Franck Ribéry is back. Back to his world beating best. The nearly superstar is looking like a true hero once again, and it’s about time too.
If, hypothetically, there was an individual who watched Ribéry in 2007 and then fell into a four year long coma, to awake only at the start of this season, he or she would no doubt be most disappointed with the Frenchman’s apparent lack of progress in all that time. Except now he or she is beginning to sound like Darth Vader, so I’ll kill this tangent before it gets out of hand.
Suffice to say, Ribéry finally looks like the player he promised to be when he first joined Bayern, fresh off the back of his country’s bittersweet success in the 2006 World Cup. The precocious, fearless dribbling with which he achieved superstar status is now once again gracing the edges of Germany’s eighteen yard boxes in all its former glory.
So what happened in between? Why did the Franck Ribéry of four years ago suddenly go away, only to return, happy as ever, many moons later?
The answer to that question, by Ribéry’s own admission, is the simultaneous appearance of Louis van Gaal. In a recent kicker interview, FC Bayern’s French winger conceded that he has never been happier at Bayern, and asserted that his torrid form in recent years was a result of his equally rocky relationship with his former manager.
One must have some sympathy with the Frenchman in this regard. The combination of his temperament and his ability were always going to render Ribéry something of a volatile squad member, and that he did not suit van Gaal’s particular brand of my way or the highway is hardly surprising to hear. Last January, when he made his return against Wolfsburg, Ribéry’s lack of inspiration on the pitch was marked. Compare that player, and indeed the player who was so outshone by Arjen Robben in 2010, to the one gracing the Allianz Arena touchlines now, and it is clear to see that the pro-Heynckes lyrical that Ribéry is waxing is a little more than basic diplomacy.
In the aftermath of last season, and the superb form that Bayern are currently in, though, it is all too easy to lay the blame for Ribéry’s temporary demise squarely on van Gaal’s shoulders. It is only after serious reflection that one comes to realise how much it is possible to miss van Gaal. For all his efficiency, Heynckes does not bring the same chinless, square-headed charm to the Bayern soap opera. And, more seriously, we forget that despite its messy end, the van Gaal era was not a disaster for Bayern. Both in the Champions League and domestically in 2010, the „Bayern Oranje“ of Louis van Gaal proved time and again the character he clearly instilled in the team. That Ribéry didn’t fully buy into this character was arguably as much his own fault as it was his manager’s.
After all, it is all well and good that Ribéry is happy and confident and back to his boisterous self again, but doesn’t it just betray a distinct element of fickleness? Was Ribéry really stunted by van Gaal’s attitude, or was he simply stamping his feet and shouting, because the conditions (namely having Lahm on the right) weren’t just right for him?
It was, ironically, a careless stamp of the foot which rather summed up the Ribéry-van Gaal rollercoaster. In the semi-final against Lyon, Ribéry earned himself a needless red card, thereby missing the final and vastly reducing his manager’s chances of becoming the first Bayern coach ever to secure a treble.
Van Gaal, moreover, cannot be blamed for the many other factors which have blighted Ribéry’s career development over the past few years. Injuries, sex scandals and just about every other cliché you could squeeze from a modern footballer have been equally to blame for holding him back.
There is no doubt that Franck Ribéry is better this season than he has looked for a while, and that that will do Bayern no end of good. The fact that he needed a complete overhaul of the training team to regain his “happiness”, however, is probably why he will never become the great player that our hypothetical Sith Lord predicted him to be in 2007. Such a fickle, capricious attitude to giving one’s all reminds one less of the Pelés, Cruyffs and Beckenbauers of football history, and more of the antics of one silly Argentine called Carlos at the Allianz last night. Don’t say you ain’t been warned, Bayern.