“Fourteen years is a long time. The Man of Glass lasted the longest” – Arjen Robben probably summed it up best himself. After an international career with 37 goals in 96 matches for Holland the 33-year-old bade farewell to the Oranje on Tuesday night. Early on in his career, he had been mocked for being injured too often but in the end there was just a sense of loss.
The Dutch had not only failed to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia next summer, they also have to try to regroup now without the one outstanding player they have had at their disposal. Make no mistake, Robben is an extraordinary player and, as with so many others, perhaps he will only be fully appreciated now that he has left.
It was an overwhelmingly emotional evening at the Amsterdam Arena, where the former Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan, who died last week, was mourned and the Dutch knew what was coming. Realistically, there was no way they were going to beat Sweden by the seven goals required to reach Russia. As the Wilhelmus anthem reverberated around the stadium, Robben visibly welled up, aware that this was likely to be the final game for his country.
A graph of soaring highs and dispiriting lows, Robben’s Holland career had come full circle in that he made his debut in 2003 and was playing his final game in 2017 under the same coach, Dick Advocaat.
Advocaat’s association with Robben is perhaps known most for what many in the Netherlands consider to be the single worst substitution ever. At Euro 2004 Robben, then still only 20 and soon to be heading to Chelsea, started against the Czech Republic and began exerting the influence he would continue to show with the national team for 13 years. The Dutch were leading 2-0 and he had dazzled, creating both goals, the first a free-kick deliciously served up with that left foot to the back-post for Wilfried Bouma, and then a cross whipped in from the left for Ruud van Nistelrooy to tap in.
Strangely, Advocaat decided to withdraw him at 2-1 just before the hour, replacing him with Paul Bosvelt. The result? The Oranje capitulated in the most staggering of ways, going down to 10 men and losing 3-2. The assistant coach, Wim van Hanegem, asked what he would do if Advocaat made the same decision in the following game against Latvia, said: “I’ll take him down.” Perhaps the threat worked because Advocaat let Robben play the full 90 minutes – and Holland won.
In the quarter-finals against Sweden – their qualifying opponents in Amsterdam – Robben scored the final penalty in the shootout and sent the Dutch to the semi-finals, where they promptly went out 2-1 to the host country, Portugal. But the tone was set for the young forward whose slalom runs on spindly legs sent shivers down defenders’ spines.
Having played the role of protagonist and pantomime villain alike, and despite fitness doubts looming in essentially every summer before a major national tournament, Robben has been undeniably central in providing the most lasting football memories of the past decade for the Netherlands.
In 2008, he began working with the osteopath Hub Westhovens. “He gives me confidence in my body,” Robben has said. That summer the flying forward produced one of the best individual performances seen by a Holland player in one half as Holland beat France 4-1 at Euro 2008.
Introduced at half-time, Robben soon ran on to a Van Nistelrooy pass by the touchline. It was the kind of run that has come to typify Robben – where one could actually imagine the gears shifting, the motor roaring, and the engine firing his legs forward. The sheer acceleration he showed once he latched on to the pass was remarkable, and he sent in a cross in for Robin van Persie to tap in. Twelve minutes later, released on the left by Wesley Sneijder, Robben sped through, with the slightest drop of the shoulder confounding Lilian Thuram and allowing him to get ahead.
Despite us being accustomed to the winger cutting inside to score in recent years, Robben - as in this case - could equally cut outside and score. From a tight angle, he struck the ball into the top of the net, and the France goalkeeper Grégory Coupet had no chance. Robben celebrated with a nonchalant shrug, as if his ability to influence proceedings was merely second nature.
Two summers later, Holland were carried at the World Cup by two 26-year-old “veterans”: the man who had led Bayern to the Champions League final that year (Robben) and the man who actually won it with Internazionale (Sneijder). They led the team – chastised for straying away from “Dutch principles” – to within touching distance of eternal glory, of achieving what neither Johan Cruyff nor Marco van Basten nor Dennis Bergkamp could do.
That touching distance eventually turned out to be Iker Casillas’s outstretched leg as Robben found himself one on one with the Spain goalkeeper in the World Cup final but could not quite place his shot well enough. “It is a moment that will always haunt me,” he says.
Perhaps then, it is understandable to see that in his other World Cup meeting with Casillas, Robben - for the fifth goal in the 5-1 victory in 2014 - was not panicked into shooting.
Having beaten Sergio Ramos to the ball despite starting at least 10 yards behind the centre-back, Robben propelled himself into another one on one against Casillas. This time as the Spanish No1 rushed out to close the angle, Robben turned, dribbled further into the centre as if to twist the knife further, while the Spanish keeper scrambled and flapped haplessly at his feet, and then unleashed a shot that seemed to channel all the frustration from that fateful night in Johannesburg.
During their training camp in Portugal for the 2014 World Cup, Louis van Gaal opened up about some of the secrets behind Robben’s success. “I have said several times that there are few players in this world who handle their body as professionally as Robben does. If you see how Arjen does his warm-up exercises and compare it with the others, that is a different experience altogether. I find it very beautiful.”
Detractors have accused him of being a one trick pony, but even if he only has one move up his sleeve, he at least does it better than anyone else. Defenders know which run he will make, where he will likely receive the ball, and what he will do once he gets it and are still helpless against him and his magical left foot - arguably second-best only to Lionel Messi in this era.
After the 2013 Champions League final Cruyff praised him as having a “beautiful mix of intuition, technique and the desire he naturally has towards the goal”.
For an incredibly brief moment in Tuesday’s game against Sweden, as his second goal soared into the net, with an unstoppable mix of power and precision, the Dutch may have been excused for starting to believe again – because this is what Robben has meant. He has been, for years, still able to inspire a group of supporters somewhat disillusioned with the state of football in the national team and the domestic league.
As the clock ticked down and the flicker of hope was snuffed out again, the crowd at the Arena began serenading the captain, who applauded them back. “I wanted so badly to show them what I can do, just one more time.”
It was like a testimonial, and the gravity of his retirement began to overshadow the disappointment of not making the World Cup, which had been something of a foregone conclusion anyway.
“Normally you would say: ‘This is a very nice way to go out,’”, said Robben. “To win 2-0 and score twice. It was a bit like Dirk Kuyt’s farewell, with his hat-trick [for Feyenoord], apart from the fact that he won the league and we fail to reach the World Cup.”
When the Big Four of Van Persie, Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Robben broke through, they were rightfully seen as the faces of a bright future for the Dutch. Sneijder and Robben remained key players at major tournaments from 2006 to 2014, which is a remarkable duration in international football. Robben was not a natural leader, with his sulky demeanour, but he grew into an unmistakable one over the course of his career. “I have learned so much from him without him even knowing about it,” Virgil van Dijk said on Tuesday.
Now, although he is officially the first to retire of the four, Robben’s decision seems to signify the end of that era. He spoke of “passing the baton” on Tuesday but the overwhelming sentiment is that there are not many – if any – candidates worthy of picking it up.
Robben has his flaws: he can be an irritating player to watch with his tendency to tumble too easily. He does not always contribute much as far as defending is concerned and can come across as a very individual player, wanting the ball for himself all the time. But he possesses and often explicitly shows a desire to change a game that very few can match.
At half-time on Tuesday, Robben told his team-mates: “Goddamit, this is the Dutch national team. That is what we have to show.” And yet they could not muster a goal in the second half. It is not inconceivable that there is a gulf in the notion of the playing “like a Dutch national team should” for Robben and the rest, and with him gone, the future seems bleak at the moment.
“Never say never,” he said when asked if he would come out of retirement if the Dutch were in crisis – but then you could argue they are in the midst of a crisis right now.
Robben remains the last truly world-class Dutch footballer (at least in men’s football) and retires from international duty as the best currently active. His farewell was precipitated by a wish to prolong his club career at Bayern Munich, where he is still influential, and he definitely has a better chance of adding to his trophy cabinet.
For many born in the 1990s who may have seen only a few years of peak Bergkamp, Robben is arguably the best player they have seen in the distinctive orange shirt and, although this takes many different factors into account, he should be considered among the top 10 Dutch footballers of all time, and perhaps even the top five.
And if it were not for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Robben’s sheer consistency in achievement at the highest level of football and ability to constantly grab games by the scruff of their neck would perhaps be lauded a lot more.
Memoria praeteritorum bonorum goes a Latin expression; the phenomenon of sometimes judging the past disproportionately more positively than the present. Maybe in the future, Robben will get more credit. Even as the glass man continues to defy decline, there is not much left of him in the present. For all his flaws, one should really savour every time he bounds in from the right and skips past defenders with that smirk on his face, before it is too late.
The Guardian Sport