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Arjen Robben: master of the expected who brought joy and trophies

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There is beauty in the unexpected but sometimes even more so in the expected. Everyone knew what Arjen Robben would do, yet they could do nothing to stop him.

He would pick up the ball on his right flank, feign to go down towards the byline, then cut inside and score. And then he would do it again. True, there were variations. Sometimes he would score at the near post and sometimes he would take a few more steps inside the penalty area, or just outside it, and score at the far post. Sometimes he would shoot low and sometimes he would shoot high.

It may sound simple but it wasn’t. And here’s the thing: it was a pleasure to see him do it. Over and over again.

On Thursday the Dutchman, who left Bayern Munich at the end of last season, announced that he was retiring at the age of 35 after 19 years of professional football.

In a statement he said that injuries had taken their toll and that it no longer made sense to carry on. “My love for the game and the conviction that I can still take on the world was up against the reality … that I’m no longer a youngster of 16 who has no idea what injures can do to you,” he said.

He added that it was time to “spend more time with my wife and children and enjoy all the good things that lie ahead for us” and it makes sense. Robben has won the Champions League, the Eredivisie, the Premier League, La Liga and no fewer than eight Bundesliga titles.

He reached the World Cup final in 2010 and finished third four years later. He has won 16 cup finals and several individual awards. There was nothing more for him to achieve, especially with injuries starting to slow him.

His career, despite all the trophies, was not straightforward. After joining Chelsea from PSV Eindhoven he had a cancer scare when doctors said they had found a lump in one of his testicles and decided to operate.

Arjen Robben in action on his Chelsea debut against Blackburn in 2004.



Arjen Robben in action on his Chelsea debut against Blackburn in 2004. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

He was given the all-clear but, after two Premier League titles in three years, he left for Real Madrid. In Spain he had two seasons proving his undoubted quality but once Florentino Pérez arrived and signed Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká in the summer of 2009 his time was up.

Robben joined Bayern Munich that summer and that turned out to be his last club. In many ways he will be remembered as a Bayern player. Apart from his eight Bundesliga titles he scored an 89th-minute winner when Bayern beat Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley.

That was his most important goal and, funnily enough, it was not scored by cutting inside and unleashing a left-footed shot but by straying inside, beating two defenders to a loose ball, taking two touches and scoring with what can only be described a scuffed shot.

After the final whistle he was in tears, and asked why he said: “Well, we had been to two finals in the last three years and lost both and in the end you don’t want to be a loser.”

He will not be remembered as a loser, far from it, although there were certainly times when he was accused of simulation, and rightly so. At one stage of his career in Germany he was known as the “Schwalben-König”, the king of dives, and was widely mocked for taking a tumble against Mexico in the 2014 World Cup.

Overall though, the exaggerated falls in the penalty area became less and less frequent and he will be remembered fondly by most. On Thursday former teammates expressed admiration for the Dutchman and sadness that he would never play professionally again.

Arjen Robben takes to the sky against Hamburg in 2018.



Arjen Robben takes to the sky against Hamburg in 2018. Photograph: Michaela Rehle/Reuters

David Alaba said on Twitter that he was proud to have played with Robben: “Your game was something else, your character more than special”, while Phillip Lahm wrote: “Farewell to a special athlete”.

Lahm’s and Alaba’s gratitude towards Robben shows what a special player he was, but it was not only teammates and opponents who were able to enjoy his skill; it was the fans too.

And that is why I tell my son to sit down and watch five minutes of Arjen Robben cutting inside and scoring when looking for inspiration before one of his under-10 games rather than the fancy Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo videos he prefers.

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He rolls his eyes but then we sit down and watch Robben do his stuff. And soon we go: “Woah, did you see that? and, ‘How did he score from there’ before we just sit in silence and watch that beautiful flight of the ball after it has departed his left foot.

And we’d be smiling. And that is what Robben did: he made people smile. And there can hardly be higher praise than that.

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