His leg warmers were the butt of many a joke in Germany, but it was Arjen Robben's electric form for Bayern Munich which really caught the eye. Now he's hoping a muscle tear heals quickly enough to star at the World Cup.
Robben quickly started enjoying himself in Munich
For a spindly, lightweight winger, Arjen Robben has dealt remarkably well with the weight of some hefty price-tags on his shoulders.
In 2002, Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven paid his local club Groningen nearly 4 million euros for an 18-year-old. PSV won the Eredivisie title in his first season there. In 2004, Chelsea parted with 18 million euros for Robben, and was rewarded with back-to-back English Premier League titles. In August 2007, Real Madrid paid 35 million euros for the Dutchman's services, and conquered La Liga in his first season in Spain.
Robben spent two years in Madrid at arguably the world's top club - certainly the world's biggest-spending club. But with a number of shiny new signings in the summer of 2009 - Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim banzema, and Kaka - Robben suddenly seemed less lustrous, and was pushed out. He didn't want to leave, but was told he hadn't met the high standards set by Real's management. Bayern Munich paid 25 million euros - equaling their transfer record- to gave Robben the chance to team up with his countryman, Louis van Gaal. In the end is was worth every last cent.
The season of his life
"With Arjen, you know that he is a world-class player," said Bayern President Uli Hoeness. "We're very happy that we've got him. He can, in any spell, or at any second, decide a game."
Deciding games on his own became Robben's speciality in his first season in Germany. The semi-final of the German Cup, was among the best examples. In extra-time away to Schalke, Robben took the ball from within his own half, raced down the right touchline beating players with speed and ball control, before cutting inside and unleashing an unstoppable shot that curled into the far corner.
"Of course, I've scored the goal, but I think we played well as a team," he said afterwards, trying to play down the quality of his winner. "We really fought hard. That was the most important thing."
Schalke defender Heiko Westermann gave him a little more credit. "He takes two men on his own and is very hard to stop when he's on the ball," the German international said.
Robben had his way with Schalke in the German cup semi-final
Signs that the season would be a productive for the Groningen native were there early on. On his Bayern debut, Robben came off the bench as a second-half substitute, scoring two as reigning league champions VfL Wolfsburg went down 3-0.
In the end, Robben was Bayern's top scorer as the club reclaimed the Bundesliga title. He also took on responsibility for free-kicks and penalties, with his opening goal in a 4-0 German Cup final defeat of Werder Bremen coming from the spot as Bayern clinched the double.
For a player who is very left-footed, Robben has enjoyed hugging the right touchline this season, before darting in-field on mazy runs towards goal. It was he who scored the decisive goal against both Fiorentina and Manchester United as Bayern progressed through the Champions League.
Protecting those legs
In the cold of the German winter, Robben's gray leg warmers became an amusing talking-point. "Sure, they're not beautiful but for me they're important," the Dutchman said. "In the first three games they also brought me a bit of luck!" The German Soccer Federation soon decided that he couldn't continue wearing them, as they were a different color from his Bayern kit. So he switched to red ones.
Robben - in new regulation red leg warmers - had plenty of celebrating to do with Bayern last season
The injury-prone winger has also sought protection from referees in recent years. As is common for quick, tricky attacking players, opponents have often resorted to stopping him any way possible, something which has angered Robben. Philipp Lahm found that out during a training session, when Robben reacted to his teammate's tough tackle by pushing him to the ground.
"In 5-on-5 there is always lots of physical contact, but that was no reason for that!" said Robben, before adding, "Later I hugged him, because we're all teammates and friends here."
As he has matured as a player, the Dutchman has increasingly learned to deal with the knocks that come his way. When teammate Franck Ribery was sent off in the Champions League semi-final, Robben was one of few Bayern voices who agreed with the red card. "The decision was right by me. Franck and I get fouled often enough and you're glad when the referee protects you."
Robben's an integral part of the Netherlands line-up
During the final, where Bayern Munich's dreams of a treble were ended by Inter Milan, Robben was the target of some bad challenges early on, but didn't shy away, kept asking for the ball and was the chief protagonist in trying to get his side back into the game.
The final was played in the Estadio Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid, and on the opposing team was Dutch compatriot Wesley Sneijder, who arrived and departed Real at the same time as Robben. Both have taken the knock-back from Spain in stride, and will look forward to linking up with the Netherlands at the World Cup this summer.
Robben already has experience from two European Championships and the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He's in line to win his 50th cap in South Africa.
In an unlucky twist, Robben picked up a slight muscle tear in a 6-1 friendly thrashing of Hungary just days before the tournament's start. He has pledged, however, to be back in the side before the group stage concludes. And if he replicates this season's club form in Dutch orange, a year to remember may become unforgettable.
Author: Lutz Kulling / tms
Editor: Matt Hermann