A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC in May 2013
On the eve of the Champions League final, as Bayern Munich were getting accustomed to Wembley Stadium in their last training session, manager Jupp Heynckes decided to pull Arjen Robben to the side.
“Look Arjen,” the coach said. “You’re in really good form and tomorrow that is going to be one of the crucial factors.”
It’s the kind of exchange that is often instilled with greater importance only after the fact. Of course, Heynckes may have had a genuine feeling or tactical epiphany. On the other hand, it’s equally possible he was just trying to motivate one of his many players.
Then, there’s the reality that Robben reflects the history of this specific Bayern Munich team better than any other player; that, with sufficient ability and the right circumstances, your time will come sooner or later.
Up until that 88th-minute strike against Borussia Dortmund, after all, Robben had hit 24 shots in Champions League finals without reward. One of them was eventually going to count. Just as Bayern’s sheer resources were gradually going to condition conquest in this competition, Robben has too much quality to fail so completely.
Except, when you listen to his explanation of how the winning moment unfolded and what went through his mind, you realise how much those previous misses had honed the forward for a moment like this. This wasn’t fated, it was fashioned. Most impressively of all, it was clearly a goal borne of intellectual gymnastics rather than basic instinct. Robben reacted to Franck Ribery’s touch and had the presence of mind to register Roman Weidenfeller’s movement.
“When I got the ball, I was free,” Robben said in his post-match press conference. “I anticipated Franck’s movement. The only thought was ‘I hope he lets the ball there’ because I saw the space. I took it well. My first choice was actually to go past him [Weidenfeller] on the left side but then he made a move and I could put it on the other side. He was on the wrong leg.”
Finally, Robben had provided the right finish in a big game and Bayern had at last won that fifth Champions League. Although the Dutch forward later struggled to put the emotion into actual words, his jubilant face and uncontrollable reaction revealed enough.
“For a footballer, this is the greatest you can achieve. When the whistle of a referee blows and you know that you’re winners of a Champions League, for a lot of us it was the thing we really needed that we lacked in our lives.”
That is certainly true of this Bayern squad, not least the likes of Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm. For Robben personally, though, it wasn’t just about this specific trophy. It clearly meant more to him than most.
It redefined his career.
That feeling grew with every missed chance. It became increasingly apparent that either Robben was going to have to finally score himself or some other Bayern player was going to have to spare him in order to prevent this match becoming another high-profile failure.
That 88th-minute strike, after all, wasn’t just preceded by the three opportunities he had squandered at Wembley on Saturday. There were also the penalty and chances missed against Chelsea in the 2012 final as well as the two crucial one-on-ones wasted against Spain in the 2010 World Cup final.
For all the important goals Robben had scored against Manchester United in the 2009-10 quarter-finals or Barcelona in this year’s last four, he hadn’t yet defined or decided a victorious campaign at the most exacting level. The Dutch forward himself admitted this was on his mind.
“After all the disappointment of last year I personally had, and let’s the say the World Cup – that’s three finals and you don’t want the stamp of loser. You don’t want that tag. At last we did it today and we can’t forget the other things.”
If it seems unfairly stark for an entire career to swing on an individual moment that is still susceptible to unpredictable bounces of the ball – regardless of the stakes – it is ultimately what remains in the memory. Robben has now provided one of the great clubs with a moment they will cherish forever.
The actual reality, beyond the reminiscences, is obviously more complex.
As illustrated by those games against United and Barcelona, as well as countless important domestic fixtures, Robben did produce in decisive games that had their own individual demands. The absence of that keynote performance, though, did reflect the general trajectory of the forward’s career.
He never really became the dominant world star his talent suggested when Alex Ferguson was so desperately pursuing him in the 2003-04 season. That was emphasised by the manner he was discarded by both Chelsea and Real Madrid, a player only intermittently hinted at brilliance rather than regularly provide it.
Now, with Ferguson there to present the man-of-the-match award that confirmed a crowning moment, Robben had proved himself a crucial player for the best side in Europe.
“I am particularly pleased for Arjen,” Heynckes said, “because we were all tragic figures, not just Arjen. Today he was so crucial. Today, for me, he played a very good game.”
No, Robben may not have ultimately made himself one of the greats. But he now has a great goal to cap an excellent career.