Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern

Arjen Robben: Stay as you are, no matter how many trophies you win

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Ten years ago, Arjen Robben fired FC Bayern to the Champions League title. Today, "Mr Wembley" cooks risotto for his children, coaches a youth team - and feels as fit as ever. Club magazine "51" visited him at his home in Groningen.

The floodlights do what they want. Sometimes they come on, sometimes they go off, but down on the artificial pitch nobody cares. 17 boys run after the ball in the twilight. It's a scene that can be observed every day at amateur clubs. Except that here, on the rearmost pitch of Be Quick 1887 in Groningen, the person giving the instructions is someone you wouldn't expect to see in the world of amateur football: Arjen Robben. The 39-year-old has won championships in the Netherlands, England, Spain and Germany, and ten years ago he fired FC Bayern to the Champions League title. Now he's standing on a worn-out artificial pitch, the word "coach" emblazoned on his back. "Nice one, Owen!" he yells. Or, "Fantastic, Jesper!" And, "Oh, if you hit that one right ...!" His voice carries across the pitch, just like he used to play himself: with gusto.

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern
The former Bayern winger is happy to pass on his knowledge to future generations. © Hilde Harshagen

Robben trains the Be Quick U15s three times a week. At the moment, they're playing a lively game of football tennis. You can hear the boys laughing loudly and discussing whether the ball was still in play or not. "A bit of fun now, then another ten minutes of being serious," says the coach as he fetches the bibs for the next exercise from the sidelines. At Säbener Straße in Munich, people still tell tales of Robben's training zeal to this day, half in amazement, half in awe. The way his T-shirt would be completely drenched in sweat even before the actual training session. The way the windows of the offices would rattle when he missed a shot. So it's fair to ask: should we be worried about the boys he trains? Robben grins. "No, no," he says reassuringly, "you can't expect everyone to be like you." He reflects and says, "Honestly, it was hard for me at first. I had to learn that others see football differently to me, that some are happy just having a bit of fun. Because this is an amateur club. I had to get used to that and also adapt."

You can't expect everyone to be like you. I had to learn that others see football differently to me, that some are happy just having a bit of fun.

Arjen Robben

Having a bit of fun was never enough for Arjen Robben. All or nothing, no compromises, that's how he played football and experienced all the highs and lows of the sport. Triumphs as well as tragedies, goals as well as misses. In the process, he's achieved something not everyone who astounds people all over the world on the stage of professional footbal succeeds in doing: Arjen has always remained Arjen, someone who wants to live a completely normal life.

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern
As a coach, too, the now 39-year-old is meticulous and highly passionate. His protégés appreciate the experience and the interaction with the 2013 Champions League winner © Hilde Harshagen

Robben answers the door in his socks. The house is still quite new, the family has only been living here for two or three years. It was always understood that they would return to Groningen. After all, this is where it all began. Robben turned professional with FC Groningen, and he grew up in the small town of Bedum, just a few kilometres away. His wife Bernadien also comes from the town, and the whole extended family lives here. "Home remains home," says Robben. He left Groningen at 18 to take the first big step in his career at PSV Eindhoven. He left and yet he was never completely gone. The people of the region are considered down-to-earth, sober, principled. "Maybe that's really how it is," Robben says, cradling his head. "In any case, I've always said, 'I am who I am, and I won't pretend to be someone else just to please others'."

Kitchen and Stadium

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern
Family man and animal lover: In his spare time, Robben enjoys spending time with his three children and the two family dogs Cooper and Maxi. © Hilde Harshagen

In the early afternoon, the Robben house is quiet. The three children are still at school. Only the two family dogs Cooper and Maxi sniff excitedly at the visitor from "51". "We've settled in nicely again," Robben says. His wife is a teacher and has started working again, two days a week. "Then I'm a househusband, taking care of the kids and cooking," Robben says, looking around. "My wife isn't here right now, so I'm allowed to say this: the kids think my risotto is better than their mum's. That's a nice compliment." He grins. In 20 years of professional football, the family often missed out on things, something Robben the family man always sensed, so he's now making up for a lot of them. "Time with the family is the most important thing for me at the moment." He especially enjoys Saturdays. That's when he himself has a game with his team and also watches his two sons (football) and his daughter (hockey) play. "Saturday is the best day of the week for me."

I had quite different offers at the end of my career. But this is home. I owe a lot to the club. You mustn't forget where you come from.

Arjen Robben

Robben is also a regular at the FC Groningen stadium, where the VIP box is named after him. The club is proud of its protégés, Ronald Koeman and Virgil van Dijk are also from here, but Robben returned at the end of his career. Not to win a few more titles or earn a lot of money - he wanted to give something back. Is he a football romantic? Robben reflects: "Maybe a little bit. I had quite different offers at the end of my career. But this is home. I owe a lot to the club. You mustn't forget where you come from."

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern
During his playing career Robben had spells at FC Groningen, PSV Eindhoven, Real Madrid, Chelsea and FC Bayern. © Hilde Harshagen

So Robben laced up his football boots once more in 2020, a year after he had actually already ended his career in Munich. "Retirement didn't last long," he says and laughs. Robben talks about his last few weeks at FC Bayern, when he could only play with painkillers. The pubic bone, he says: "Anyone who knows anything about it knows: you can't do a lot about it." But he gritted his teeth, scored a goal in his last Bundesliga game and said farewell with the Meisterschale and the DFB Cup. "I somehow managed to manoeuvre my way through, but it was obvious it couldn't go on like that. It made it a little easier for me to bid football farewell."

Back to where it all began

What followed was complete relaxation. No more pressure, no more constant striving for a top performance - "and all of a sudden the pain was gone. It was unbelievable," he says. Soon he started doing sport again, and anyone who knows Robben knows that he didn't just want to sweat a little. Robben wanted to push himself to the limit, to be challenged - so the suggestion of a friend, the speed skating world champion Erben Wennemars, to run a marathon came just at the right time. I had no problems, nothing at all," he says, "I felt so fit. And that's when Groningen came and asked if I would do something for the club." Manager? Coach? No, Robben didn't see himself in that kind of role yet. "Were I to return, it would have to be on the pitch. So I said: 'I'm going to go for it again'."

For me, the best thing was always being on the pitch in the Allianz Arena, scoring goals, delivering assists, dribbling... Sometimes you also have to defend a bit - that's what you do it all for.

Arjen Robben

Robben made seven appearances for FC Groningen in 2020/21, but failed to score a goal. He had hoped for much more, but he twisted his ankle in pre-season, and in the first game he suffered a torn muscle fibre. "And then you're already playing catch-up again. It was brutally hard," he says. His body didn't play along, as it didn't so often in his career. The portal lists how many games Robben missed due to injury during his ten years at FC Bayern: 176, that's four seasons! "I always say I made the best of it," says Robben. How did he manage to fight his way back time and again? Giving up was simply never an option, he says. "For me, the best thing was always being on the pitch in the Allianz Arena, scoring goals, delivering assists, dribbling... Sometimes you also have to defend a bit - that's what you do it all for. And I'm not just saying that because it's for a story in the Bayern magazine."

Lap of honour and marathon

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern
A fighter: Despite numerous injuries, Robben fought his way back onto the pitch time and again and had accumulated an impressive 32 titles by the end of his career. © Hilde Harshagen

In Groningen, Robben toiled for almost the entire season to be able to make a few more appearances at the end, in one of which he provided two assists. "That was the reward for all the work. After that, it was finally over. The Achilles tendon was hurting. "Every day it took a quarter of an hour until I could walk normally." So Robben's career ended for the second time in 2021. The farewell in Groningen was harder for him than in Munich, he says, because he couldn't take to the pitch in his jersey. He did a lap of honour in the Groningen stadium in a suit. "My family still finds it amusing today how nimble I was. It felt like one minute, then I was gone," he says. He wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Afterwards, he avoided the stadium for months. "Because I always had the thought: I want to do it again." Over time, the itching in his foot subsided.

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern
Emotional farewell: Arjen Robben ended his football career in 2021 in his home town of Groningen.

Sport still plays a big role in Robben's life, of course. One half of his garden consists of a padel tennis court, the other has a football goal. But above all, the former winger has actually stepped into the world of marathon running. Last year, he entered a race in Rotterdam for the first time. His time: three hours, 13 minutes and 57 seconds. "I died on the last kilometre," he says. 42.195 kilometres is indeed a long distance. "And without a ball," he adds with a laugh. He's currently training again; last weekend he ran 36 kilometres, he says. A few weeks later he would be back at the start line in Rotterdam - and faster than last year. At two hours, 58 minutes and 33 seconds, he would break the three-hour mark, saying, "That's very close to winning a major football title."

The relentless trophy hunter

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern, Champions League, Jersey, 2013
Back in the winner's jersey: Robben pulled on the 2013 final jersey again for the interview.

Robben should know. He won 32 titles with PSV, Chelsea, Real Madrid and, above all, FC Bayern. 32! Championships, trophies, Super Cups. Above all, the Champions League triumph in 2013, says the Dutchman: "As a player you have goals, and the ultimate goal is the Champions League." And then he also scored the decisive goal in the final at Wembley to beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1. It doesn't get any better than that - you could see it on his face when he ran towards the fan block after his goal. Arms outstretched, mouth open, eyes wide. Happiness, redemption, incredulous amazement, all at the same time.

How "Mr Wembley" fired Bayern to Champions League glory:

Robben scored many memorable goals, sometimes with power, sometimes with feeling. His goal against Schalke after dribbling the length of the pitch or his volley against Manchester United were legendary. All masterpieces. At Wembley, the ball trundled over the line as if in slow motion. "That makes it all the more beautiful," he thinks, "everything had to happen so quickly, so I didn't hit the ball perfectly - but it was just right." Finally, after losing two finals, he had reached his goal with FC Bayern. "In 2010, it was actually already a great achievement that we made it to the final," he says. "In 2012, in our own stadium, we should have won. Then in 2013 it was time. I remember sitting by the window in the bus on the way to the stadium, music blaring in my ears - I was absolutely convinced: No matter what happens, we're going to win today! Of course, I was also convinced in 2010 and 2012, but 2013 was different. Win, end of story, full stop."

A title and a song

Arjen Robben, Interview, FC Bayern, Celebration, 2013, Champions League
Probably the most important moment of his career: In the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley, the Dutchman scored the winning goal in the 2-1 victory over BVB.

It somehow had to be the case that Robben needed several attempts to win the Champions League. During his career, he had to overcome resistance time and again, fighting his way back to finally be rewarded. It's how it was with his many comebacks, it's how it was with his two farewells from football, it's how it was in the Champions League. The 2012/13 season alone is emblematic of his career. In the summer, after the tragic "Finale dahoam" in which he missed a penalty, he was suddenly the villain. In the Hinrunde he again struggled with injuries, only returning to the starting XI when Toni Kroos suffered a torn muscle in the quarter-final first leg against Juventus. And in the end, he fired Bayern to the Champions League title. Since then, Arjen Robben has been "Mr Wembley", and the fans sing: "I dreamed of you, of our Wembley night. We won the cup, ascended to the throne, Arjen did it".

"The song and the name 'Mr Wembley', that does make me proud," says Robben, "Titles are nice, sure, but the appreciation of the fans is worth more to me." That's quite a surprising sentence for a footballer who is always chasing the next goal, the next win, the next title. In the end, Robben's greatest achievement is to have captured people's hearts. Because their love lives on while the trophies gather dust. "It's about how people remember you, also as a person," Robben says, "that's why I always say stay as you are, no matter how many titles you win."

The song and the name 'Mr Wembley', that does make me proud. Titles are nice, sure, but the appreciation of the fans is worth more to me. It's about how people remember you, also as a person.

Arjen Robben

Training at Be Quick 1887 ends after 75 minutes. "Well done, boys!" says the coach, high-fiving his players. The day's programme included lots of game variations in a confined space. The only thing he didn't let them practise was the Robben move, that explosive change of direction, darting from the right wing to the inside, finished off with a precise shot on goal, for which he was feared. Every defender knew what Robben would do, but it was simply impossible to defend. "It's not an exercise that's on my agenda," he says, grinning. Every now and then he takes part in the game, and then it can be that his old skills flare up. Can he imagine a future as a coach? "It is fun," he says, "but we'll see." Then he gets on his bike and rides home. Like everyone does in Groningen.

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