben and van Persie, then also a left-footed winger intent on moving from Feyenoord to play at the highest level. The media was rife with comparisons between the two players, with van Persie’s reputation as somewhat hot-headed usually earning him second place. The biggest clubs in Europe pursued Robben, with Manchester United and Chelsea fighting a messy end-game for his signature. As the New Year dawned in 2004, Robben’s camp began working on his next career move. A meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson and tour of Old Trafford concluded extensive discussions with United. However, a measly £5m transfer offer from the Manchester giants piqued the chagrin of PSV bosses. United, eager to take advantage of perceived financial difficulties within the Eindhoven club, attemped to low-ball PSV chairman Harry van Raaij, whose famous retort stated that, for the offered sum, the English club could barely afford even a replica shirt signed by Robben.
During this period, Chelsea were forging a reputation as English football’s biggest spenders. Roman Abramovich was pumping his considerable wealth into the overhaul of an aging playing squad; Chelsea becoming major players in the acquisition of Europe’s next wave of talent. Arjen Robben ticked all the boxes. The lively winger traveled to London hoping to conclude a deal with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon and manager Claudio Ranieri. Eventually, PSV receiving £12m for Robben, who signed a five-year contract at Stamford Bridge yet remained in Eindhoven for the remainder of 2003-04.
During the summer of 2004, many football fans got their first prolonged glimpse of Arjen Robben, as he took the European Championships by storm. In an Oranje team blending youthful stars such as Sneijder and van der Vaart with veterans like de Boer, Seedorf and Davids, Robben was a shining light. He stole the show against the Czech Republic with a typical display of cut-throat wing play, and scored the winning penalty in a quarter-final shootout with Sweden; Holland’s first victory on spot-kicks in eight years. Nonetheless, Oranje were beaten by hosts Portugal in the semi-finals.
Robben was unable to make an immediate impression at Chelsea, with injury thwarting his progress. A metatarsal injury, sustained during pre-season, delayed his debut until November. When he did manage to get on the field, however, Robben lit-up the Premier League with dazzling performances of youthful spontaneity. The in-coming manager, José Mourinho, deployed Robben wide left to provide balance and danger. During the Dutchman’s first season in London, he would likely have beaten out even John Terry and Frank Lampard to Player of the Season awards, if only injury hadn’t prevented him from playing more often. In this regard, Robben was badly injured in a game with Blackburn, and subsequently missed Chelsea’s historic run-in to a first League Title in fifty years and UEFA Champions League semi-final.
In the next two seasons, Robben would win a further Championship medal in addition to a unique FA Cup and League Cup double. With fleeting bursts of brilliance and prolonged bouts with injury, Arjen added to his reputation as something of an enigma. On his day, Robben was one of world football’s leading wingers. We saw this during the 2006 World Cup, when he played an important role in qualification and won numerous Man of the Match awards at the finals despite Oranje’s second round loss to Portugal. The wideman also dazzled for Chelsea. A star performance in a Champions League knockout tie with Porto saw him score the winner, whilst he supplied a crucial goal for Didier Drogba during the 2007 League Cup Final, a game altered entirely by his introduction from the substitutes bench. In London for three years, Robben won six trophies.
However, nagging muscle injuries robbed him of playing time, and the accompanying frustration often lead to disciplinary concerns. Many fans accused Robben of diving during games and displaying a petulant attitude. He became footballing marmite.
It was quite surreal watching Robben at close quarters in our Premier League, having witnessed his rise from humble beginnings. In selfish terms, I felt quite uneasy entering discussions about Robben with fellow English fans. In a strange sort of way, I wanted to be recognised for finding Robben before he became a Premier League sensation. I wanted people to apologise for not taking seriously my instructions to watch out for him.
Nonetheless, it still remained a pleasure to watch Arjen Robben play. When he was fit, motivated and determined, very few players could equal the Dutchman’s ability to enthrall. The potential of this player was so convincing that the biggest clubs in world football remained in hot pursuit despite his worrying injury record. If we can have a healthy Robben for twenty-five or so games, they reasoned, it was worth the frustration of inevitable injury setbacks. One club, in particular, admired Robben. Real Madrid always could spot a player.
Ramón Calderón, the influential ex-President of Real, presided over a club in identity crisis during the mid-2000s. Real were stuck between boom and bust, from a player recruitment standpoint. Whilst attempts were made to shift large egos and even larger contracts out of the Bernabéu dressing room, fans and media felt that Real Madrid should still be home to world football’s brightest stars. Therefore, the signing of Arjen Robben for £24m can be seen as an almost directionless move for Real, a pertinent example of a club trying to appease the burden of its own history yet striving towards a more sustainable future.
Nonetheless, he performed exceptionally at the Bernabéu, taking his startling show of fearless wing play to the biggest stage. Robben was accepted by the Madrid fans, who saw him grow into an indispensable player during a highly-impressive debut season. Real manager Bernd Schuster made Robben ubiquitous in his selection, as the Madrid side stormed to a convincing league title with games to spare. Robben, playing with greater freedom alongside a crop of fellow Dutchmen, seemed to thrive in the searing spotlight. When Juande Ramos became coach, he remained an important player, often operating from the creative right-wing position which would become his trademark later in a remarkable career. It was a tremendous thrill to see a player rise from raw prospect at PSV to the very heights of professional football. As children, no matter where in the world we reside, we all dream of representing our country and starring for Real Madrid. Arjen Robben was barely twenty-four and had achieved both.
At Euro 2008, Oranje coach Marco van Basten changed to a more rigid 4-2-3-1 system, minimizing the importance of attacking flair players. Nonetheless, Robben still made an impact despite less playing time, helping the Netherlands progress from a Group of Death. The managerial ethos of van Basten saw Oranje make searing counter-attacks, with Robben punctuating one such example with a memorable goal against France. Ultimately, Holland’s tournament ended painfully, with a last-gasp capitulation to Hiddink’s Russia ending their journey at the quarter-final stage.
When Robben reported back to Madrid, Florentino Pérez, he of famed Galácticos proclivity, had re-gained power as Real President. A showman who spends money like it’s going out of fashion, Pérez didn’t wait long to resuscitate his renowned policy of purchasing the world’s elite footballers with almost reckless abandon. Kaká arrived from Milan for just under £60m. Cristiano Ronaldo was signed for a record-breaking £80m. Raúl Albiol, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso arrived with inflated price tags. Pérez demanded that these new additions play, effectively forcing players like Robben to the fringes. Such is the capricious whim of Pérez and Real Madrid. When the opportunity to sign a global superstar presents itself, current players are almost dismissed. We saw it again this summer, when Mesut Özil and Gonzalo Higuaín were sold in order to make room for Gareth Bale. A strong pre-season was not enough for Robben to earn a place in the Real team and, for the first time in his career, Arjen became expendable.
In the evocative heart of Bavaria, another footballing powerhouse stood with arms out-stretched, ready to embrace Arjen and provide the love he needed to finally fulfill his awesome potential. Bayern Munich paid €25m for Robben in August 2009. Since, both have grown together from doubted force to inexorable juggernaut. It’s a perfect match.
In 2009-10, Arjen Robben was almost unplayable, dominating games from the creative right-wing berth which became his defining characteristic. It was around this time that Robben began to float in from the flank, weaving with intricate dribbling patterns and unleashing fierce shots with his magical left foot. A string of important Champions League goals, including a mesmeric winner against Fiorentina and an iconic long-range volley against Manchester United at Old Trafford, rubber-stamped Robben’s credentials and highlighted one of his most impressive campaigns. These moments of genius extended from a sensational start to Robben’s Bayern career; the number 10 scoring two goals on debut and later firing a hat-trick as Die Roten beat Hannover 7-0 to regain their Bundesliga crown. Furthermore, the opening goal in Bayern’s DFB- Pokal Final triumph further solidified Robben’s case for Player of the Year in Germany; the influential playmaker becoming the first Dutchman ever to win the award.
However, Bayern’s failure to beat Internazionale in the 2010 Champions League Final ushered in a painful period for Robben, with many questioning his mental toughness and productivity in moments of pressure.
The 2010 World Cup didn’t help. In the final send-off game against Hungary prior to the tournament, Robben sustained another hamstring injury. Such was his importance to Oranje, coach Bert van Marwijk didn’t draft a replacement for Robben, but allowed his prized winger to sit out the first two games instead. When ready to play, Arjen made a tremendous impact, scoring in the knockout round against Slovakia and winning a pulsating semi-final encounter with Uruguay. However, Spain lay ominously in awaiting, with Andrés Iniesta crushing Dutch hearts in an ugly Final.
The heartache of South Africa would be hard to replicate, but Robben was visited by the pain of defeat with more regularity during the next few years. As his Bayern career progressed, many media personnel began to view Robben as a ‘choker’ in big moments. His missed penalty during extra-time of the 2012 Champions League Final with Chelsea earned further vilification, with sections of the Bayern support jeering him during games. Borussia Dortmund’s resurgence raised stress levels in Bavaria, where a pressure-cooker atmosphere put players under greater scrutiny. It didn’t help that Robben had been on the losing side of one World Cup Final, two Champions League Finals and a DFB-Pokal Final in just two years.
This caricature of Robben as unreliable underachiever was crystallized in Poland & Ukraine last summer, when an aging Netherlands squad crashed out acrimoniously at the group stage of Euro 2012. The slow build-up play and presence of two holding midfielders inhibited the attacking potential of Robben, Sneijder and van Persie, as Oranje lost all three games. Robben was controversially substituted during a defeat by Germany, and his frustrated reaction drew the scorn of fans and media personnel. It was painful to watch.
Those difficult moments served to make eventual victory all the sweeter. In many respects, 2013 was The Year of Arjen. He rebounded from a dark place of despair to one of unbridled elation. During a record-smashing campaign which saw Bayern exorcise many demons, Robben played an integral part under Jupp Heynckes. The winger grew ever more important to Bayern’s nascent dynasty, and provided the sparkling moment which will be remembered for years to come, rounding Dortmund goalkeeper Wiedenfeller in the dying moments at Wembley to slot home a dramatic Champions League Final winner. It was perhaps the most significant moment in Bayern’s storied history, with Robben earning sweet redemption and hauling his side into the record books as Germany’s first ever Treble winners. The feeling of pure joy was etched all over Robben’s body language, with iconic celebrations which I’ll never forget. I’m in no way a Bayern Munich fan, but on that night, the feeling of pride as a former PSV hero ascended to the very top of this global game was inextinguishable. Robben said as much, concluding that “for a footballer, this is the peak, the greatest you can achieve…it was the only thing missing in my life.”
Now, things are a little different in the world of Arjen Robben. No longer is he a hopeful Groningen whipper-snapper, nor a PSV wonderkid. Gone are the days of enigmatic inconsistency at Chelsea, and political in-fighting in Madrid. Rather, Arjen Robben has reached the summit as one of the finest footballers on Earth. When he takes the field in Brazil next June at the World Cup, he will do so on an equal footing with Ronaldo and Messi, in terms of carrying the hopes of an entire nation on his shoulders. From his Bedum backyard to worldwide phenomenon, Arjen Robben has proved that dreams can come true.