Munich - It was the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2004 and the Netherlands, who had exited their last three major tournaments on penalties, were a kick away from the semi-final. The opponents were Sweden. The player: Arjen Robben.
Undeterred by the weight of history and expectation on his 20-year-old shoulders, the fleet-footed winger from Bedum stepped up to convert the spot-kick, and a star of European football was truly born. It was the moment the attentions of the wider world were drawn to the precocious youngster’s talents, but in his homeland, Robben had long been busy making a name for himself.
At the age of 12 he was plucked from hometown club VV Bedum by Dutch top-flight side FC Groningen, where he progressed steadily through the club’s youth ranks. He made his senior debut for Groningen and soon became a first-team regular, but his pace, dynamism, speed of thought and eye for goal soon alerted the country’s bigger fish, and at the age of 18, he signed for PSV Eindhoven.
At both club and international level, the young winger continued to improve. Following his EURO 2004 heroics he joined Premier League side Chelsea FC, before moving on to Spanish giants Real Madrid CF in 2007. It has been with German record titleholders FC Bayern München, however, that he has made the leap from mere talent to champion.
From agony to ecstasy
In the 2009/10 campaign - his first in Bavaria - he helped Bayern to the league and DFB Cup double and was voted Player of the Season. The following campaign was one of personal trial and tribulation, though, as he missed two crucial penalties - one to effectively hand Borussia Dortmund the league title and another, perhaps even more traumatising, that led indirectly to Chelsea’s penalty shoot-out victory in the UEFA Champions League final at the Reds’ own Allianz Arena.
In the years that have followed that heartbreaking night on 19 May 2012, however, Robben has overcome injuries and perceived mental weakness to establish himself as arguably the club’s most important player of recent times. In 2013 he excelled in Europe again as Bayern reached a third Champions League final in four seasons and was able to exorcise his demons, scoring an emotional winner against Dortmund and finally tasting success in a competition that had caused him so much pain.
The arrival of Spanish head coach Pep Guardiola in the summer of 2013 had many questioning the flying Dutchman's future with FC Bayern but, true to form, he responded with a string of sensational performances in a relatively injury-free 2013/14, netting 11 goals and providing seven assists to help Bayern win a record 23rd Bundesliga title. He also returned to haunt BVB yet again with an extra-time goal in the DFB Cup final, which Guardiola’s charges eventually won 2-0.
Throughout his career, Robben has been hampered by injuries and concerns about his mental fortitude, but he has proven time and again - especially in the last two seasons - that he was prepared to deliver on the extraordinary potential he showed all those years ago in Portugal at EURO 2004. "Arjen went through a tough time with us in 2012, but since then he's been an exceptional professional," said sporting director Matthias Sammer of the flying Dutchman. "There are no superlatives left that haven't already been used to describe him."