Rueful Robben leaves Holland with big hole to fill after sad exit
Only memories remain after two more goals in a futile win for the Oranje, writes
“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 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 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 backpost 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 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 Holland supporters.
In 2008, he began working with the osteopath Hub Westhovens. “He gives me confidence in my body,” Robben has said. That summer the forward produced one of the best individual performances seen by a Dutch player in one half as Holland beat France 4-1 at Euro 2008.
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 (Wesley 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
If the world champions were frustrated by their failure to win continental honours at Euro 2016 they have certainly taken it out on everyone else since. Germany won 10 qualifying games out of 10 and, even if San Marino’s presence in Group C needs taking into account, a record 43 goals scored suggests things are back in their old working order. So too did their Confederations Cup title in July, achieved with an experimental squad. Joachim Löw, pictured, can select from an unrivalled depth of talent and, while winning back-to-back World Cups remains a huge task, none of next summer’s contenders has an equivalent selection of tools with which to tackle the different challenges they will face.
Brazil look revitalised under Tite and the light work they made of the fiendish Conmebol qualifying procedure was deeply impressive. The manager has openly stated they should be listed among the leading contenders next summer; it is hard to disagree and it is worth listening to Dani Alves when he says Tite’s human touch makes him “very distant from all Brazilian coaches”. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho and an energised Paulinho are among those benefiting from the transformation and perhaps a sequence of failing to lift the trophy since 2002 will end in Russia.
Will it aid Spain that, unlike most of their European rivals, they have already had to dispose of another World Cup contender in the qualifiers? Italy may well make it through the play-offs and in fairness the rest of Group G was not up to much but that 3-0 win at the Bernabéu last month was ominous and
new generation appear ready to challenge seriously next summer. Álvaro Morata, right, is developing into a genuinely world-class striker, Marco Asensio Coach Jorge Sampaoli
The bones will be picked out of a qualifying campaign that flirted with disaster and required saving by a Lionel Messi masterclass in Ecuador, but Argentina have made it and will automatically be installed as one of the favourites. It is worth pointing out that everyone bar Brazil came close to missing out in an extraordinary Conmebol qualifying group; it will also be a big concern, though, that the gap between Jorge Sampaoli’s team and their bitterest rivals – whom they did defeat in a summer friendly – was so big. They certainly have the individual talent to bridge it in Russia – and, in what will probably be his last World
Cup, Messi has the incentive to deliver more magic.
Qualifying was not without the odd hiccup – but for the frame of the goal that home draw with Luxembourg could have become something far more humiliating – but France did well in one of the more awkward groups and the potential of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, Moussa Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé trumps that of virtually any side that will be playing in Russia. Can Didier Deschamps get the best out of them all? If he can then France, who have few obvious weaknesses on paper, will deserve to be ranked among the favourites next summer.
Belgium put on one of Europe’s better qualifying campaigns, negating any real threat from two potentially tricky rivals in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece. Perhaps the unlikely combination of the Spaniard Roberto Martínez and the Frenchman Thierry Henry can deliver where Marc Wilmots failed and produce a run of convincing tournament performances. Romelu Lukaku’s form for club and country makes Christian Benteke’s struggles less troublesome while Dries Mertens, pictured, is in the form of his life for Napoli. None of their other mainstays need too much introduction and there remains the tantalising prospect that, should everything be harnessed correctly, Belgium can do something special.
Coach Fernando Santos
They only scraped into the automatic qualification place although, save for a post-Euro 2016 hangover defeat in Switzerland, there was not too much wrong with Portugal’s campaign. Now the question is whether Fernando Santos can get players such as Bernardo
I wanted so badly to show them what I can do, just one last time
the Concacaf region, first and foremost – but before the autopsy begins in earnest, below are four things that consigned the USA to desperate failure.
Home defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica
with just three, as the USA would have done if and Costa Rica had done them a favour on Tuesday.
What Arena was alluding to, however, were logistical and practical concerns. In few other regions, for example, do visitors have to wade through a moat to get to practice the day before a match. Stories of inhospitable kick-off times and late-night phone calls to team hotels are legion.
This all means that taking care of business at home is paramount. The USA, though failed to obey that cardinal rule. They lost to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, in November and to Costa Rica in New Jersey last month. That latter result, especially, coming when it did, put the USA in a position in which they
Luck may have deserted Arena’s side this week but elimination was of their own making, writes
Arjen Robben thanks the crowd at the final whistle in Amsterdam