THERE is time yet for Neymar, Lionel Messi and the usual suspects to dominate these World Cup finals but, so far, as the tournament edges beyond its halfway stage, a winger who seems to get better, and faster, with age is giving them quite a run for their money.
Arjen Robben is not exactly a senior citizen, but few expected the flying Dutchman with the predictable – but nonetheless unplayable – left foot to reach new heights in his sixth major finals. Few anticipated that the Bayern Munich player whose biggest weapon is an electrifying turn of pace would be at his most devastating when he entered his fourth decade.
The 30-year-old former Chelsea and Real Madrid forward has taken the finals by storm since that night in Salvador when he brought a long ball out of the sky, stepped inside Gerard Pique and gave his country the lead against Spain. By the time he was scorching past Sergio Ramos to round off the scoring in a stunning 5-1 win, it was clear that he would take some stopping.
And so it proved. Robben was instrumental in the Netherlands’ conquest of Group B. He burst down the left to score their first in a 3-2 win against Australia. Then, in the 2-0 triumph over Chile, an altogether more tactical battle, his sprint and cross set up Memphis Depay in stoppage time. On each of those occasions, he was named man of the match.
Do not be surprised if Robben receives the same accolade after tonight’s round-of-16 encounter with Mexico in Fortaleza. In partnership with Robin van Persie, he has thrived on the Netherlands’ new-found counter-attacking style, breaking with such freedom and confidence that some have already singled him out as the most exciting player on show in Brazil.
“The first half against Chile was not great, but in the last 20 minutes came the incomparable Arjen Robben,” foamed Willy Van de Kerkhof, the Dutchman who played in the 1978 World Cup final. “He is head and shoulders above the rest. He is better than Messi for example.”
Nor is that a lone voice. Dirk Kuyt, the Netherlands striker, claimed that he would not swap Robben for any other player in the tournament. Depay said that his more experienced team-mate was so skilful and fast in possession that he could scarcely believe his eyes. “I’m so happy to play with him,” said the PSV Eindhoven winger.
Praise for Robben is nothing new, but it has reached a crescendo at a time of his life when his powers are supposed to be on the wane. While gnarled defenders carry on well into their thirties, forwards who rely on explosive bursts of speed are expected to fade, or at least adapt their game accordingly.
Not Robben, though. Recently, he has been doing the same as he always did, only more so. Of the 26 goals he has scored in 77 appearances for his country, seven have come in his last eight games. As every defender knows, he is all left foot, but still he slaloms up the right, cuts inside and gets the shot away. It’s like a bad dream. You know what’s going to happen, but you can’t stop it. A runner-up at the 2010 World Cup, Robben is one of the game’s most decorated players, with seven domestic titles and a Champions League medal but, until now, he has never been mentioned in quite the same breath as more complete players such as Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Injuries have held him back – at Real Madrid, he was nicknamed “Crystal Man” – as has his reputation as a selfish, sometimes sulky loner. As recently as Euro 2012, he was stomping off in a strop, so insulted was he by his substitution against Germany.
There was also the nagging suspicion that he choked under pressure. Witness the two misses that preceded Spain’s extra-time winner in the World Cup final four years ago. And his failed penalty kick in the additional half hour of the the 2012 Champions League final against Chelsea. It was the second time in three attempts that his Bayern Munich team had fallen at the final hurdle of Europe’s biggest club competition.
That, though, was before Robben enjoyed something of a renaissance under Jupp Heynckes. After starting the 2012-13 season on the bench, he replaced the injured Toni Kroos in the Champions League quarter-final against Juventus and has never looked back. More disciplined and responsible than Heynckes had given him credit for, he went on to score the winner against Borussia Dortmund in the final. “That’s three finals, and of course you don’t want the stamp of a loser,” said Robben. “You don’t want that tag.”
No-one is laying that at his door now, least of all Louis Van Gaal, who signed him for Bayern Munich. When Van Gaal became head coach of the Netherlands two summers ago, he told Robben and Van Persie that he would build his team around them. He advised them that he was about to commit sacrilege by ditching the country’s staple 4-3-3 system in favour of a 5-3-2 that suited the needs of his two most valuable players. A year later, Van Persie replaced Wesley Sneijder as captain, and Robben became his deputy.
In Brazil, they have reaped the rewards, most notably against Spain, when their ruthlessness on the break made a mockery of the reigning champions’ possession. Against Australia, who had less of the ball, the tactic was not so effective, but it did the job against a hard-working, high-pressing Chile team and all the signs are that it will unsettle Mexico. “I’m a player who craves counter-attacks,” explains Robben.“The fact that our defence plays very deep frees up a lot of space for Robin and me.”
Since making his international debut in 2003, and playing in the European Championship finals the following summer, Robben has been an exciting, game-changing figure for the Netherlands, but the difference now is his maturity. Where once he was among the egos said to be disrupting harmony in the dressing room, now he is mentor, along with Van Persie, to a squad of relatively modest talents.
No longer is he required to prove himself. In 2003, he almost signed for Manchester United, but Sir Alex Ferguson was unwilling to part with the money demanded by PSV Eindhoven. Now that Van Gaal is moving to Old Trafford, the Dutch winger could yet find himself with the club that lost out to Chelsea in the race for his signature over a decade back. Bryan Roy, the Ajax youth coach, says that Van Gaal “desperately wants” a deal to be done.
Were Robben to join Van Gaal and Van Persie in England next season, they would make for a talented triumvirate, but also a powerful one, given their growing respect for each other. After a couple of substitutions swung the Chile game in the Netherlands’ favour, Robben suggested that the head coach must have a “golden willy”, although Van Gaal later quipped that, if he did, it had escaped his wife’s notice.
The best Van Gaal can hope for is a golden ball, awarded to the best player at the World Cup finals. Johan Cruyff, in 1974, is the only Dutchman to have achieved that distinction. There is a long way to go, a lot of hurdles for the Netherlands to overcome, starting in Fortaleza tonight, but if the opening fortnight is any guide, Robben is a contender.