By Dirk Kurbjuweit
It's a wonder that the grass didn't turn yellow. On the sidelines of the big Champions League semi-final last month between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, José Mourinho and Arjen Robben briefly embraced, making for the greatest possible consolidation of nastiness in football on a single square meter of pitch to date. One insufferable man hugged another insufferable man, and then the two went their separate ways.
Mourinho, the head coach at Madrid, is so mean and overbearing that he even makes it difficult for his team's own fans to like him. FC Bayern's star midfielder Robben challenges their fans with his own brand of mean and whiny behavior. Both men receive affection in return for success alone. Real was eliminated in the Champions League semi-final on April 24, making Mourinho the target of nothing but scorn and hatred until the team managed to win the Spanish league title on May 2. Bayern will go on to play FC Chelsea in the Champions League final on May 19, which is why Robben can now bask in adoration.
When his team was behind by 0:2 at Madrid's Bernabéu Stadium and all seemed to be lost, the Dutchman took control of the ball after a foul against teammate Mario Gomez and valiantly stepped up for the penalty kick, even though he had missed his last important penalty kick against Borussia Dortmund. It wasn't a particularly spectacular shot. Goalkeeper Iker Casillas grazed the ball with his hand, missing it by a hair and almost turning Robben's career in Munich into nothing more than a memory of a galactic jerk. But Casillas's fingertips failed to divert the ball, bringing the score to 1:2 and putting Bayern back in the game, which they eventually won in a penalty shootout. Robben could be remembered as spectacular player.
When the team recruited Robben from Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, it was a step into frivolity and the big diva business. Bayern desperately wanted a world-class starter, but all it could get was Robben. He was considered sensitive, both physically and emotionally, a man frequently injured and highly capable of putting people in a bad mood. But he was also known as a genius of the boundary line. Anyone who hires him needs the same kind of courage or desperation as people who get involved in shell games.
Pouting and Diving
Even after the triumph in Madrid, Robben didn't present himself in a favorable light. Instead, he criticized the father figure of Bavarian football Franz Beckenbauer in a television interview because Beckenbauer had once scolded him.
An argument against Robben is that the 28-year-old is sometimes simply inept. In an important game for the German championship against Borussia Dortmund in mid-April he dribbled dreamily around his own goal after a Dortmund corner shot, thereby eliminating the offside and bringing the score to 0:1. He shot the penalty kick, which could have led to an offset, straight into the arms of goalie Roman Weidenfeller. Then shortly before the end of the game he tried to shoot down a satellite above the stadium, though it would have been easier to hit the goal, which was only three meters away. Three important moments -- three failures. Bayern lost the game and its shot at the championship because of Robben.
Another argument against him is that he pouts for about 85 of every 90-minute match. He pouts because he is offended, and Robben is always offended when he doesn't have the ball. His approach to the game is simple: I must have the ball, and if I don't have the ball, everyone else is an idiot. And so he pouts, waves his arms around and practically bites the other players' heads off. He insists on shooting every single free kick within distance from the goal, just as he insists on shooting the penalty kicks. And if a player complains, Robben takes the ball away from him.
During a game against Hertha BSC, for example, he was gracious enough to assign a penalty kick to Mario Gomez, but by that point Robben had already shot one himself. He took over the third one himself again. Straight-backed and looking stiff as a brush, Robben strutted across the field behaving as if the ball belonged to him, though everyone else could borrow it once in a while. It's behavior reminiscent of children playing at the schoolyard, and somehow Robben hasn't moved beyond that.
He is an imposition for the other players at Bayern Munich. In a game against Werder Bremen in January 2011, Robben shot one of his free kicks high above the goal. This prompted fellow player Thomas Müller to make a dismissive gesture with his hand. After the game, Robben went up to Müller and practically choked him. Because of his many solo efforts, Robben's nickname on the team is "Aleinikov" (Alone-ikov).
In the first-leg of the semi-final against Real Madrid, Franck Ribéry probably made some of his fellow players secretly happy when he punched Robben's face during half time. There had been yet another argument over a free kick. In one of the most important games of the season, two stars ended up fighting in the locker room. This shows how far things can go with Robben. For him, a fellow team member is the first opponent he has to eliminate.
Another argument against him is that he plays dirty. He's never above a dive in the penalty box, looking around afterwards with heart-wrenching distress, as though someone had just inflicted a serious injustice on Bambi. When he is fouled, he always seems to be in great pain, and he relishes showing it. English daily The Guardian wrote that Robben is the only player who can make his opponents see the red card even before kickoff -- for unnecessary aggression while shaking hands.
Another argument against him is that one often sees very little of him. He hangs around the boundary line, skipping in that grotesque way he uses to indicate that he expects the ball, and then starts running and gets stuck on his first opponent.
Another argument against him is that he messes up any system a coach can come up with by doing exactly as he pleases. Because he gets the ball often, in part because no one can stand his constant scowl, he determines how the game is played. This is typical Robben: He rushes along the right boundary line, hooks to the left, rushes to the inside and searches for an opening to make a shot, all without paying any attention to available fellow players. It's about as mysterious as a TV chef's recipe. Borussia Dortmund got used to it a long time ago and now seals off its right wing. Bayern has lost against Dortmund four times in a row, and it had to cede the championship title to Dortmund twice in a row too.
In short, Robben is a disaster for FC Bayern Munich and its fans. Nevertheless, they extended his contract until 2015 this week.
Dutch Diva School
The Bavarians initially signed him out of desperation. They dominated the German national league, the Bundesliga, in the 2000s, but after the triumph of 2001 they could no longer keep up in the Champions League. The club leadership, headed by Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, was under pressure to splurge on the transfer market. Until then, FC Bayern had been seen as a bank with a football department. The club bought up everyone on the German market who didn't have the reputation of being a poor player, but it lacked the confidence to approach world stars. In 2007, the Bavarians made their first attempt with Italian player Luca Toni and French player Franck Ribéry, but they still didn't manage to catch up with clubs like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United. Toni left Bayern Munich at the end of 2009, while Ribéry remained, scurrying along the left flank.
Robben was signed so that the Bavarians could apply pressure from both sides. Everyone already knew that he was a product of the Dutch diva school. It began with Johan Cruyff, and the tradition continued with Ruud Gullit, Edgar Davids and Rafael van der Vaart. Disharmony and bad attitudes have ruined many a tournament for the Dutch national team. Robben is part of this tradition.
Robben, born in the Dutch province of Groningen, where people are generally seen as bores, acquired his reputation as a diva at PSV Eindhoven, FC Chelsea and Real Madrid. He won national league championships with all of these clubs, but he was often injured and grumbled a lot. Nevertheless, he still had the reputation of being a world-class player.
The father of three children, Robben is a player with irrepressible ambition. At Bayern Munich's training camp in Qatar in early January, he was the fiercest player of all. He treated every training session as if it were the real thing. You could almost hear the air hissing when he sliced through it with his steeply positioned hands while sprinting. He is a true athlete. His upper body is so hard and straight that one could play board games on it. During training games Robben went so far as to make satisfied gestures when he had duped an opponent -- that is, a fellow team member. Perhaps Ribéry was already thinking to himself that Robben had it coming.
On one occasion in Qatar, four women were standing at the edge of the playing field. They were wearing abayas, with only their eyes visible. They looked like solemn black columns, but they came to life the minute Robben took control of the ball, shouting his name and cheering when he dribbled successfully. No other player excited them as much as he did.
Among the Best
This is why there are also many arguments in favor of Arjen Robben. They include the fact that he can be an outstanding player, and that he sometimes takes off along the boundary line, rounds an opponent, then a second one, and then shoots a hook to the left, rushes to the inside, quickly dispatches a third opponent, sees an opening and shoots. And when he scores, it becomes one of those moments of ecstasy that make soccer a divine game. Out of huffiness Robben can conjure up moments of pure beauty. Now who else can do that, either in soccer or in real life?
At such moments, the long list of his faults is suddenly forgotten. Despite the fact that Robben often behaves poorly, in his best moments he is one of soccer's greatest players. He was Germany's player of the year in the 2009/2010 season. Even people who love listening to a song about pulling off the Bavarians' lederhosen admit that they like watching Bayern Munich games, now that Robben and Ribéry are doing their magic.
It's a nice punch line that the Bavarians are now dependent on Robben the diva and Ribéry the rogue. They were long seen as cold and calculating, using money and results-oriented soccer to anger and lay waste to the German soccer scene. Now they've invested their money in spectacle, and they have become the object of schadenfreude as a result.
Borussia Dortmund has overtaken them in the league. Borussia doesn't place its bets on world-class stars, but on a team of nice, rosy-cheeked young men who constantly insist that Dortmund is a wonderful city and dutifully blend into the black-and-yellow sect worshipped by coach Jürgen Klopp. The Dortmunders aspire to a transition of power. They have a plan, a solid and well thought-out plan, and they dominate the Bundesliga with their consistency. In Europe, however, they have made fools of themselves this season.
In the three years since Robben has been part of the team, FC Bayern has made it into the Champions League final twice. This season, Bayern has surpassed FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. Bayern is a top European team, as volatile as its world stars, overwrought but consistently overwhelming, thanks to Robben. It's pointless to speculate whether Bayern Munich would be better off without him. He's there, and he is the best disaster that could have happened to the Bavarians.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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