The end of a World Cup qualification cycle always brings a swathe of international retirements, and this week has been no different. It’s the end for Arturo Vidal, Javier Mascherano has said that he’ll pack it in after the tournament proper – but it’s Arjen Robben’s announcement immediately after the Netherlands’ failure to beat Sweden 8-0 that’s drawn the most attention.
With the Netherlands set for a year of soul searching and regeneration before Euro 2020 qualifying kicks off in earnest, it’s not a surprise that Robben; who’ll be 36 years old by the time that tournament starts, has chosen now to call it a day.
It’s what comes afterwards that’s more interesting for a quiet great of the European game.
You can be better than 90% of the players in the league, but that means nothing if the club you’re at either owns or can feasibly buy most of that elite 10%. The fact for Robben is that like the Netherlands, Bayern are a team in transition. A new, young manager will arrive in the summer, and his contract expires at the end of the season. He will be 34 at that point. It will not be renewed.
Looking around the Bundesliga, his options are more or less non-existent. Dortmund have all the young attacking options a manager could want, RB Leipzig have only given 46 minutes to their only player over the age of 30 (centre-back Marvin Compper) all season, and…well, there isn’t anybody else.
Spain is a non-option with Atletico paying off a new stadium and the Real/Barca axis looking young, Italy would suit him about as well as a glued-on blue mullet, Paris Saint-Germain are his only French option and have absolutely no need of attackers, and then it’s England. England, where he made his name at the highest level. England, where he earned his move to Real Madrid. England, where Chelsea fans took him to their hearts.
If he has hope, it’s in the Premier League. One last season at Chelsea, for the sake of sentimentality. But a glance at the Blues’ squad says probably not. There may well be a new manager stamping his mark on the team in the summer, and bringing in a declining former star like Robben is not a statement any coach wants to begin their time at a club with. “Look at me,” it cries. “I’m planning for the short-term, because my players aren’t good enough and I don’t have a plan in the long run!”
He can drag things out for a couple of years in China or Turkey if he wants, but it doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen. He’s already acknowledged that he’s coming to the end of his career, and it’d suit him to sprint off into the distance with perfect timing rather than gently wander away.
It’s a shame, then, that a sparkling lifetime in football feels like it’s ending on such an anticlimax. An international career which saw him put in his best performances in major tournaments – that goal against France in 2008; Spain in 2014 – has ended with failure to qualify for his last two tournaments. A club career which has brought 10 league titles, a Champions League title and a heap of cups is coming to an end with probably the weakest club team he’s been part of in over a decade.
There are ‘could have beens’. ‘Should have beens’. What heights could Robben have hit if he hadn’t been constantly plagued with injuries? If he’d been able to play 30 league games more than one single time in his career, beyond the 2002/03 Eredivisie season. How much more could he have done for Chelsea? Real? Bayern?
So let’s not focus on that. Let’s remember those goals, remember the way that, for the last 15 years, every single defender in Europe has known how to defend against him and he’s beaten them – to the tune of 199 league goals and counting.
He’s scored half a dozen goals at World Cups, putting away the likes of Spain and Uruguay. He did for France at Euro 2008 with one of the most fierce finishes you’re ever likely to see. In his last game for his country, he scored the filthiest Panenka penalty and an absolute thunderbolt across the keeper, struck by the best left foot in football not attached to Lionel Messi.
He dived. He moaned. He was absolutely magnificent. When he goes, football will be worse without him.