Arjen Robben probably summed it up best himself. After an international career with 37 goals in 96 matches for Holland the 33-year-old bade farewell to the Oranje on Tuesday night. Early on in his career, he had been mocked for being injured too often but in the end there was just a sense of loss.
The Dutch had not only failed to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia next summer, they also have to try to regroup now without the one outstanding player they have had at their disposal. Make no mistake, Robben is an extraordinary player and, as with so many others, perhaps he will only be fully appreciated now that he has left.
It was an overwhelmingly emotional evening at the Amsterdam Arena, where the former Amsterdam mayor Eberhard van der Laan, who died last week, was mourned and the Dutch knew what was coming. Realistically, there was no way they were going to beat Sweden by the seven goals required to reach Russia. As the Wilhelmus anthem reverberated around the stadium, Robben visibly welled up, aware that this was likely to be the final game for his country.
A graph of soaring highs and dispiriting lows, Robben’s Holland career had come full circle in that he made his debut in 2003 and was playing his final game in 2017 under the same coach, Dick Advocaat.
Advocaat’s association with Robben is perhaps known most for what many in the Netherlands consider to be the single worst substitution ever. At Euro 2004 Robben, then still only 20 and soon to be heading to Chelsea, started against the Czech Republic and began exerting the influence he would continue to show with the national team for 13 years. The Dutch were leading 2-0 and he had dazzled, creating both goals, the first a free-kick deliciously served up with that left foot to the back-post for Wilfried Bouma, and then a cross whipped in from the left for Ruud van Nistelrooy to tap in.
Strangely, Advocaat decided to withdraw him at 2-1 just before the hour, replacing him with Paul Bosvelt. The result? The Oranje capitulated in the most staggering of ways, going down to 10 men and losing 3-2. The assistant coach, Wim van Hanegem, asked what he would do if Advocaat made the same decision in the following game against Latvia, said: “I’ll take him down.” Perhaps the threat worked because Advocaat let Robben play the full 90 minutes – and Holland won.
In the quarter-finals against Sweden – their qualifying opponents in Amsterdam – Robben scored the final penalty in the shootout and sent the Dutch to the semi-finals, where they promptly went out 2-1 to the host country, Portugal. But the tone was set for the young forward whose slalom runs on spindly legs sent shivers down defenders’ spines.
Having played the role of protagonist and pantomime villain alike, and despite fitness doubts looming in essentially every summer before a major national tournament, Robben has been undeniably central in providing the most lasting football memories of the past decade for the Netherlands.
In 2008, he began working with the osteopath Hub Westhovens. “He gives me confidence in my body,” Robben has said. That summer the flying forward produced one of the best individual performances seen by a Holland player in one half as Holland beat France 4-1 at Euro 2008.
Introduced at half-time, Robben soon ran on to a Van Nistelrooy pass by the touchline. It was the kind of run that has come to typify Robben – where one could actually imagine the gears shifting, the motor roaring, and the engine firing his legs forward. The sheer acceleration he showed once he latched on to the pass was remarkable, and he sent in a cross in for Robin van Persie to tap in. Twelve minutes later, released on the left by Wesley Sneijder, Robben sped through, with the slightest drop of the shoulder confounding Lilian Thuram and allowing him to get ahead.
Despite us being accustomed to the winger cutting inside to score in recent years, Robben – as in this case – could equally cut outside and score. From a tight angle, he struck the ball into the top of the net, and the France goalkeeper Grégory Coupet had no chance. Robben celebrated with a nonchalant shrug, as if his ability to influence proceedings was merely second nature.
Two summers later, Holland were carried at the World Cup by two 26-year-old “veterans”: the man who had led Bayern to the Champions League final that year (Robben) and the man who actually won it with Internazionale (Sneijder). They led the team – chastised for straying away from “Dutch principles” – to within touching distance of eternal glory, of achieving what neither Johan Cruyff nor Marco van Basten nor Dennis Bergkamp could do.
That touching distance eventually turned out to be Iker Casillas’s outstretched leg as Robben found himself one on one with the Spain goalkeeper in the World Cup final but could not quite place his shot well enough. “It is a moment that will always haunt me,” he says.
Perhaps then, it is understandable to see that in his other World Cup meeting with Casillas, Robben – for the fifth goal in the 5-1 victory in 2014 – was not panicked into shooting.
Robben remains the last truly world-class Dutch footballer (at least in men’s football) and retires from international duty as the best currently active. His farewell was precipitated by a wish to prolong his club career at Bayern Munich, where he is still influential, and he definitely has a better chance of adding to his trophy cabinet.
And if it were not for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Robben’s sheer consistency in achievement at the highest level of football and ability to constantly grab games by the scruff of their neck would perhaps be lauded a lot more.
Full name Arjen Robben 
Date of birth 23 January 1984 (Age 33)
Place of birth Bedum, Netherlands
Height 1.80 m (5 ft 11 in) 
Playing position Winger
1999 Netherlands U-15 1 (0)
1999–2000 Netherlands U-16 11 (4)
2000 Netherlands U-17 3 (1)
2001–2002 Netherlands U-19 8 (2)
2001–2003 Netherlands U-21 8 (1)
2003–2017 Netherlands 96 (37)