It’s particularly odd when you consider the kind of footballer that he is. Fleet footed, generally playing on the wing, darting at and beyond defenders, unleashing crosses and shots at goal and generally causing mayhem among opposition backlines wherever he has gone. When the ball is at his feet, excitement is rarely far away and yet, and yet…
When people talk about the greats of the modern era, Robben is rarely mentioned by the cognoscenti. Sure, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are out there at the head of the pack, the gloriously eccentric Zlatan Ibrahimovic places himself in and around that company with both his extravagant performances and his gnomic pronouncements. But while Franck Ribery has forced himself into that company in the last couple of years, Robben has never quite followed him into that particularly distant part of the cosmos where the Gods are busy necking back the honeydew.
In part, perhaps it’s the look of the man. There’s something of the Albert Steptoe about him, an air that makes him resemble a pensioner on wheels, some kind of drawback in an era where the big three have a trace of the matinee idol about them. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge as Ribery’s recent elevation has illustrated, so it cannot be the only issue. His appearance is barely helped by the remarkably tight shirts that he insists on wearing, tops that appear to be sprayed on. I suspect that it’s their very tightness around the nipple – and God alone knows just how tight his garments around the gentleman’s area must be – that causes Robben to have that peculiar relationship with gravity that might well be the one issue that keeps him away from the pantheon. Such serious chafing as must occur must put intense strain upon his body which surely explains why he falls over such a lot.It is that which makes Robben such a hard player to warm to, though let us recognise that Ronaldo is every bit as quick to make a swift acquaintance with the turf when he sees the chance. But where Ronaldo can swiftly acquire our forgiveness by doing something utterly impossible, great player that Robben is, he does not have that gift for redemption.
His petulance is always something that is peculiarly unappealing to many too, though again, he is not alone on that front. His willingness to wave the imaginary card at transgressor who have waved in his general direction is an unedifying spectacle and one that detracts from his general play.
That’s a real pity because with the ball at his feet, he is a genuine treat to watch, a player who can ignite excitement in a stadium in the blink of an eye and who can transform defence to attack in a similar twinkling. At his best, Robben is a throwback to a glorious age, one of width, of pace, of wingers with pace and trickery being the key figures in teams that are willing to take the game to the opposition.
While Bayern Munich have carried all before them at home and abroad in the last couple of seasons, where Ribery, Neuer and Schweinsteiger have been the ones most often picked out by the media, it is Robben as much as anyone who has been at the core of their success. He is the one who can provide an outlet, he is the one that can press the opposition deeper and deeper into their half, he is the one that can spring the most steadfast of defences by the simple expedient of express pace and padlock control of the ball, an ability as old as the game itself.
Robben is, without doubt, one of the most exciting sights in world football and should be lauded as such……As long as he’s on his feet.
Now @awaycolours invites you to watch this in neutrality – we dare you…
© Nigel Molesworth 2014