One-on-one with Iker Casillas in the World Cup final, the scores level at 0-0, Arjen Robben had the chance to establish himself as an immortal figure in Dutch soccer history. It was the scenario all players dream of: a golden chance to net the winning goal on the biggest stage of all.
But the Bayern Munich winger fluffed his lines. His shot was poor and subsequently saved by the Spain goalkeeper; Netherlands eventually went on to lose 1-0. It capped off a miserable end to the season for Robben, who also missed out on glory in the Champions League final with the Bavarians, losing 2-0 to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.
Just shy of two years on from the 2010 World Cup final, Robben was afforded another chance to make a career-defining contribution. With the scores level in the UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea, the Germans were awarded a penalty. Robben stepped up to take it, but his effort was weak and Petr Cech saved.
Bayern went on to lose on penalties, with the Dutchman deciding against taking a kick in the shootout. “You can understand if he didn’t score the penalty in extra-time that he may have lost some self-confidence to participate in the penalty shoot-out” said his manager Jupp Heynckes in the aftermath, per BBC Sport.
Robben was short of confidence, out of form, out of the Bayern first-team and tagged by some as a bottler at the start of the next campaign. So his emergence as one of the finest players on the planet and the standout man from the group stages of the 2014 World Cup is quite a remarkable story.
At 30-years-old, this looks likely to be his last World Cup and it’s wholly apparent that the former Chelsea and Real Madrid man is doing his utmost to savor every moment of it. He’s been nothing short of scintillating so far in Brazil, making some extraordinary bursts forward with the ball and helping himself to three goals in three Dutch victories.
Robben is a player that has rid of himself of those shackles that temporarily hampered him in Johannesburg four years ago and Munich two years after. At this juncture in his career, he’s a man that relishes those big occasions, flourishing instead of floundering when the pressure is on.
Under the tutelage of Heynckes at Bayern, Robben made some major improvements to his game. His work-rate vastly improved, as did his attitude, demeanor on the pitch and all-round maturity. Instead of sulking when he was left out of the team at the start of the 2012/13 season or pushing for a transfer, Robben got his head down and battled for his place in the team.
Heynckes eventually drafted Robben back into the team and he was sensational during the run-in that campaign, inspiring Bayern to a clean sweep of trophies. The coupe de grace for the Dutchman came when he notched a late winner in the final against Borussia Dortmund, exercising the demons of a year earlier and cementing his place in the vast annals of the European Cup. A bottler no more.
Now, he’s looking for redemption on the international stage too. Robben has become a vital cog in Van Gaal’s Dutch set up. He’s a senior figure, the squad’s standout player along with Robin van Persie and now a leader too; captaining the Dutch in their 2-0 win over Chile, preserving their spot atop of Group B in the process.
After the 2010 World Cup, the prospect of Robben—then an indisputably talented but occasionally erratic and often tempestuous player—captaining the Netherlands team at a World Cup would have been an unfathomable one. But having such a privilege bestowed on him by a manager as uncompromising as Van Gaal is a measure of the strides he has made as a player and as a person.
Of course, he still harbors a reputation for being a little greedy, plus a patent for going to ground a little easy. But he’s unmistakably hungry and refreshingly industrious, attributes that will have had Van Gaal swooning and will no doubt be infectious to the rest of this youthful squad of Dutch players.
After a career that has had it’s fair share of ups and downs, Robben looks to be at his peak, both physically and mentally. He’s spearheading an unlikely charge towards World Cup glory for a Netherlands team that is united behind a shared thirst for glory and you can bet the Bayern man will make plenty more telling contributions as the tournament rolls towards the final knockings.
As we get set for the knockout stages, Oranje supporters can feel extremely optimistic about their chances. Not only do they have an astute boss and a supremely prolific forward in Van Persie, they now have a different Robben to the one four years ago: one that’s markedly more mature, unwaveringly focused and mentally ready to make an impression in big games—something he’s already done in all of the Netherlands’ World Cup matches to date.
Looking ahead, if the Dutch do find themselves in a penalty shootout, their star winger won’t be shirking his duties anymore. You can bet he’ll be the first one to put his hand up, ready to take responsibility.