He's loved by some and hated by others but, writes Alima Hotakie, you can't take anything away from the Bayern Munich winger's strength of character...
For many, Arjen Robben had blown the biggest chances of his footballing career when he choked in 2010 and 2012. While few denied his exceptional abilities, he just wasn't a player meant to execute them on the big stage.
But the Netherlands international's transformation in the last two years has been nothing short of remarkable; from bottler to match-winner, Robben has completed a 180-degree turn.
While the 30-year-old winger is familiar with the cyclical nature of the sport, he does admit it is not easy getting used to. “Football is very opportunistic,” he said. “You are at the very top, and the next day at the very bottom. I have known that for years but it's still always odd and unpleasant.”
Robben's pitfalls are all the more obvious as they were exposed on football's biggest stages. In the World Cup final against Spain four years ago, he spurned a glorious one-on-one against Iker Casillas with the score goalless after an hour.
Two years later he failed to convert an extra-time penalty against Chelsea that could have sealed victory for Bayern in the Champions League final. That, after his late missed spot-kick against Borussia Dortmund with the Bundesliga title on the line in the spring of that campaign.
Better with age
In sport, forgetting is always harder than forgiving. Robben knows these events will always remain with him. “That somehow stays in your head your entire life,” he admitted. “I still have a few more years as a footballer. But then you look back at your long career and these are natural moments that you'll always remember.”
Although these episodes shaped Robben, what's remarkable is that he never let them define or break him. The Bayern man had other plans – the best was yet to come. While he couldn't control his fate, he could control how he reacted.
Only a year after his high-profile failures, he scored the winning goal against Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final. A season later he netted the decisive extra-time goal against the same opposition in the German Cup final.
It's not like he was rolling out new tricks, though, instead simply doing what he always does best: pacy runs down the flank, escaping a handful of defenders, cutting in and finally shooting (preferably with his left foot). Only this time the results were, and still are, different.
Robben’s mental strength is partly to credit for his impressive turnaround. “In order to be able to play good football, you must have a clear head,” he claimed. “I have that again.”
Fun in the sun
He's transferred that to the World Cup in Brazil, where he has proven his value once again. The experienced wing man could possibly come out as the tournament's outstanding player, so crucial have been his contributions to the Oranje’s run to the semi-finals.
With three goals and an assist, the Bayern star has proved a constant menace for opposition teams. He's deadly on the counter, and the Netherlands’ dependence on him is undeniable. He has the speed and pace of a 20-year-old despite being a full decade older
Perhaps allowing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to take the penalty against Mexico in the quarter-finals could also signal a shift in his ego. Last season Robben wanted to take one during a Bundesliga match, only for Pep Guardiola to step in and instruct regular taker Thomas Muller to have it instead (who duly scored).
It didn't end there. Robben let his emotions spill over to a Champions League match when he stubbornly refused to take a penalty despite his manager and team-mates’ insistence. But even that pales in comparison to the confrontation between Robben and Franck Ribery two years ago in the Champions League semi-final, when a free-kick dispute led to the Frenchman punching him in the changing room at half-time.
Despite his recent success, he continues to have his sceptics. Many thought he wouldn’t last under Guardiola, but he has developed into one of the Spaniard’s pivotal players.
Not for the first time have people written him off, however: at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho felt the winger was too injury prone and eventually showed little conviction in his abilities. His stint with Real Madrid didn't go much better, and he was forced out.
Robben never blamed himself for not succeeding at these clubs. He knew his worth, and while it took time and a few different clubs, the pieces finally fell together.
He once admitted that he has always been an overachiever. It's that personality that often means he comes across as egotistic and selfish, but it's also the driving force that will change how he'll be remembered. The Dutchman will always remain a polarising figure for his theatrics, but has at least shed his bottler tag.
Now it's hard to believe Mourinho once claimed Robben lacked the drive and mental fortitude to win. The Portuguese's spokesman Eladio Parames said: “Jose has always said it. Arjen simply lacks character and the absolute will to win. After the smallest knock he could not play, so Jose had to let him go.”
But Mou was wrong, as were the others. If there's one quality Robben is not short of, it’s the will to win. The Dutchman is an exemplary model of reinvention.