One-on-one: Ar­jen Robben


FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view Alec Fenn Pho­tog­ra­phy Ste­fan Hob­maier

It’s the day af­ter Ar­jen Robben’s 34th birth­day, but there’s no sign of the Dutch­man tak­ing it easy as he walks briskly to­wards Four­fourtwo like he’s bear­ing down on a ter­ri­fied Bun­desliga full-back.

For­tu­nately for us, Robben re­sists the temp­ta­tion to drop a shoul­der and cut in­side us­ing his trade­mark move, opt­ing in­stead to shake our hand be­fore pos­ing for the cam­era.

Dur­ing his 18 years in foot­ball, the Bay­ern Mu­nich wide­man has been though the ec­stasy of Cham­pi­ons League glory and crush­ing de­spair of World Cup fi­nal de­feat, although he’s not quite done with pet­ri­fy­ing op­po­si­tion de­fend­ers yet.

“I don’t feel any slower than I was in my 20s, so I have still got a few years in me,” he says with a wink.

The game has pro­vided Robben with more than just a foot­balling ed­u­ca­tion. His pro­fes­sional ca­reer has taken him from the Nether­lands to Ger­many, via Eng­land and Spain, mean­ing he could have con­ducted this in­ter­view in any one of four lan­guages.

And as he’s ma­tured, the speed­ster has also learned how to fine-tune his once in­jury-prone physique into what is now a smooth-run­ning ma­chine.

With his train­ing ses­sion com­pleted, Robben’s ready to ap­ply the brakes for a bit, lower his lean frame into a chair and an­swer your ques­tions... What’s your ear­li­est foot­ball me­mory? Did you like go­ing in the ‘cages’ that are so pop­u­lar with young peo­ple in the Nether­lands? Henk van der Voort, The Hague I guess my ear­li­est foot­ball mem­o­ries are of play­ing in the street and also the lit­tle pitches at school. I joined the lo­cal foot­ball team in my vil­lage when I was small, but we would play only once or twice a week. I honed my skills just by play­ing for fun with friends af­ter school.

Speed has al­ways been one of your trade­marks – were you any good at athletics as a kid? Si­mon Christie, via Face­book At school I did a bit of athletics and the pace was al­ways there, although it was never some­thing I re­ally con­sid­ered as a pro­fes­sional ca­reer path. It’s strange be­cause my par­ents were not that fast – my mum is quicker than my dad! It’s been a great weapon for me, how­ever, and a lucky one, too – you ei­ther have it or you don’t.

You were still study­ing at school when you made your de­but for Gronin­gen – your mates must have been jeal­ous! Rudy Sch­midt, Rot­ter­dam I re­mem­ber my mum called me two or three times while I was in class. When I rang her back she told me Gronin­gen had called and that I was in the squad that week­end. It came out of the blue and I was not ex­pect­ing it. I had never even trained with the first team but the coach put me on the sub­sti­tutes’ bench. My friends were re­ally happy for me. It was also quite strange for them to see me play­ing on the tele­vi­sion and then read about me in all the news­pa­pers.

You suf­fered with nu­mer­ous in­juries early in your ca­reer. Did you fear you wouldn’t ful­fil your po­ten­tial be­cause of them? Oliver Wein­hardt, via Twit­ter I never had prob­lems with in­juries as a kid or in the youth team. My in­juries started at Chelsea, when I broke my foot dur­ing a pre-sea­son game. That was just pure bad luck, but af­ter that I had some mus­cu­lar in­juries too, so I had to get to know my body bet­ter. I tried to find out how to take care of it, to avoid break­ing down all the time. Some play­ers never have any in­juries and oth­ers, like me, have to do more spe­cific things to en­sure they stay fit.

PSV’S fans la­belled you and Mateja Kez­man ‘Bat­man and Robben’ due to your un­der­stand­ing on the pitch. What made your re­la­tion­ship with him spe­cial, and why didn’t it work out at Chelsea? Roland Smith, Worces­ter We had a bril­liant team at PSV at that time and my job was sim­ply to set him up as much as pos­si­ble. There was also Den­nis Rommedahl on the right wing, who was very, very fast, so we cre­ated a lot of op­por­tu­nites for Mateja and he scored a lot of goals. Un­for­tu­nately he didn’t play too much when we were at Chelsea, so we weren’t able to have the same suc­cess on the pitch to­gether as we did at PSV.


You’ve scored so many goals in your ca­reer by cut­ting in­side on your left foot be­fore bend­ing the ball into the far corner. How did this be­come your most dan­ger­ous weapon? Ryan Smith, Glas­gow In my youth-team days, I was al­ways a left-winger who would stay close to the byline and put crosses in the box, so I could never cut in­side and shoot. It was only when I joined Real Madrid and started play­ing in a more cen­tral po­si­tion, and then on the right wing, that I sud­denly re­alised I had a re­ally dan­ger­ous weapon. I’d say the most im­por­tant thing is al­ways re­tain­ing an el­e­ment of sur­prise, so I can carry on scor­ing goals like that.

Jo­han Cruyff once said about you: “He’s got tremen­dous tal­ent and a beau­ti­ful left foot, but his right leg is made of cho­co­late.” Did you ever get to talk to him about that? Si­mon Crown, Mid­dles­brough Never – but he’s not the only per­son who’s said that! [Laughs]. I can’t do any­thing with my right foot but I’ve made it to the top. Mod­ern coaches want young play­ers to work on both feet, but I’m not so sure that is a good thing. Some play­ers have got one very good foot, so you then have a ques­tion: Do you make that foot ex­cep­tional, or work on both and maybe just have two very good feet? Maybe play­ers should fo­cus on max­imis­ing the po­ten­tial of their strong­est foot?

You came close to leav­ing PSV (right) for Manch­ester United in 2004. What did Alex Fer­gu­son say to you and why didn’t you end up go­ing there? Jeremy Finch, Stock­port I had a very good con­ver­sa­tion with him over din­ner in Manch­ester and we spoke about foot­ball and life. I also went and had a good look around the train­ing ground and ev­ery­thing was good, but af­ter I went back to PSV noth­ing hap­pened. There was no real con­tact and the deal didn’t hap­pen. PSV were also ne­go­ti­at­ing with Chelsea at that time, so maybe they of­fered PSV more money? I don’t re­ally know. 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.

You joined Chelsea for £12 mil­lion in 2004 when you were just 20. What was it like play­ing un­der Jose Mour­inho? Ju­lian Price, Cam­bridge He was re­ally de­mand­ing and in­tense, but at that age I think it was good for me and my foot­ball devel­op­ment. I am a stu­dent and some­one who wants to im­prove and work hard, so I think our per­son­al­i­ties were a good fit. I played a lot of foot­ball un­der Mour­inho and he was a good man-man­ager. He gave me a lot of con­fi­dence and I’ve got good mem­o­ries of play­ing for him. How dif­fi­cult were your early months at Chelsea af­ter break­ing a metatarsal in pre-sea­son? James White, Lon­don It was re­ally dif­fi­cult. I had to work my socks off to get fit again, but by the time I made my come­back I was in fan­tas­tic phys­i­cal con­di­tion and had a great start at Chelsea. In my first three matches in the start­ing XI, we won 1-0 and I scored two of the goals. I felt fast and strong, which I re­alised I needed in Eng­land, so maybe my time out did me some good.

Once you were fit your form was just in­cred­i­ble. Did you feel un­touch­able, and what was the se­cret to adapting to the English game so fast? Rory Cordell, Lon­don When I moved to Eng­land I wanted to get bet­ter. The in­jury meant that I had the op­por­tu­nity to fo­cus on the phys­i­cal side of my game. I had sev­eral months of in­tense work, so by the time I was fit again I was in fan­tas­tic con­di­tion. This gave me the con­fi­dence to show what I wanted to show in the Premier League.

I re­mem­ber you get­ting kicked from pil­lar to post in a game at Black­burn in 2005 af­ter scor­ing the win­ner. Was that the most phys­i­cal game you ever played in? Would that have hap­pened in Spain or Ger­many? Tom Thatcher, via Twit­ter I re­mem­ber that match, but there was also an­other game where I was kicked for the full 90 min­utes and got a re­ally


bad in­jury af­ter a ter­ri­ble tackle. But ev­ery game in Eng­land is in­tense and you’ve got to be phys­i­cally ready and strong. You also have to be smart to pro­tect your­self and pre­vent in­juries.

Mour­inho be­came pretty out­spo­ken about your in­juries at Chelsea. How frus­trat­ing was it to hear your own man­ager crit­i­cis­ing your will? Charles Scar­rott, Stroud I didn’t see any of the crit­i­cism, to be hon­est. For a man­ager, it’s dif­fi­cult if a player is in­jured be­cause you can’t count on him, so I could un­der­stand it a lit­tle bit. But it’s worse for a player – you want to be play­ing and en­joy­ing your foot­ball. Jose is a win­ner and he wants strong play­ers. I felt so much con­fi­dence from him when I was fit, but in­juries cre­ated a bit of a strug­gle.

You said no­body taught you more in Eng­land than John Terry. What did you learn from him? Chris Spencer, Ful­ham He’s one of the great­est cap­tains I’ve ever played with. The way he be­haved and con­ducted him­self on a pitch set an ex­am­ple to every­one. Why did you de­cide to leave Chelsea for Real Madrid in Au­gust 2007? Was it a tough de­ci­sion to make? Daniel Walsh, New­cas­tle It was hard, although the sys­tem had changed a lit­tle bit at Chelsea. In my first two sea­sons we had been play­ing with wingers, and then Jose switched to a di­a­mond with a phys­i­cal mid­field and two for­wards. I could have played as a striker but An­driy Shevchenko and Di­dier Drogba were first choice at the time. Real came in for me and it was dif­fi­cult to say no, as it was a for­ward move for my ca­reer – I had to go for it.

Real sup­port­ers have been known to boo even their best play­ers and wave white han­kies. Were they a dif­fi­cult crowd to sat­isfy? Harry Rijk, Eind­hoven I al­ways had a good re­la­tion­ship with them. In my first sea­son, we won the league and beat Barcelona 4-1, which was an in­cred­i­ble night. In my second year, I think I played some of the best foot­ball of my ca­reer. That was when I started play­ing on the right wing and cut­ting in­side, so I scored lots of goals. If you’re scor­ing and win­ning tro­phies, the fans will al­ways be happy with you.

You said you were forced to move on in 2009, de­spite play­ing some of the best foot­ball of your ca­reer. Did you feel be­trayed by the club? Ge­orge Parks, Ch­ester It was a strange time. I played the best pre-sea­son of my ca­reer, but Real had spent a lot of money to sign Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, Xabi Alonso, Karim Ben­zema and Kaka. The board told me, Wes­ley Snei­jder and Klaas-jan Hun­te­laar that they had to sell play­ers to make some of the money back. I had no prob­lems with the man­ager, Manuel Pel­le­grini,

and he told me that he didn’t want me to leave, but the pres­i­dent – Florentino Perez – made the fi­nal de­ci­sion. It was dif­fi­cult but I de­cided to leave and sign for Bay­ern. It ended up be­ing the best move of my ca­reer.

‘Robben and Ribery’ or ‘Rob­bery’ (top right) have de­fined Bay­ern for nearly a decade. De­scribe the bond you have both on and off the pitch. Max Bauer, Mu­nich I feel that we have got very sim­i­lar minds, and that has helped cre­ate an in­cred­i­ble con­nec­tion on the pitch. First of all we love the game, but we specif­i­cally like one-v-one sit­u­a­tions, as well as set­ting up goals and scor­ing them. We are very, very sim­i­lar, and when we are to­gether it’s not re­ally a sur­prise that we’ve had so much suc­cess.

Was miss­ing the penalty in ex­tra time of the 2012 Cham­pi­ons League Fi­nal against old club Chelsea the worst mo­ment of your pro­fes­sional ca­reer? How did all of the Bay­ern play­ers re­act to the loss in their own back yard? Neil Cane, Lon­don It was a huge low point for me and very dis­ap­point­ing for every­one. We were in our own sta­dium and went 1-0 up with seven min­utes left. Un­for­tu­nately they equalised and then I missed a penalty. They were the first ones to miss in the shootout, too. When you miss a cru­cial penalty it’s very, very hard, but you have to re­cover from that. We re­cov­ered very well the fol­low­ing year and proved that we were still a great team at Wem­b­ley.

Bay­ern lost Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals in 2010 and 2012 – did you be­gin to think you were des­tined never to win the pres­ti­gious prize? Ro­drigo Sanchez, Madrid Of course. Be­fore the third fi­nal against Borus­sia Dort­mund in 2013, there was in­cred­i­ble pres­sure. While my mind­set was very pos­i­tive and I was con­vinced we would win it this time, at Wem­b­ley, I was also think­ing, ‘I can’t play in three Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals and lose all of them’ – no­body wants that la­bel on their ca­reer! Every­one would have said, ‘He achieved a lot of things, but didn’t win the Cham­pi­ons League’.

What emo­tions were go­ing through your head when you scored the late win­ner in the fi­nal? That must have been a big weight off your shoul­ders... Taylor John­son, via Face­book It was like the script for a film or a book. I missed a penalty against Chelsea the pre­vi­ous year, and then 12 months on I scored the win­ner. I be­lieve it’s a great ex­am­ple of the sort of char­ac­ter needed to achieve suc­cess in sport. If you have a mas­sive setback, you al­ways have to stand up and fight back, and I did that.

You won your first Nether­lands cap at a time when Robin van Per­sie, Rafael van der Vaart and Wes­ley Snei­jder were also com­ing through. How did the Oranje not win a tour­na­ment with all that tal­ent? Tom Bear­den, Not­ting­ham I think we had suc­cess for such a small coun­try. In 2010 we were second and in 2014 we were third – that is not too bad, I would say. Of course you al­ways want to win a tro­phy, but then we have a pop­u­la­tion of just 16 mil­lion peo­ple, so I think to come in second and third is pretty good and not some­thing we have done reg­u­larly in pre­vi­ous years.

The Nether­lands failed to qual­ify for Euro 2016 and this sum­mer’s World Cup. What’s gone wrong with Dutch foot­ball re­cently? Steve Peach, Nor­wich We have al­ways had a unique style of foot­ball, but the game de­vel­ops and we have to adapt. You need your own iden­tity but also have to learn things from oth­ers. Around 10-15 years ago, it was other coun­tries com­ing into our kitchen to see how we did it. But now we need to be more open and look at other teams and coun­tries our­selves, to learn about them and their tac­tics. You were la­belled ‘the man of glass’ by the Dutch me­dia be­cause of your in­jury prob­lems, but rep­re­sented the na­tional team for 14 years. Did that crit­i­cism hurt you? Frank Schif, Am­s­ter­dam It re­ally did. When you’re younger, you’re a lot more sen­si­tive. Per­haps if those peo­ple had said it when I was older I wouldn’t have cared so much, but I wanted to prove them all wrong. To me, ‘the man of glass’ sounds like they thought I was weak. It had noth­ing to do with me be­ing weak – it was just that I had a sen­si­tive body at that time. I thought to my­self, ‘I don’t break’ and thank­fully I proved them wrong in the end. Maybe I had the last laugh!

Iker Casil­las’ boot pre­vented you from scor­ing the win­ner in the 2010 World Cup Fi­nal (above). Does that mo­ment still haunt you? Thomas Reynolds, Kens­ing­ton Just like all of the tro­phies I have won, that disappointment will stay with me for the rest of my life. I had a big chance to win the World Cup when I was one-on-one with Iker Casil­las, and if I had placed the ball three cen­time­tres higher then it would have gone in. Af­ter the match, I thought maybe I should have gone round him, but when I saw it again, I felt I’d made the right de­ci­sion.

Casil­las de­cided to go down to his left and then stuck his leg out, as he didn’t think I was go­ing to shoot. If I had the same op­por­tu­nity again, I would still try to fin­ish it the same way, ex­cept three cen­time­tres higher!

You have worked un­der Louis van Gaal (far left) with Bay­ern Mu­nich and the na­tional team – how did you find him to play for? Michael Haan, via Face­book Louis is a great coach. It can be very in­tense work­ing with him some­times but he is very, very clear and good at im­prov­ing in­di­vid­ual play­ers. I have learned so much from him over the years, and Louis was a big rea­son why I joined Bay­ern when I left Real Madrid. Luck­ily, I got the chance to play un­der him again with the na­tional team and we had some suc­cess both times that we worked to­gether. You’re one of just a hand­ful of play­ers to have worked un­der Jose Mour­inho and Pep Guardi­ola, so how do the two coaches com­pare? Eu­gene Cham­bers, Lin­colnshire Ev­ery man­ager has got their own style. As a player, you must learn from them and pick up the things you need. With Jose I was younger, but with Pep I was a lot older. They are both tremen­dous coaches and I learnt a great deal from both of them dur­ing my ca­reer.

Will you be­come a man­ager one day? I as­sume you’ll use in­verted wingers... Jamie Berger, Lu­ton [Laughs] I’m not sure right now. I en­joy work­ing with the younger play­ers and help­ing them to de­velop. I al­ready help out with my son’s lo­cal team from time to time. I am in love with foot­ball, but I’m not sure if man­ag­ing is what I see my­self do­ing in the fu­ture. You turned 34 this year but seem to have im­proved phys­i­cally with age. How have you man­aged to do that? John Mills, via Twit­ter I started work­ing with an os­teopath in my fi­nal year at Real Madrid [2009]. He ex­plained that ev­ery­thing in my body has to be in align­ment, like blocks. I’m a bit like a For­mula One car – if there’s one lit­tle screw that’s not so good, my mo­tor will blow up. The mus­cles need to work as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble, and thank­fully they do now.

De­scribe your ca­reer in one word... Phil Moore, via email I’d say ‘great’! I’ve had so many great mo­ments and won lots of ti­tles. There have been many hard mo­ments and set­backs but I’ve bounced back. There have been more good mo­ments than low mo­ments, and hope­fully I’ll en­joy a few more good years be­fore I re­tire.


Be­low Cel­e­brat­ing 2010 World Cup quarter-fi­nal suc­cess over Brazil, but Casil­las ru­ined Robben’s chance to cre­ate his­tory (right) Far right Fi­nally grasp­ing Ol’ Big Ears at Wem­b­ley af­ter mis­ery in Mu­nich against old boys Chelsea (bot­tom right)

Above Robben was given his first chance to shine with Gronin­gen, win­ning player of the year in 2001 Top Ar­jen, Van Per­sie and Snei­jder per­fect the ’90s boy band pose Top right His spot-kick was saved in Chelsea’s Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal loss to...

CLUBS 2000-02 Gronin­gen 2002-04 PSV 2004-07 Chelsea 2007-09 Real Madrid 2009- Bay­ern Mu­nich COUN­TRY 2003-17 Nether­lands

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