Arjen Robben: Love Him or Hate Him, He Has Starred at This World Cup

Janusz Michallik@@JanuszESPNFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

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From a player point of view, this World Cup has graced us with individual displays of pure entertainment.

We often praise and critique some of the tournament's stars like Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, while we gloss over the familiar yet unsung players who have caught our eyes from time to time.

Many are rubbing their eyes with the numerous talents that have emerged in Brazil, but for me, there is only one name thus far that confirms what I already knew in terms of quality, even if he is, at least for now, short of greatness: Arjen Robben.

Although his hint of self-confessed diving antics has often overshadowed his tireless work ethic and tenacious dribbling, Robben has been the most outstanding player of this tournament.

Until now, some defenders have tried, and maybe only temporarily succeeded, to keep Robben off his favored left foot, but you always sense the danger when he begins to run at you.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

As Owen Gibson wrote for The Guardian:

While so much of the attention has, perhaps by design, been on the manager Louis van Gaal's tactics and tics, it is Robben who has powered the side to the semi-finals.

The statistics – three man of the match awards, three goals, one assist and that last-minute penalty against Mexico that highlighted the best and worst of his game (it was both a foul and a dive) – don't tell the whole story. From Holland's first game, that 5-1 evisceration of Spain that signalled not only the end of an era but also sent confidence coursing through Oranje veins, to their nervy, attritional victory over Costa Rica on penalties, he has been Van Gaal's one constant.

For defenders, it's not as simple as saying "force him to his right" and job well done. Frankly, I'm not sure I have the answer, which proves my point even more. Had we found the solution to stop his penetrating runs, we would not be having this discussion.

Why do we love him? Well, Robben's insatiable thirst for goal and darting runs catch the eye immediately. Every defender shudders at the thought of being tasked with standing in his way when he picks up the ball in the attacking half. Still, he finds a way through more often than not. Whether it's the first or the last minute, his body is a mechanism with an unyielding instinct to sustain relentless pressure as he bears down on the opposition.

He is the sort of player who, in any moment, can break you. As a defender, it's frightening to know that he always wants to take you on. You may succeed once or twice, but the thought of dealing with him for 90 minutes must be extremely intimidating.

As you all know, you can do well defensively for 90 minutes, but the one time he beats you, you have then failed at your job. Robben, like Messi, Ronaldo and other great players, can continue to fail until they get it right. Robben is never satisfied until he gets what he wants the majority of the time.

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Healthy and technically impeccable, Robben plays with an extra gear or two these days, as he alluded to recently, while saying that even when in a full sprint, he can sprint within the sprint.

For the Netherlands, he is without a doubt the team's most prized possession. "At this tournament more than any other tournament, Robben is to the Netherlands what Lionel Messi is to Argentina," Wesley Sneijder said, per The Daily Telegraph's Jason Burt. "He constantly occupies two or three opponents, creating space for others. Against Costa Rica (in the quarterfinal) he did that a number of times and that helped us."

What we mustn't forget, however, is that his performances while playing for his country are not inferior to that of his club, Bayern Munich. While Messi and Ronaldo must shoulder the burden of winning an elusive World Cup to finally etch their names in football history, as if they already hadn't, Robben seems to play with much more freedom.

He makes the transition from club to country painless. He has grown to become a leader and has put Robin van Persie in his shadow to a degree. He has the presence that through body language does not often look positive, but one that reassures teammates he will get the job when they are failing.

That sort of personality is in many ways similar to Louis van Gaal—both generals, one off the pitch and one on it. You love to hate them, but you would want them next to you in the foxhole in the time of war.

Jon Super/Associated Press

It would be wise to address the cynical side of Robben, as previously mentioned. He takes advantage of the grey area of what is deemed a foul and bends the rules by embellishing contact. There is a skill to that as long as the contact exists. In the absence of that contact, his antics, of course, shouldn't be part of the game.

While I was writing this, in many ways Messi's name was popping in my mind, as some of their characteristics are very similar—with the last part being the big difference in what you think of his legacy and his greatness.

Based on technical ability and what they bring to the table in terms of pure talent, I keep them in the same category. Messi, of course, is already great and will be one of the greatest even if he never wins a World Cup. I don't know that Robben can be considered one of the greatest, but maybe the gap between the two isn't as large as we sometimes think.

And maybe that gap could be narrowed Wednesday if Robben can lead the Netherlands past Argentina into the World Cup final.


Polish-born Janusz Michallik played 44 times for the United States national team and in MLS for Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. Now a respected commentator and pundit for ESPN, Fox, SiriusXM FC, OneWorldSports and others, Janusz will be writing for B/R during the World Cup.