For Arjen Robben, it was the moment he feared would never come. Nineteen days after pulling up with an injury that looked like wrecking his FIFA World Cup™, the Netherlands winger finally stepped on to South African turf, a cacophony of cheers and vuvuzelas ringing triumphantly in his ears.
The crowd’s reaction to Robben’s return said it all. By the hero’s welcome and acclaim they afforded his every touch, neutrals and partisans alike acknowledged the presence of a special player very nearly denied to Africa’s first FIFA World Cup. Yet no-one was happier at Robben’s return than the player himself. For the Bayern Munich star, tonight was the reward for almost three weeks of tireless toil to accelerate the healing process, although he admitted that the experience had been worth every second of sacrifice.
“I’m very, very happy,” he told FIFA. “I think you know how hard I worked for this, so to be out there tonight was very special for me. It was a great experience and a big pleasure to be part of the World Cup. I felt fully recovered and ready to play in this match and, out there on the pitch, the hamstring felt fine. So I’m ready to play my part going forward.”
If there were any lingering doubts on that score, Robben erased them in emphatic style with a trademark contribution to the Netherlands’ winning goal. Rigobert Song must have known exactly what was coming when the Oranje substitute cut inside from the right on one of his inimitable darting runs, but like so many defenders this season, the veteran Cameroon centre-half was powerless to stop him. The result was a stunning left-foot shot that crashed off the inside of the post, leaving Klaas Jan Huntelaar with the goal at his mercy – and Robben with mixed feelings.
“It’s a pity my shot didn’t go in,” he said. “But, honestly, I was happy to have played a big role in us scoring the winner. It was a nice feeling to play my part after missing the first two games.”
For all the Netherlands’ success during an unblemished Group E campaign, it is clear that Robben has been an uneasy spectator, with Bert van Marwijk left to guard against the winger rushing his return to action. Nonetheless, having come through his opening test with flying colours, the Oranje No11 is a man in a hurry. A starting place is his next objective, and the first opportunity to claim that will come when the Dutch return to Durban for a last-16 tie against the team who shocked everyone today by ousting the world champions.
“Maybe that was a surprise to people but, look, Slovakia are a very good team,” Robben said. “They have proved that before and now they have proved it again here. Plus, it’s been shown so often before that these so-called smaller nations are not so small in football terms anymore. Slovakia have earned everyone’s respect and, in our dressing room, there is no way we will be underestimating anyone. We made it clear at the start that we would be taking this tournament one challenge at a time, and now we will focus on Slovakia and Slovakia alone. I’m already looking forward to it.”
Whether Slovakia will feel the same way about facing a resurgent Robben is another matter entirely.