During the closing minutes of Netherlands' final friendly before the World Cup, all was going well as they held a 6-1 lead against Hungary. In all the euphoria, Arjen Robben, who had scored twice in the 35 minutes he had played, tried a back-heel while going at full speed. A bad idea.
He keeled over with a painful grimace, reaching for his hamstring, which appeared to be pulled. With the expectation of a six-week recovery, South Africa looked to be a pipedream for him. However, a Dutch physio took a shortcut, and helped Robben become one of the stars of the World Cup knockout stages.
In August, the Bayern team doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, established from a scan that the hamstring had not healed properly and ruled him out for at least two months. Bayern blamed the Dutch FA and the physio for improper conduct. In the Netherlands, the medical world is firing back.
Arjen Robben is no stranger to injuries because of his explosive runs. When he hurt his hamstring in similar fashion in training for Real Madrid in November 2008, Rafael van der Vaart advised him to consult the 74-year-old physio Dick van Toorn in Rotterdam, who could speed up the healing process. Where Madrid medical staff gave Robben five weeks to return to fitness, Van Toorn managed it in two with his innovative methods. So when the winger was stretchered off in June, his first thoughts were to visit Van Toorn immediately.
Although Van Toorn is not a member of the Dutch FA's medical staff, he was given the go-ahead in the hope of a miracle. The physio said he could get Robben back to full fitness within a few weeks, having seen a scan of the hamstring at the Erasmus Hospital in Rotterdam. Meanwhile, other Dutch physios were discussing whether, looking at how Robben's movements were causing injury, the muscle could be healed not by rest but rather by intensive treatment. This was in agreement with Van Toorn's method and not such a miracle at all. Indeed, Robben returned as a substitute in Netherlands' last group game in South Africa against Cameroon and then played four intensive matches in the knockout phase, including a two-hour long final. The whole injury saga was long forgotten by the time the Dutch team received their silver World Cup medals on July 13th.
Robben then went for a two-week holiday to Curacao, where he did not kick anything more than a beach ball. Returning home fresh and fit, he went through a routine pre-season test and was diagnosed with a 5cm "hole" in his thigh muscle, forcing him to miss training for at least two months. "It's irresponsible this was not diagnosed accurately and he has played with it," the Bayern doctor said. "I offered several times to help with the diagnosis but did not receive a call."
Shocked by the unexpected setback of having to miss one of their star players for an extended period, the club made clear they would contact the Dutch FA to settle the matter financially. "We have in Muller-Wohlfahrt the best sports doctor in the world, with a success rate of 100%," Bayern president Uli Hoeness told Bild. "If Mr Van Toorn cannot recognise the injury then he should buy himself some glasses. It was negligent of the Dutch to let Robben play for even a single second at the World Cup. He played injured at the tournament and we are now paying the cost. That can surely not be right. We are demanding compensation."
Dutch national coach Bert van Marwijk was not pleased with this public rant. "We didn't take any risks with Arjen during the World Cup and discussed everything we did with the player himself," he said. "I'm convinced that he wasn't injured after the final against Spain. Oranje have absolutely nothing to do with this muscle injury. Someone with this kind of injury would have been unable to sprint like Arjen did deep into stoppage time. Bayern try to make the KNVB look bad and that's simply not right. In my opinion, the medical staff of the KNVB even deserves a compliment for their work at the 2010 World Cup."
After another two weeks' rest, Robben's injury now seems to have been aggravated: he is not expected to return in 2010. Robben himself is not commenting on the matter as he is positioned between a rock and hard place. He went for treatment to Dick van Toorn of his own accord in his pursuit to play the World Cup. He voluntarily played in the knockout phases and never complained about any pain during the tournament. Back at his club, he is now confronted with a doctor who declares him injured, according to medical scans. For Robben, it would be strange to tell the press that he feels fine as it would compromise a medical opinion from someone he will most likely have a relationship with for some years.
In an article in the respected Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad this weekend, Dr Jaap Swierstra, former head surgeon of the Mathijssen hospital in Utrecht, concentrated on the difference in perception between a physio and doctor. He describes the reputation of Dr Muller-Wohlfahrt in Germany as someone who has sold many books on the prevention of illnesses to people who fear old age. All the medicines he recommends in his books are made by a company owned by Muller-Wohlfahrt himself. His unproven solution in this case is to provide Robben with injections from the same firm, whereas Van Toorn's physiotherapeutic treatment with special exercises has provided many good results in the past. He also believes that Muller-Wohlfahrt has drawn his conclusions from the medical scans rather than direct contact with the patient. Swierstra says a rupture revealed by an MRI-scan does not necessarily mean that something is wrong.
His suggestion is that, rather than Robben's hamstring, the bulk of the bruising has been to the Bayern doctor's ego, as a result of their failure to consult him in June.