What A Difference A Year Makes: Robben’s Redemption

Take yourself back to the late evening of 19th May 2012, and you would have seen a dejected and forlorn figure wearing the number ten shirt of FC Bayern München following their heartbreaking Champions’ League final defeat against Chelsea. This same player would then be roundly jeered by his own team’s own supporters during a friendly match at the Allianz Arena just three days later.

That player would be Arjen Robben, and the friendly match would pit FC Bayern against his countrymen from the Netherlands. From the barracking that took place, one might have thought that Robben would have been playing for the Oranje rather than sporting the red Trikot of the home side: seemingly unloved and unwanted, he was clearly going to be looking for a new club come the start of the 2012-13 season.

Now roll forward a year to the late evening of 25th May 2013. The same man, the same number ten shirt, now in a completely different world. Football is a game that at times can be so cruel, but the counterpoint is that is can be so wonderful as well.

When Bayern faced Chelsea in the 2012 Champions’ League final, they would be looking at securing a trophy double. The Bundesliga title had already gone west to rivals Borussia Dortmund, but there was hope that Die Roten would take home at least one of the cup trophies: the one known as “Old Big Ears”. On familiar ground at the Allianz Arena against a Chelsea side that had bitten, clawed and scraped its way into the showpiece event, Bayern would start the match as massive favourites.

The first half would see the Bavarians on top, but no goal would come to give Bayern’s aching supporters the relief they craved. The second half would be much the same, with the red shirts rampant and their opponents unable to even win a corner at the other end. Finally, in the eighty-third minute, a roar could be heard across all of Munich as local hero Thomas Müller would steal in at the far post to nod a header down and past ‘keeper Petr Čech.

It looked as if the waiting was finally over, and that eleven years after their last Champions’ League victory, that famous trophy would be coming “Hoam” to Munich.

It was not to be. Müller was substituted and coach Jupp Heynckes adjusted the lineup to defend his team’s slender advantage – which simply allowed Chelsea to chase the game and have what would probably be their most successful period inside the Bayern half.

With two minutes left on the clock, the Blues would win their first corner out on the right, and their was almost an inevitability about the whole scene as Didier Drogba would rise up above the red shirted defence to power a header into the roof of the net past the hitherto untested Manuel Neuer.

From nowhere, Chelsea had managed to breach the red defence and had taken the game into extra time. Yet somehow, Bayern would manage to pick themselves up, regroup and start again. Just three minutes into the additional half an hour, the nippy Franck Ribéry would be upended in the box – and Portuguese referee Pedro Proença would point to the spot.

Now the drama would twist and turn yet again. Most Bayern fans would have looked to midfield stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger to step up to take the kick, but there would be no sign of him. This was a man who had taken penalties for the national side and who had netted the crucial Elfmeter in the semi-final shootout victory against Real Madrid. Then there would be Mario Gómez, a decent enough penalty taker, but at the same time rather shaky.

The man who would eventually step up would be Robben, a player often seen by his own fans as egotistical, lazy, and something of a prima donna – and by opponents as a consummate diver and drama queen. A naturally gifted but selfish player who would choose to make a run down the right and cut inside, eschewing the easy pass to a team-mate in open space only to launch the ball skyward into Row Z.

Just weeks earlier, Bayern would be playing Dortmund in what would be seen as a make-or-break Bundesliga fixture at the Westfalenstadion. A Dortmund win would more or less settle matters in favour of Die Borussen, but a win for the Bavarians or even a draw would continue to keep things interesting.

Trailing by a single goal with just four minutes left on the clock, Bayern would win a last-ditch penalty, which Robben would roll into the grateful arms of BVB ‘keeper Roman Weidenfeller. The defeat would put Die Roten six points being their rivals with just four games remaining.

Now a month later here he was again, this time in Europe’s biggest footballing showpiece against the formidable Čech in his trademark protective headgear. Surely it couldn’t happen again? Fate would not be smiling on Bayern that night, and for all their dominance they would never manage to make that leap. Robben’s kick was weak, and the Chelsea ‘keeper did the rest. It was almost a carbon copy of his kick against Dortmund: in a flash, the chance had gone.

The game would roll to the inevitable Elfmeterschießen. Robben, his nerves now completely shot to pieces, would not even be selected among the first five players to take a spot-kick, which included ‘keeper Neuer. After a successful opening three kicks, Ivica Olic and then the hitherto reliable Schweinsteiger would both fail to add to Bayern’s tally. It would then be Drogba who would roll the ball smartly past Neuer to spoil the home side’s party, and send all of Munich into footballing purgatory.

Schweinsteiger would be the man who had missed the crucial kick in the shootout, but the chagrin of the fans would be reserved for the man who in their eyes should have decided things long before then: Arjen Robben.

Bayern would end the season trophyless, and the Dutchman would be seen by a number of fans and followers of the club as the pantomime villain. He might have delivered spectacular goals, but for some he just had to go.

The 2012-13 season would begin with Robben as something of a fringe player, with youngster Toni Kroos being given a permanent berth in Bayern’s powerful and highly talented midfield. New signings had been made, and the new defensive midfield partnership of Schweinsteiger and Spanish international Javi Martínez would be supporting an attacking trio consisting of Ribéry, Kroos and Müller.

There would be no space for Robben, whose appearances would now range from the fleeting to the meaningless, from ten-minute walk-ons through to appearances in games that hardly mattered. The player would often show his indignation, but nobody wanted to know. The team was destroying everything in its path, and the fact that the mercurial and highly sensitive Dutchman was now consigned to the bench made little difference to many of those in the Südkurve. Kroos was the main man now.

As is usually the case in any footballing fairytale, however, things would once again be decided by a cruel twist of fate. Cruel for Kroos, who in the opening minutes of the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Juventus would be forced off the field through injury.

On would come Robben, who from the start looked like a different man. Yes, there was the odd dive. Yes, there were the distinctive cuts inside followed by the sight of the ball ballooning over the crossbar and high into the crowd. But this was a different Robben. A serious Robben.

A Robben who felt he had something to offer the team, and moreover something to prove.

Bayern would completely dominate the Italian champions to register a 2-0 win at the Allianz, and for many Robben would be the man of the match. His arrival had injected an energy and urgency into Bayern’s play, an energy that had been the crucial difference between the two sides.

With Kroos now out for the rest of the season, the chance had come for Robben to show what all the fuss was about – not just for his detractors among the Bayern faithful, but to himself. Here was a man who been a finalist for both club and country, and would have nothing to show for it; one will always remain unsure how things came about, but something would finally click inside his head that to relieve himself of this unwanted “loser” tag, he would have to do more than just be himself.

In what would be the final piece of Heynckes’ Bayern jigsaw, both Robben and Ribéry – the wing partnership known collectively as “Robbéry” – would be transformed into team players. The petulance would be wound down, the selfishness would be transformed into a willingness to win back the lost ball and help out the defence, and that hit and hope would now occasionally turn into a smart pass back or inside.

In defeating 2011 champions and perennial favourites Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in their Champions’ League semi-final, Bayern would demolish one of the greatest sides in the modern game with ease of a cat nonchalantly swatting a moth. Robben would play a crucial part in both games, providing a neat finish in the first game and scoring a trademark left-footed curler in the second which would effectively kill off the tie as a contest.
He was back, but not quite there yet.

Die Roten would be through to their third Champions’ League final in four years, and the time had come for them to finally win that fifth title; for Arjen Robben, it had become what was surely his final chance for redemption in an FC Bayern Trikot. Had fate taken another turn he may not have even been in the starting lineup, but when the team exited the tunnel at Wembley he would have one last opportunity to exorcise the demons of 2012.

Bayern’s opponents would be none other than Bundesliga rivals Borussia Dortmund, but this time the omens would be good for both Bayern and Robben. The Bavarians – already Bundesliga champions by a massive distance – had been unbeaten in their last four matches against Jürgen Klopp’s much-praised and highly fashionable outfit, including a win in the DFB-Pokal quarter-final – tight encounter that would ultimately be settled by a delicious long-range effort from the Dutch international.

In front of an 80,000 plus crowd at Wembley the team from the Ruhrgebiet would begin brightly, but as the game went on Bayern would gradually start to assert themselves and establish their dominance. Robben would be right in the thick of the action, and having collected a neat pass down the left from Ribéry it would be he who would set up Croatian striker Mario Mandžukić for the opener.

All looked set for Bayern to finally get that elusive win, until big-haired Brazilian centre-back Dante clumsily upended Dortmund’s sprightly Marco Reus in the box – resulting in a penalty that would be elegantly dispatched by İlkay Gündoğan. As Dortmund looked to have caught a second wind, it looked as though it would be another one of those long and horrible European final nights that had become somewhat familiar to us fans of FC Bayern.

The chances came and went, particularly for Robben. The first half had seen him foiled twice by Weidenfeller – the second shot hitting the ‘keeper square in the face – and in what was an agonising moment just minutes after Dortmund’s equalizer the Dutchman would charge in towards a teasing Müller cross only to be beaten at the left post by a sliding Neven Subotić.

The Serb’s challenge has been perfectly timed and wonderfully executed, but the questions would still be asked of the Dutchman. Could he have chased harder? Should he have committed himself and lunged towards the ball? His critics would now have been shouting louder than ever.

While watching the match from a hotel lobby some 150 kilometres south of Barcelona – oh, the irony of it all – I would receive a message on Facebook from a fellow fan, whom I had met the previous year in Munich. Not one of Robben’s biggest fans, he demanded that Heynckes get that “pansy ass Dutchman” off the field.

I responded almost immediately. “Fate has decided that he will score the winner. It just has to be”.

Now I am not a massive believer in omens nor the twisting turns of fate, but I believed in Arjen Robben. I believed that he had something, if just one more thing, to give.

With a minute of normal time left on the clock a backheeled pass from Franck Ribéry would somehow thread its way through a mass of yellow and black shirts. There to collect would be the inevitable Robben, who would daintily skip over the outstretched leg of Mats Hummels and evade a badly mistimed lunge by Subotić to leave himself one on one with the imposing Weidenfeller.

He would have less than a second to make his decision, but to those of us watching it would feel like an eternity. Would he play it against the ‘keeper, or scuff the chance entirely? Will he try and have a go with his less-favoured right foot? All of the possible scenarios and more would have flashed past to all Bayern fans as the bald-headed Dutchman prepared to set himself up.

Finally it came: a slightly scuffed finish with the inside of his left foot that rolled past the prostrate Weidenfeller and into the bottom right hand corner of the net. Bayern were back in front, and there would be no way back for Dortmund now. The lessons of 2012 had surely been learned.

As Robben wheeled away in celebration with his team mates in tow, the relief was palpable. In that moment, all of the pain had been swept away and the that mix of relief and pure elation would be etched upon the Dutchman’s face. When the final whistle blew to signal the end of the match and Bayern’s fifth European Cup title, the tears would flow. One of the most lachrimose would be Robben.

Just a year earlier, Robben had seen himself being criticised by not only fans but also the likes of Franz Beckenbauer. He would be involved in on-field arguments with Thomas Müller and even feel the force of Franck Ribéry’s fist in the dressing room. What a difference a year makes.

No longer a “loser” or a “choker”, Arjen Robben would finally be redeemed. One could not have written the script any better.

Header picture courtesy of Bayern’s Facebook page.

The following two tabs change content below.
London-based but with his heart firmly in Fröttmaning, Rick Joshua's love of German football goes back more than thirty years and has witnessed everything from the pain of Spain '82 and the glory of Italia '90 to the sheer desolation of Euro 2000. This has all been encapsulated in the encyclopaedic Schwarz und Weiß website and blog, which at some three hundred or so pages is still not complete. Should you wish to disturb him, you can get in touch with Rick on Twitter @fussballchef. This carries a double meaning, as he can prepare a mean Obazda too.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.