The enigmatic Dutchman has gone from contemplating retirement to firing Bayern Munich to an historic Treble and, despite numerous interested parties, is going nowhere
By Peter Staunton
Arjen Robben closed the 2012-13 season very differently to how he started it; with medals around his neck, his shoulders slumped no longer and his status as one of Bayern Munich’s key players re-established.
This summer, he could have the pick of clubs around the world if he wanted to leave Bayern. He does not.
Six months ago, though, and it was a very different story. This season has been a tumultuous journey for him; one played out initially against a backdrop of uncertainty and dismay, which developed gradually into one of success, satisfaction and stability.
In recent weeks, Robben – now a treble winner and having shed his ‘big-game choker’ tag in spectacular and definitive fashion – has been linked with a host of moves. Manchester City, Inter, Chelsea and Galatasaray have all shown an interest.
But despite all the speculation it is now overwhelmingly likely that the Dutchman will be around Sabener Strasse after the summer to partake in the Pep Guardiola era. “An adventurous and attacking coach who fits at a club that shows guts,” Robben told the Dutch media at the time of the former Barcelona coach’s announcement at Bayern. No fear there at the prospect of being shipped out, the talk of which manifested itself almost immediately upon the Spaniard’s unveiling in January.
However, a personal descent into woe, weariness and isolation at Bayern began long before that.
Jeered in pre-season by his own supporters for his shortcomings towards the climax of the crushingly underwhelming campaign prior, Robben was unceremoniously jettisoned from Bayern Munich’s first-team plans as Jupp Heynckes sought to revive a dejected group of players. “The players have to accept it,” the coach said. “Victories are the priority. I won’t be making many changes at the moment.”
Robben, through injury and a perceived susceptibility to pressure, was pushed right to the fringes at Bayern – and although he and the club always maintained that his future lay at the Allianz Arena, that did not stop talk of his potential departure for shores anew until recently. That despite the fact that a new three-year contract – one that been a while in the making – had been signed at Bayern by Robben earlier that summer in 2012.
It was a commendable display of solidarity from the club because no player exemplified more their 2011-12 travails than Robben.
“He will remain here forever,” president Uli Hoeness told AZ. Guilty of abject misses against Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and Chelsea in the Champions League final, the Dutchman was even finding allies in the dressing room hard to locate. He was “disrespected” on the field by Thomas Muller and punched by Franck Ribery.
His personal Euro 2012 campaign last summer with the Netherlands was a disaster; mocked as he was by an anonymous colleague delighting in schadenfreude. “Imagine how he would have arrived in Netherlands [if he had scored the winning Champions League final penalty]?,” the player told De Telegraaf. “He would have been even more arrogant and never passed the ball to other team-mates.”
Those accusations of selfishness and a lack of team ethic haunted him at Bayern too. Moreover, a series of niggling injuries towards the latter half of 2012 left him figuratively in the gutter. Robben was contemplating life as a footballing down-and-out.
Calling it quits all together was, incredibly, a possibility. “Retiring crossed my mind it because I was disappointed and frustrated that it’s taking this long before I can make my comeback,” he told Bild.
|THE VIEW FROM GERMANY
|“Robben was the most discussed player in Germany after the Champions League final. Many doubted his qualities in situations when it counted most. But he proved them all wrong: After he won Bayern the match against Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal, he was again the go-to-guy and scored the decisive goal.
Strangely this did not affect his image as you would expect it. Robben is in the public’s opinion still a candidate to leave the treble winners. People seriously doubt his style fits for Pep Guardiola. And even more important is that people doubt he will stay quiet if he is benched for a few matches in a row. You mustn’t forget that Robben was a substitute until Toni Kroos got injured.
One thing is certain – Arjen Robben is very expensive both in fee and in salary. Not many clubs could afford him and this makes a departure this summer even more unlikely.”
– Falko Bloeding | Goal Germany
A move from Bayern would have been a step down; an admission of inadequacy. Robben knew it. “I still have two years on my deal so why should I leave?,” he said in the run-up to the Champions League final.
Firm interest from Juventus and Galatasaray was knocked back. “Basically, I will not go to Turkey,” he told Dutch radio station 538. Nonetheless, Galatasaray chairman Unal Aysal has declared that he will try again next season.
Rumours of a move to Inter led the player to exasperatingly brand talk of his next destination as “insane”. He had a point to prove, a place to win back and trophies to win. And even if his performances on the pitch were dubious, he was at least contented in his personal life. “Munich is a great city,” he told TZ in November. “I have lived in many cities in Europe, but I have never felt this comfortable, and my wife and children love it as well.”
The autumn and winter was a chastening time for Robben. He searched his soul and tried to come up with a formula to become a better player. He made himself believe he belonged at Bayern. He made Bayern believe in him.
Then spring sprung.
An injury to Toni Kroos early in Bayern’s Champions League quarter-final first-leg tie against Juventus proved serendipitous for Robben who had one last shot at redemption in Bavaria. He seized it; he has not dropped out of the preferred line-up since. “It does not look so good for Kroos, but then that is better for me. It happens in football,” Robben told NOS after the 2-0 win.
Bayern won every match between then and the end of the season. He starred in the DFB-Pokal semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, curling the winner into the top corner. By the time the Champions League final rolled around, Robben was again a matchwinner; priceless. His two-leg performance against Barcelona in the aggregate 7-0 drew plaudits. After an assist and the late winner at Wembley he is now, startlingly, being mentioned as a contender for the Ballon d’Or.
The turnaround owes as much to the player’s own dedication as it does to fortune. “I didn’t want to be remembered in my career as a loser,” the treble-winner said after his decisive actions in Wembley.
Mario Gotze’s signing from Dortmund, one which “surprised” Robben, as well as a potential shift in tactics with the arrival of Guardiola will be the next challenges the Dutchman now needs to surmount. Don’t back against him.
“He will still be a Bayern player next season. That is a certainty,” sporting director Matthias Sammer told De Telegraaf.
There is no reason to think otherwise.
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