It's still hard to believe: Arjen Robben, known as arguably one of the most selfish players who has ever played in the national team of the Netherlands, gave away the exquisite opportunity to score the winning goal against Mexico. The powerful attacker gave the penalty opportunity to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. It is an image that marks the tremendous change Robben has made in his career; he now knows what a team needs most.
Only three years ago, that picture was different. Robben's chronic injuries, his selfishness and also his refusal to pick up defensive tasks excluded him from the ranks held by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world's best. The Netherlands ended that season with a trip to Brazil to meet the Canaries in a friendly. The game ended in a goalless draw. That wouldn't have happened if Robben had not been centered on his own scoring. At one point during the match, on one of his characteristic dribbles, Robben penetrated the Brazilian box. Robin van Persie saw this and got himself completely free, waiting for Robben to pass him the ball. It didn't happen. From a difficult angle Robben tried his luck. No goal.
"Unbelievable," Van Persie fumed to Dutch television after the game. "He saw me and he decided to take his own chance. I really can't imagine that I would have chosen to do the same." The then Arsenal, now Manchester United ace was right. It was unbelievable and another sign that Robben was top class, but not master class.
Robben heard the reproach of Van Persie and pleaded guilty.
It's not certain if that was the exact moment Robben became another player. He missed important penalties for Bayern Munich and was one of the players who contributed to the powerless performance of Oranje at the 2012 European championships in Poland and Ukraine. When coach Bert van Marwijk asked for more work in a match versus Portugal, Robben's answer was loud and clear: "Shut up."
Robben eventually did become stronger. First mostly known as the "man of glass," Robben now shook off injuries. After an enormous list of physical damage in the first 10 years of his career, he suffered only one last season. Not a muscle injury or a strain, but a deep flesh wound after a collision with FC Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz.
Robben became not only physically stronger, but also mentally. He was the decider in the Champions League final in 2013 and took in a natural way the co-leadership (with Robin van Persie) for the national team of the Netherlands. Robben chose the current World Cup as his peak moment to shine in front of the entire world -- but now with the knowledge that he needs his teammates, just as much as they need him.
It's not only his goals, his continuous threat for the opponent, his assists or his solo efforts that leave the opponent in constant despair. It's what he does for the group. After the 5-1 victory against Spain the first thing he said to his teammates was "we still have nothing." Instead of going for his own success, Robben has an eye for his comrades in Oranje. Robben even reached the point where he decided it would be wiser that the fresh substitute Huntelaar took the penalty in extra time against Mexico.
With a quarter on the clock, head coach Louis van Gaal had his last chance to tell his players how to beat Mexico to reach the quarterfinals. But during the drink break in the oven of Estádio Castelão in Fortaleza, Brazil, it was Robben who spoke the most. The normally controlling Van Gaal gave probably the biggest compliment: "I am here for the technical part. Arjen for the motivational part."
At the age of 30 Robben appears to have reached his top form. In all possible ways. And with the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the pale performance by Cristiano Ronaldo at this World Cup, only two players can compete with him for being the best player worldwide: Lionel Messi and the fabulous Colombian James Rodriguez. Robben has now most definitely entered the room where only master-class players are allowed.
Jasper Steppe worked for thirteen years at the leading Dutch football magazine Voetbal International.