It was the kind of advert to make you look twice. Firstly, because the footballers were wearing leather shorts and drinking beer. Secondly, because among those doing the drinking was Arjen Robben.
The image Robben has in Munich is of a man apart, who, according to Bayern’s great grey eminence Franz Beckenbauer, glories in his own selfishness.
Before last year’s European Cup final there were stories of on-field spats with Thomas Müller and of Franck Ribéry punching him in the dressing-room after the semi-final against Real Madrid. He was accused of not being a team player, of going over to the stands to celebrate his goals with his wife, Bernadien, rather than with the rest of the squad.
During Bayern Munich’s press day last week prior to today’s Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, the only uncomfortable moment was when someone asked Robben if he recalled being booed by his own fans. He did not reply. It was three days after the Champions League final that Bayern Munich had somehow managed to lose to Chelsea last year. Robben had won, taken and missed a penalty in extra-time.
There was a picture of him afterwards, slumped in his chair surrounded by empty wine glasses. They were empty because they hadn’t been used. Nobody had felt like drinking. Bernadien seemed to be saying something to her husband but Robben appeared not to be listening. They were on their own.
Less than a week later, he was playing in a friendly for the Netherlands against Bayern and his every touch was jeered. Some Dutch players were outraged. “It is a disgrace when you look what Robben has achieved in his career,” said their captain, Mark van Bommel. “If it hadn’t been for him, Bayern would have got nowhere near the 2010 final in Madrid. He has just signed a three-year contract but, if I were him, I’d think about leaving the club.
“Nobody from Bayern supports him but, mentally, he is very strong. Every time something bad happens he comes back stronger.”
It was an interesting reaction since the Netherlands’ leading newspaper, De Telegraaf, was to publish unattributed comments by a Dutch international claiming they were delighted Petr Cech had saved Robben’s penalty because it would make him less insufferable when he joined up for what was to become a disastrous European Championship campaign riven by internal dissent.
Team spirit is a nebulous thing. When Mike Brearley was asked to explain how Middlesex repeatedly won cricket’s County Championship between 1976 and 1982, he replied it was because several of that team did not much like each other. If someone played well, it would spur on others to play better.
The left-arm spinner Phil Edmonds was probably the closest member of Brearley’s squad to Robben. Anyone who roomed with him would have to listen to the BBC World Service all night. He would take the Financial Times down to breakfast and announce to the dressing-room: “I suppose I am going to bowl immaculately again.”
Robben may not be quite so tongue-in-cheek, although the attitude is the same. He may have clashed with Müller but the two work well together. “He creates the space, drags away defenders and lets me take up my position,” said Robben.
For the fourth of their goals in the semi-final against Barcelona, Müller simply body-checked Jordi Alba, allowing Robben to pick his spot.
“I always think it is easy to be happy if you are successful,” said Robben, who, alone among the Bayern first-choice midfield, is expected to leave when Pep Guardiola arrives at the Allianz Arena. “This season, I think I have proved I can offer a lot to a Champions League team.”
Manchester City are thought to be the Champions League team most interested in him.
In an age when footballers are expected to be casually unfaithful, it is actually endearing that he should be so close to his wife and three young children, who were photographed joining him for training just before Bayern flew to London. Laughing with them was Bastian Schweinsteiger, the one member of the Munich midfield Robben has not fallen out with.
Van Bommel was right. Robben was the reason why Bayern reached that final in 2010. First, there was the dribble and the shot on the run from 25 yards against Fiorentina. Then came the remarkable volley from the edge of the area at Old Trafford. In both ties Bayern progressed on away goals.
However, in the final at the Bernabeu, Robben came across a man who knew him very well, then Internazionale coach, Jose Mourinho. The former England manager Terry Venables has since pointed out that, when running at a defender, Robben will invariably try to cut inside on to his left foot. “Once he goes inside the opposition are in trouble,” said Venables. “The secret is staying close to him. If the defender stays tight, then you can stop him, just as Inter did in the Champions League final three years ago.”
That final was lost, just as Robben was to taste defeat in the World Cup final two months later. As well as a loner, Robben is often portrayed as a loser, although he has won titles in the Netherlands, England, Spain and Germany.
“I am 29 but I still think I have another big final in me after Wembley,” he said. “But Wembley is where I have to start winning.”
Rocking Robben: The nearly man in finals
Arjen Robben is the only player on either side with experience of playing at Wembley, winning the FA Cup with Chelsea in 2007. However, he is best remembered for some devastating final defeats:
2010: Champions League final – Bayern 0-2 Internazionale
Relentlessly fouled by Christian Chivu and Walter Samuel, Robben produced a wonderful curling shot that might have pulled Bayern level but for goalkeeper Julio Cesar’s acrobatics.
2010: World Cup final – Netherlands 0-1 Spain
In the 62nd minute, Robben was clean through only to see Iker Casillas deny him, with Spain going on to win in extra-time.
2012: Champions League final – Bayern 1-1 Chelsea (3-4 pens)
In extra-time of a game locked at 1-1, Didier Drogba fouled his one-time team-mate. Robben stepped up, but his penalty was saved easily.Reuse content