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

The Guardian - Sport - - Football World Cup - Stub­born­ness and a lop­sided squad: how USA cam­paign ended in fail­ure

Priya Ramesh

“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

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