Arjen Robben comment World Cup 2014: It’s one-eyed to say winger is conning referees when he goes down. He is just quicker and smarter and taking advantage of that fact

This World Cup has been the second stage of Robben’s recent redemption

Victory today, which is expected, would take him to the World Cup semi-final in Sao Paulo on Wednesday night, one match away from the final in the Maracana. There, he could assert his greatness in even clearer terms than he has in his glittering club career to date.

All true of Lionel Messi, of course, who would be a popular and admired champion, but also of Arjen Robben, whose reputation has been unfairly tainted because of the skills – pace, nerve and ruthlessness – with which he outfoxed Rafael Marquez to earn the Netherlands’ place in the quarter-finals.

No one would say Robben is Messi’s equal, but he is a giant of the game in his own right and one who is simply very adept – along with many other abilities – at turning defenders’ desperate lunges to his advantage in the box. He is almost as likely as Messi to lift football’s finest prize in eight days’ time.

If Robben were to be victorious in the final, it would be a deserved climax to a career that has been reaching ever higher standards of excellence, success and entertainment for years.

It would also be a stirring story of redemption. Four years ago, in Soccer City, Robben had a great chance to win the World Cup final for the Netherlands. Running on to a second-half pass from Wesley Sneijder, he was clean through on goal but hit his shot straight at Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Andres Iniesta scored the only goal of the final in extra time.

 

Six weeks earlier, Sneijder’s Internazionale had beaten Robben’s Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Madrid. Sneijder went on to be one of the best players of the World Cup, joint top scorer with five, while Robben, who struggled, scored just two.

Since then their careers have diverged dramatically. Sneijder drifted along for another two and a half seasons in a disintegrating Inter side, winning one Italian cup but nothing else. In January 2013 he took the money on offer at Galatasaray, where he still plays.

Robben has just got better and better. Unusually for a winger – perhaps as a fortunate side-effect of early-career injuries which limited his playing time – he has maintained the pace which made him so devastating in younger days at PSV Eindhoven and Chelsea. Playing under Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola, he has developed the enhanced tactical nous of the clever former flyer without losing that ferocious early burst. When Holland beat Spain in the group stage, one sprint away from Sergio Ramos, before his second goal, was clocked at 37km per hour (23mph).

With Bayern, Robben has been as successful as ever, holding off the challenges to his place from younger players and winning the domestic double in each of the last two seasons.

In May 2013, back in the Champions League final, three years on from his traumatic summer, in the last minute with Bayern locked at 1-1 with Borussia Dortmund, the ball broke to him in the box. He skipped past Mats Hummels and rolled it past Roman Weidenfeller.

If that was the first stage of Robben’s recent redemption, this World Cup has been the second. Against Spain in Salvador he was electric, shredding the victors of Soccer City with his pace on the break, scoring twice. Against Australia he scored the first, against Chile he set up the second, and against Mexico in the last 16 he won the match, drawing the foul from Marquez for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s decisive penalty.

Robben was excellent that afternoon, in the difficult heat of Fortaleza, especially when Louis van Gaal moved him on to the right when he switched to 4-3-3. Robben, who as ever was more sinned against than sinning, should have had a penalty when tripped by Hector Moreno, and another when tripped by Miguel Layun as he tried to scramble back to his feet in the box, and it was only when he was fouled by Marquez that Pedro Proenca blew his whistle.

Robben won that match for Holland by being quicker, smarter and sharper than the Mexico defenders, who wilted in the heat. Not that you would know that, given the coverage that followed, in which Robben was castigated for having the temerity to make Proenca aware – with outstretched arms and arched back as he fell – that he had been fouled by Marquez, whose offence was obvious.

Earlier in the match, as Robben admitted, he had gone down expecting contact from Moreno that never came. “I went to ground without a touch,” he conceded. “It was a stupid action for me.” Of course, it looks worse when there is no contact on the falling player, but it was a misjudgement, not a crime. Most anticipatory falls work.

For trying to win free-kicks and penalties for his team – as any ruthless attacking player would – Robben is accused of conning the referee, which is a rather one-eyed view of the hundreds of acts of deception that take place in every football match. When Marquez fouled him for the penalty, the defender raised his hand in the air, the international symbol of footballing innocence. In every game, at every level, players appeal for corners, goal-kicks and throw-ins they know not to be theirs.

And yet Robben, ahead of almost any other player on earth, is damned for being faster and better than his opponents, and clever enough to take advantage of that. When fouled, he does not stumble nobly on like Matt Jarvis, but accepts the reward he has earned for his team.

It is that intelligence, that technique, that dangerous pace, that ability to rip open an opposition defence that has made him one of the most compelling players of the last decade. He may not have been born great like Messi, but he has achieved greatness through his relentless winning and entertaining over the years.

If he claims the ultimate prize next Sunday, it would be wrong to begrudge him it.

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