A soloist in the land of Total Football
In 2001, a Dutch youth team made the long flight to South America for a brief run at the under-20 World Cup in Argentina. The Dutch coach -- a gangling, flat-faced former schoolmaster named Louis van Gaal -- was not the type to praise individual talent. He preferred what he called, with his favourite Dutch word, the "collectief" but the youngest kid in his squad, a 17-year-old with knock-knee from some northern Dutch village, imprinted himself on van Gaal's mind. The coach admitted he had "never seen as big a talent" as Arjen Robben.
Van Gaal and Robben are about to return to South America, this time for the real World Cup in Brazil. Robben, now 30, has probably justified van Gaal's early judgment, yet his career hasn't been easy. It's been his curse to be a soloist in a nation that worships the collectief. Only now have the Dutch finally accepted his soloism. In fact, in Brazil it will be their best hope.
Robben isn't really a "Dutch" player. He was born in Bedum in the windswept northern Netherlands, 60 kilometers from the German border. Hardly any great Dutch players have come from the north; none from Bedum. Previously the village was known only for its leaning church tower, which locals boast is more skewed than Pisa's in Italy. VV Bedum, the local soccer club, had nothing to teach Robben. This was probably good for him.
Robben rose to prominence amid a golden Dutch generation. He, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie were all born in 1983 or 1984. But while the others learned the complex geometric exercises that constitute Dutch "total football," for years the villager just dribbled down the wing. Robben is a natural. Nobody taught him. Even when kicking a balloon before he could walk, he always hit it just so.
Had he been raised in the west of the country, the dribble would have been coached out of him. I grew up playing in the Netherlands, and still remember the cry that used to rise when any kid dared run with the ball: "Niet pingelen!" ("Don't dribble!") Dutch soccer has always been about the geometric beauty of triangles. Even Dutch 8-year-olds know that the ball moves faster than the man.
As an untutored genius from the sticks, Robben missed out on all of that. He also missed out on some other basic skills: Not only does he lack an eye for the pass, but he has barely headed the ball in his life. After nodding in a goal against Uruguay in the semifinal of the last World Cup, he ran away laughing and slapping his forehead in amazement.
This bald, bony little man -- a sort of Charlie Chaplin in shorts -- has the perfect dribbler's body. His thin knock-kneed legs are part of his genius: He can shuffle and accelerate so fast that even when defenders spot his feint, they cannot react in time. Hence his simple method. He almost always does the same thing: He gets the ball on his left foot on the right wing, cuts diagonally inside past defenders and fires low into the corner of the net. Everyone knows what he wants to do, and yet he generally manages to do it.
Van der Vaart, a teammate of Robben's at that youth World Cup in 2001, says, "When you watch, you think, 'Why doesn't the defender take the ball off his feet?' But he is so quick and strong on the ball, that you almost always come too late."
In 2010, Robben's solos very nearly made Holland world champions. Sixty-two minutes into the final in Johannesburg, he appeared alone in front of Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Robben feinted, sent Casillas the wrong way and then side-footed the ball toward the inside side-netting of the Spanish goal. That was the World Cup right there. But Casillas, while going to his left, somehow stuck out a foot to his right and diverted the ball with his studs. Robben covered his mouth, looking as if he'd seen a ghost. "That missed chance has become a film in my head, one that I keep playing over and over again," he said months later.
Still, he had taken 10 geometrically passing teammates to within about two inches of the gold trophy. Soccer had changed in his favor. Modern defenses are now so tight that it takes a great dribbler to tear them apart.
Yet his teammates don't always thank him for it. As a person, Robben is inoffensive, a polite nerd with a nasal northern accent who still often uses the polite form of address in Dutch language, which has almost died out in today's Netherlands. He isn't a cocky city boy like Sneijder or van Persie, yet there's always been a Dutch suspicion of Robben. In a nation obsessed with tactiek, here's a man who seems to play without tactics. To quote his admirer Johan Cruyff, the father of Dutch soccer: "A team consists of 10 players and an outside-left."
Van Persie, who has spent more than a decade in the Netherland's youth and senior teams waiting for Robben to pass, said back in 2006, "Sometimes he makes choices that are good for himself, but not the team." Over the years many of Robben's teammates must have wanted to punch him, although Franck Ribery was probably the only one who actually did, during a reported halftime row in Bayern Munich's locker room in 2012.
Just around then Robben's career was hitting a nadir; even he started to doubt his own method. He'd missed a crucial penalty for Bayern in the last minute of a league game against the eventual German champions, Borussia Dortmund, and then another in the lost Champions League final against Chelsea. There followed a disastrous Euro 2012 with Holland. Robben had begun listening to the voices that said everyone now knew he just cut inside and shot, that he should really learn to pass. He began to think on the pitch, instead of playing on intuition.
And then he decided to shut out what people said. He would just keep cutting in and shooting. "I must become more egotistical again," he told the Dutch magazine Voetbal International at the start of the 2012-13 season. In the last game of that season, Bayern's Champions League final against Dortmund, he set up Mario Mandzukic's opening goal and then, in the 89th minute, scuffed home the winner himself and cried tears of joy. It was a huge relief, the moment he knew he'd had a good career. "I didn't want to be known as the player who only lost finals," he told Voetbal International. "As far as that goes, the stress is gone." Still, he admits he lacks the ability to savor prizes; he doesn't look back.
In Brazil, his job will pretty much be not to pass. "We must be realistic. There are teams that are better than us," he says. Van Gaal might still talk publicly about the collectief, but the coach knows his best hope this time is his northern soloist.