Arjen Robben: Oranje is the new gold
“Whatever the world says about him, or thinks about him – he delivers.” – Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, on Arjen Robben.
It was never plain sailing for the Dutch maestro, as injury issues and patches of poor form were constant roadblocks in his quest for success. Today, retired and at the age of 34, the Dutchman would pride himself at being considered among the best wingers to have graced the game.
Born in Bedum, in the northeastern region of the Netherlands, Robben took to football at an early age. His tactical ability and dribbling skills on the ball belied his youth, and he was quickly snapped up by regional club FC Groningen.
Robben was an integral part of his home club’s starting line-up in the 2000-01 season. The youngster caught everyone's attention when he was named Player of the Year in his first season with the club.
Robben continued his stellar form in the second season as he scored six goals in 28 games. It was here that he first developed his trademark technique of cutting in from the right and scoring with a curling finish.
Bigger clubs were bound to take notice, and they did, with PSV Eindhoven signing him for €3.9 million. The sum might have seemed excessive at the time, but it did pay dividends.
Robben made an instant impact at PSV with 12 goals from 33 matches in his very first season for the club. He helped PSV win their 17th Dutch League title and was also bestowed with the Talented Player of the Year Award.
Robben formed a formidable strike partnership with Mateja Kezman, and the fan-favourite duo were referred to as “Batman and Robben” by the PSV faithful.
However, PSV’s fortunes dwindled rapidly. They could not keep up with rivals Ajax in the title challenge and slipped to third in the Eredivisie table. It was no surprise that the club’s dismal run of form coincided with a controversial offer from Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson for Robben, with PSV chairman Harry van Raaij famously telling United that all their €7 million offer would buy them was a shirt with Robben’s autograph.
The Red Devils were forced to back off as they were unwilling to risk more money and prestige on a player still finding his feet in the football world.
Injury troubles and move to Chelsea
After the failed bid from Manchester United, Robben put in a few disappointing performances for PSV. His poor form and subsequent injury issues significantly affected his global appeal.
However, Chelsea were willing to risk cashing in on the talented youngster, and their €18 million offer was accepted by PSV. As the season reached its end, Robben was mostly seen on the bench nursing his hamstring injuries, and he ended the season with five goals in 23 appearances.
“I spoke to Chelsea, and I liked their plans. We had one meeting, and everything was done pretty quickly. Had Manchester United offered me a deal straight after I met them, I would have signed there, but it didn’t happen, and I’ve got no regrets," he said at the time.
Robben’s start to life at Stamford Bridge couldn’t have been worse as he broke a metatarsal bone in his right foot in a friendly against AS Roma. The injury sidelined Robben for several months, and his bad luck continued with a testicular cancer scare. However, he was soon given the all-clear by doctors.
After coming back from injury, Robben’s fortunes rapidly improved as he played an integral part in the 2004-05 season for Chelsea.
Despite being plagued by injuries, Robben managed to score seven league goals in his first season in London. His technical prowess on the wings earned him a nomination for the PFA Young Player of the Year Award, but an in-form Wayne Rooney beat him to the prize.
Robben was also selected in the Netherlands squad for Euro 2004 after making his international debut in April 2003. He scored the decisive spot-kick to guide the Dutch into the semi-finals. However, they succumbed to elimination at the hands of a Portugal side inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Despite heartbreak at the international stage, Robben continued to impress at club level as he won back-to-back Premier League titles with Chelsea in 2005-06.
Injuries came back to haunt him in 2007 as he had to undergo a knee operation which sidelined him for several months. But regardless of his frequent injuries, Robben’s quality was unquestionable.
Speculation about interest from Spanish giants Real Madrid came up soon thereafter. And as always, Madrid did get their man as Robben signed for them in August 2007 on a five-year deal.
Life in Madrid and move to Munich
Robben sprang into life at Real Madrid as he quickly became a first choice for the left midfield position, scoring five goals in 28 games in his debut season in the Spanish capital. His famous runs down the left wing became a nightmare for defenders in Spain as Real Madrid won the LaLiga title with several games to spare.
Even arch-rivals Barcelona gave the Madrid players a guard of honour in the El Clasico, a match which Real won 4-1 with Robben scoring the second goal.
The Dutchman retained his crucial role on Madrid’s left flank for a couple of years. However, the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka provided stiff competition for a place in the starting line-up, and Robben was visibly unsettled.
Real accepted a €25 million bid from German giants Bayern Munich for Robben, and the move was secured in August 2009.
Robben quickly adapted to life in Munich, scoring a whopping 16 goals and delivering six assists in his first season for the club in their run to the semi-finals of the Champions League and the summit of the Bundesliga table. He even scored in the final of the DFB Pokal to guide Bayern to a 4-0 win against Werden Bremen, in the process adding yet another piece of silverware to his enviable trophy cabinet.
Robben's exploits in Germany enabled him to be named Footballer of the Year in Germany for 2010, becoming the first Dutch player ever to win the award.
He continued his fine form in the next couple of seasons, scoring 19 goals in 36 appearances in the 2011-12 season. At club level, his quality was most evident when he guided Bayern to the final of the 2012 UEFA Champions League, scoring four goals and assisting two more in the process.
At the international level, he was at the forefront of the Dutch attack that demolished several opponents en route to the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup - where they suffered heartbreak at the hands of the Spanish.
“The final defeat from 2010 still hurts – it’s not something you just get over.”– Robben before the 2014 World Cup.
Robben’s career reached its zenith in the 2012-13 season as Bayern comprehensively beat their opponents to win the UEFA Champions League.
After demolishing Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate, Bayern faced rivals Dortmund in the final. This time, Robben was determined not to fall at the final hurdle as he scored the winning goal and was named Man of the Match in the process.
Over the next few seasons Robben was an integral part of the Bayern squad that dominated the Bundesliga even as rivals Dortmund faltered. He created an almost telepathic partnership with veteran French winger Franck Ribery, and the two are still referred to by many fans as “Robbery”.
Even at the international stage Robben continued to shine, and he was rewarded for his efforts with the captain’s armband in 2015. Individual honours also came his way, as he was selected for the Ballon d’Or Top 10 on several occasions.
Robben was part of the FIFPro World XI on several occasions. He was even ranked as the fourth best footballer in the world by The Guardian in 2015.
As the years passed, Robben’s age gradually started to catch up to him. Though his quality was still undoubted, injury troubles and inconsistency issues had become increasingly frequent.
However, despite his increasing age, Robben still fought to start every game he was fit for in the 2016-17 season, ahead of German midfielder Thomas Muller. In 2017, he again helped Bayern to a fifth consecutive Bundesliga title and set a record for most career domestic league titles by a Dutch player, surpassing the 10 picked up by the legendary Johan Cruyff.
For the Dutch national team, Robben’s captaincy coincided with a lack of new talent coming through the ranks; the Netherlands have been woeful in the past few years. The departure of stalwarts such as Robin van Persie has taken its toll on the team.
Robben reached the lowest point of his international career when the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The Dutch legend finally decided to step down from international football on 10 October 2017.
At the age of 34, recently retired from football, Robben will rightfully be revered for many decades to come for his achievements in Holland, England, Spain and especially Germany. In his 19 years as a professional footballer, Robben won 28 major trophies and scored a staggering 209 goals in 602 appearances, as well as a further 37 goals in 96 caps for the Netherlands.
It’s awfully sad that we won't be seeing Robben in the red strip of Bayern Munich in the coming seasons, but his legacy will live on forever.