Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry joined Bayern Munich while on different career trajectories. Robben was only 25 when fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal brought him to the Bundesliga, but it seemed as if he had been around for a lot longer. Having caught the eye while playing for PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie and for Holland at Euro 2004, Robben joined Chelsea in the same summer José Mourinho moved to the club. In their three seasons together, they won every possible domestic honour, including back-to-back Premier League titles.
Robben’s success in England took him to Real Madrid, where he won La Liga in 2007-08, his first season in Spain. With Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team becoming the new dominant force, Bernd Schuster and then Juande Ramos were hired and then fired as quickly by Real Madrid. Ramos lasted just six months at the Bernabéu but he did one thing of great significance when he moved Robben from the left flank to the right. The left-footed Robben soon found his most effective weapon: to run at defenders down the wing then turn inside and shoot into the far corner, a move he has almost patented by now.
Barcelona won the league by nine points in Robben’s second season in Spain, which triggered Real Madrid into action. In came Kaká, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo; out went Dutch players Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Bayern Munich was not Robben’s first choice; the Bundesliga felt like a step back after Real Madrid.
For Ribéry on the other hand, Bayern was the next logical career move. Having clambered up the French footballing pyramid, he had become one of Ligue 1’s star players in his two seasons at Marseille. A move abroad was inevitable. Bayern took a punt and signed him for €25m in 2007, making him the most expensive player in their history. Ribéry was destined to be fans’ favourite. He rampaged up and down pitches, turning opponents inside out as his new club won the double in his first season in Germany. He formed an irresistible double act with fellow new signing Luca Toni, scored 11 league goals and ended 2008 as footballer of the year in both France and Germany.
Robben joined Ribéry at Bayern in 2009 but the pair almost swapped clubs. Ribéry was apparently a target for Real Madrid, with Zinedine Zidane trying to lure his international team-mate to Spain. But Bayern were having none of it. In the end, they patrolled opposite flanks for Bayern. Ribéry struck up an effective partnership on the left with the turbo-heeled David Alaba, while Robben was often part of an irresistible trident with Philip Lahm and Thomas Müller, his speed and directness dovetailing superbly with Müller’s nose for space and Lahm’s slick and accurate passing.
Their highest and lowest moments together came when Bayern Munich made it to two consecutive Champions League finals under Jupp Heynckes in 2012 and 2013. The first of these – the finale dahoam – was played in Bayern’s own sleek backyard. What better way to make up for their defeat to Inter in the 2010 final than by lifting the European Cup in their own stadium. Not only did Bayern have home advantage, but Chelsea had recently replaced André Villas-Boas with interim manager Roberto Di Matteo and failed to finish in the top four of the Premier League. Bayern had beaten Real Madrid in the semi-finals and fancied their chances.
An early goal may have triggered a comfortable home win but it never came. Robben and Ribéry probed the wings as Heynckes’ men huffed and puffed. Müller’s late goal released a wave of euphoria and relief around the rubber dinghy-shaped ground but Didier Drogba let the air out a few minutes later, equalising as the clock ticked towards 90. Bayern went for the kill again in extra-time, with chances coming and going. In the 97th minute, Ribéry set off in the direction of Petr Cech’s goal and was taken out by Drogba in the box. Penalty. It was to be Ribéry’s last contribution, having been injured in the challenge. He had given his all and provided his team-mate Robben with the chance to win the trophy.
Robben picked up the ball and strode matter-of-factly up to the spot. He planted it and walked back seven paces, measuring each step to give him the optimal run-up. It didn’t work. The penalty wasn’t placed far enough into the corner and Cech guessed correctly. Bayern’s best chance and come and gone, and extra-time turned into penalties.
Robben couldn’t face another spot-kick so looked on as Lahm, Mario Gómez and Manuel Neuer made it three from three, giving Bayern the edge following Juan Mata’s miss. But, as in the game, Bayern let Chelsea back into the contest. Ivica Olić and Bastian Schweinsteiger missed, giving Drogba the chance to win it for Chelsea. Neuer fell to his left and could only watch as the ball rolled into the opposite corner and Drogba set off into the night as a European champion.
What should have been a glorious homecoming had become one of the most traumatic final defeats in recent memory. Schweinsteiger had missed the final kick in the shootout but Robben came out worst. His penalty miss in extra-time had come on the back of another missed spot-kick in a title decider against Borussia Dortmund a few weeks earlier.
Bayern ended the season as runners-up in all three major competitions. For this club, second is nowhere. The fans needed a scapegoat and Robben was an easy target. As well as the two penalty misses, his drive and single-mindedness were sometimes seen as selfishness. Why doesn’t he pass more? Why hadn’t he left the penalty to someone else?
Bayern’s calendar then threw up an obligation nobody wanted. Eighteen months earlier they had agreed to play a friendly against Holland that had been arranged after the club had fallen out with the Dutch FA over an injury Robben sustained at the 2010 World Cup. As well as coming only three days after the Champions League final, the awkward match came just before the players joined their national teams for Euro 2012.
Robben must have wanted to be anywhere but the Allianz Arena, the scene of his personal trauma a few days earlier. Starting on the bench for his national team, Robben warmed up to supportive applause, but it was a different story when he came on for the last 15 minutes. Every time he touched the ball, he was greeted with a chorus of boos. Pockets of fans did their best to support him but the message was clear: they held him personally responsible for their club’s failures.
After the game, players from both teams expressed disbelief and even disgust. Robben left the stadium without uttering a word. Some wondered if his next visit to Munich would be to collect his things. Sneijder, who also played in the friendly, said his countryman should join him at Inter. Robben would not have been short of offers but, having only recently extended his contract, he stayed put.
Robben’s future looked uncertain for another reason: his relationship with Ribéry had broken down spectacularly. The pair were not on speaking terms following a bust-up at half-time of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. The confrontation, apparently over a free-kick, left Robben with a shiner and both with €50,000 fines.
Robben decided to stay, which is just as well, as he, Ribéry and Bayern were about to experience redemption on an epic scale. Heynckes’ ruthless team started quickly in the 2012-13 season and destroyed the competition in the Bundesliga, becoming champions in March and lifting the German Cup for good measure. But it was in Europe where they, and in particular Robben, had the biggest score to settle.
Bayern cruised into the Champions League final, beating Juventus home and away in the quarter-finals before thrashing Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals. Borussia Dortmund, who had dispatched Real Madrid in their semi-final, were to the opponents at Wembley. The game was different to the Chelsea final a year before. The quality and pace were higher and it was a great advertisement for the Bundesliga. Both teams sparred for the first hour until Bayern made the breakthrough after Robben teed up Mario Mandzukic to tap in the opener. Ilkay Gundogan levelled serenely from the spot eight minutes later to set up a big finish.
And then it came, the moment Robben hadn’t dared dream of. Müller rounded Roman Weidenfeller and squared the ball to the Dutchman, who had come screaming into the box. Robben was facing an empty goal from just two yards out but, as he swung his left foot to put the ball in the net, Neven Subotić appeared in a flash of yellow and black to clear the ball to safety. Not again.
Thankfully for him, there was still time. With less than two minutes to go, Ribéry controlled a long pass on the edge of the Dortmund penalty area, held off two defenders and managed to backheel the ball into a pocket of space behind him. Robben burst into the box and made history with three strokes of his famous left foot: the first touch took the ball into his stride and away from Mat Hummels’ lunge; the second shifted it to the left; and the third brushed it past the onrushing goalkeeper and into the goal.
Before the ball had hit the net Robben was gone, arms wide open, face frozen in ecstasy, running towards the supporters, flanked by the team-mates who had spoken up for him a year earlier. Once he had freed himself from the celebrations, Robben walked purposely to the Bayern hardcore, eyes and chest bulging, dripping with adrenaline, staring them down. They may or may not have been his tormentors in that friendly a year earlier, but they understood.
When the final whistle blew a few minutes later, Robben dropped to his knees. They had done it; he had done it. Ribéry and Robben, close to being two major casualties of the disappointments of 2012, had combined to win back the trophy they had been denied in Munich. Both could have walked off into the sunset as club icons at that point, but both were hungry for more.
Predictably, Pep Guardiola’s presence at Bayern triggered many changes. The team was transformed but the flamboyant wingers remained integral. Although Guardiola re-shaped their formation and re-defined players’ roles, he still appreciated the value of having Robben and Ribery on the flanks. The two wingers thrived under Guardiola, hoovering up trophies. Between them they have now made 421 appearances for Bayern and scored 169 goals. No foreign player has scored more goals for the club in the Bundesliga than Robben. They are not just players with attitude and swagger, but players who deliver. They may snub a manager’s handshake or send a bottle flying following a substitution – and they may even turn on team-mates in the heat of the moment – but they also win their team plenty of games.
Ribéry will be 35 in April and it may be time for his countryman, Kingsley Coman, to become a permanent fixture on the left for Bayern. There are suggestions Ribéry may be kept on, as much due to his popularity in the stands and the dressing room as his ability to be decisive on the pitch. His wild celebration in the recent win over Bayer Leverkusen, when he beat the badge on his shirt, shows the fire is still burning within him.
If Heynckes stays, both players may be offered contracts, but a new manager might not want to have fading legends in his squad. Among the uncertainty, one thing is clear. In a club whose history is littered with iconic players, few have left a legacy to rival Robben and Ribéry.