The brilliant but often fragile winger Arjen Robben travels to South Africa on the back of his most prolific campaign in club football, having fitted in superbly with the likes of Franck Ribery during his maiden season with Bayern Munich. He has quickly won himself a place in the hearts of the Bundesliga side’s fans, most notably earning rousing applause from the supporters present at training the day after his hat-trick against Hannover. Even the typically taciturn Bayern coach Louis van Gaal has singled out his compatriot for praise, acknowledging Robben’s huge impact on his team’s style. “I get pleasure from watching him play,” said the Dutchman earlier this year.
Now 26, the former Real Madrid player has lit up both Germany’s top division and the UEFA Champions League with goals that have proved as decisive as they have been spectacular, such as his stunning strike at Old Trafford in the quarter-final second leg of Europe’s most prestigious club tournament. “We have several major weapons, but he tries a lot of things and makes them work,” said Daniel Van Buyten. As for iconic former Bayern left-back Bixente Lizarazu, he was moved to compare the Oranje stalwart with Lionel Messi in mid-April. “He scores similar goals to Messi; he seems to float,” he explained. Taking up the theme, German television pundits have likewise delighted in pinpointing similarities between Robben’s strikes and those of Barcelona’s Argentinian wizard.
Signed from Real Madrid for €25m last summer, the pacy wide player has proved a scintillating success in Bavaria, despite having ended 2008/09 hoping to establish himself in the Spanish capital and finally justify his €36m price tag. Now enjoying perhaps the form of his career, he travels to South Africa as one part of an exciting quartet of talents – along with Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart – that could lead the Netherlands to a historic first ever FIFA World Cup™ title.
That prospect must have seemed a long way off to the Bedum native when he took his first steps in the game with Groningen. After making his Eredivisie debut in 2000 he was voted the club’s player of the year at the end of the season. He hit the heights again in 2001/02 and secured a transfer to PSV Eindhoven at the age of 18 in summer 2002, instantly finding his feet at the Philips Stadion where he finished PSV’s joint top scorer for 2002/03 along with Serbian striker Mateja Kezman. Nicknamed ‘Batman and Robin’, the duo helped the club win the Dutch title that term, but trouble lay ahead for Robben as fitness problems threatened his progress for the first time the following year.
Despite some under-par displays in that campaign, Chelsea remained convinced of his potential and brought the then 20-year-old on board in 2004, but even before his new adventure could begin he was sidelined with a pre-season injury to his right foot. His Premier League introduction was delayed until November, yet Robben bounced back in style and went on to win a nomination for Young Player of the Year. Wayne Rooney collected that particular plaudit, but Robben could content himself with a league winner’s medal and six goals from 18 games. He also secured himself a starting place in Jose Mourinho’s favoured line-up the following year as the Blues clinched another championship crown, though the Dutchman was criticised in some quarters for his perceived penchant for simulation.
Similarly effective at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the domestic season that followed was far less fulfilling, with Robben relegated to the Chelsea bench and held back by a series of niggling injuries. It was to prove his final campaign in west London as Real Madrid swooped for his services in summer 2007, marking the start of another tussle to win over new employers. Robben seduced the Santiago Bernabeu faithful with his early performances in Spain, but was never really able to demonstrate his worth on a consistent basis and plundered just two goals from 25 appearances in his first season. He then registered seven strikes in 2008/09 and failed to take the Champions League by the scruff of the neck, despite Los Merengues’ obvious desperation to succeed in Europe. Ultimately, though, it was injury that once again scuppered his best efforts, just as his talent was starting to shine and the Madrid press began citing a 'Robben dependence' at the club.
An international at Under-17, U-19 and U-20 level, Robben took part in the 2001 FIFA U-20 World Cup before being handed his first senior cap on 30 April 2003. He scored the Netherlands’ decisive penalty in their shoot-out with Sweden in the quarter-finals at UEFA EURO 2004 and won two Man of the Match awards, against Serbia-Montenegro and Côte d’Ivoire, in Germany two years later. Only seven players had achieved that feat before him.