Rounded Robben relishing leadership role
Forget diving drama – Netherlands star has been playing at least on Messi’s level
At the press conference after the Netherlands had, in the blink of an eye, turned Mexico’s victory into heartbreaking defeat in Fortaleza, poor, crushed Miguel Herrera, the Mexican manager, spluttered a lot of nasty things about the referee.
The foul on Arjen Robben that had won the game for Holland was, he said, “an invention” by Pedro Proença, and Robben was an out-and-out diver.
The bitterness was understandable in the circumstances, and you just had to let Herrera get it off his chest. But as Robben had in fact been fouled, and had also been tripped in the Mexican box in the first half in an incident that was ignored by Proença, it was difficult to consider Herrera’s complaints much of a story.
A few British journalists present felt differently and went big on it, which was understandable given the appetite in Britain for dirty-diving Robben stories. José Mourinho was soon wheeled out for a quiet dig. Even Google dedicated a “daily doodle” on its search engine to a tumbling figure in orange.
MelodramaticRobben has not helped himself at times, and the way he falls is melodramatic, but he still suffers disproportionately for past offences. He has been praised for his displays in Brazil, but nothing like Messi, Rodriguez or Neymar, when he has been playing at least on their level.
Condemned as a bad example for youngsters, to a youthful Netherlands squad he is in fact the inspiration and leader, an assistant captain who is de facto skipper, a player without whom Louis van Gaal’s team would have long gone home.
After the high drama of Saturday’s win in Salvador, Robben admitted he was “tired of the bullshit” around diving, but he is obviously not letting it distract him. He may not have been decisive against Costa Rica, but he was still brilliant – driven, enraged, frightening.
During the break in extra- time it was Robben who gave the team-talk on the sideline, with Van Gaal looking on approvingly, only too happy for the incredible focus of the man he has built his team around to set the tone.
Last week Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant described the leadership role Robben has taken on during training, with his voice the one most often heard during drills. At one point, Robben shouted “Good, boys, we need this intensity tomorrow”; at another he was heard admonishing Van Gaal when the manager called the ball out after it went a few centimetres over the line. “Let it play on, keep the f***ing tempo up,” Robben interjected.
His role as one of the squad’s senior pros is clearly to his liking, as he hinted after the fabulous victory over Spain, in which he scored twice. “I am most proud of the guys who played against the world champions without ever having played in a tournament,” he said.
“I am a very proud vice-captain. It was a nice start to the World Cup. The atmosphere in the dressing room is among the best I have ever known. It was beautiful. We have to enjoy it.”
You could see his motivation coming from many sources, not least of which is the fact that at, 30 years old, he is in the condition of his life. Last season he played 45 times for Bayern Munich, his most fruitful campaign ever, a year after German media speculated that Pep Guardiola’s arrival as coach might result in his departure. Instead the club has since extended his contract, until 2017.
The changes he has made to his training regime reflect a single-mindedness that has always been in evidence, even when he has moved clubs – from Chelsea to Madrid, and then Bayern – and now he has a full medical check-up every single week: “Bones, muscles, blood, everything. No coincidences for me.”
In Spain he was known as the “crystal man” because of the number of injuries he suffered; in Brazil he is breaking land- speed records for footballers.
Unfinished businessAlong with his seniority in the Dutch squad and his state of fitness, Robben is driven by some unfinished business with the World Cup.
In the final four years ago in South Africa he squandered a chance to give the Netherlands the lead, allowing Iker Casillas to make a save when the score was still 0-0.
For all his career successes – and his league title with Bayern this year was the seventh of his career – there have also been high-profile failures. But as his winning goal in last season’s Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund showed, Robben has both the drive and ability to put things right.
The renowned Dutch football coach Foppe de Haaan has said the forward’s new maturity is his biggest asset.
“Look at the Robben of three years ago, who moaned and responded in an aggrieved way to everything and everyone. You need to compare that Robben to the player we see now. Then you will see that if you really want to, you can grow in attitude, in taking responsibility. How to be a big player, and still a team player.”
It makes you think that the question Patrick Kluivert asks of Wednesday’s semi-final in São Paulo is one we should all be thinking about.
“How are we going stop Messi? How are they going to stop Robben?”