FOX Soccer Exclusive
Bayern has a gripe in Robben case
Arjen Robben’s year is over.
The fragile yet gifted winger, who almost single-handedly lifted Bayern Munich to the finals of the European Cup — and arguably steered Holland to the World Cup finals — will not take the field before 2011.
Robben has a badly torn thigh muscle, compounding an injury that he had picked up last season, prior to the World Cup. The normal healing time for a torn muscle can range anywhere from three to six months depending upon severity.
Robben is an undeniably special talent, one of the rare players in the game who can pick a team up on his shoulders and win the match. His deceptively lazy drifts from the right flank in toward the center of the field conceal a deadly left-footed shot, and an ability to score from any distance and from anywhere on his run.
And while opponents everywhere now know he is winding up to uncork that killer ball, few defenders are actually able to stop him: What looks meandering from afar is actually blindingly skillful and mesmerizing.
He’s also notoriously unhealthy — at each of his stops in an eleven-year career, he’s spent a good portion of the season in the trainers’ room. Injuries are a part of sport, and with the now year-round soccer calendar, it’s not a surprise that players returning from World Cup play are showing fatigue.
What makes this case stand out is not that Robben is injured— but that, according to Bayern Munich, Robben’s injury was concealed by his Dutch national team.
Holland’s coach, Bert van Marwijk, has strenuously denied the accusations from Munich, saying Robben was healthy when he left the national team. But in a series of harshly worded statements, Bayern club officials and doctors have accused the Dutch of putting their interests before the player’s.
Bayern manager Louis van Gaal has blasted Dutch officials for “not protecting” his player, and Munich’s sporting director Christian Nerlinger told German newspaper Bild that Robben’s torn muscle was “not healing properly,” in part because he aggravated it in South Africa.
Bayern’s club doctor called the Dutch “irresponsible,” adding that Robben’s injury was “impossible” not to diagnose. And president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told the German media back in August that: “Once again, we as a club must pay the bill after a player has been severely injured with his national team.”
The so-called 'club vs. country' argument — shorthand for a running and occasionally ugly dispute between the teams who foot the bills for their players and the national teams who help make them into valuable world stars — is older than I am. It has intensified in recent years as money has been pumped into the game at every level, with the side effect that individual players are now as marketable as the clubs they play for.
This means that when players fail to show up, fans get angry, and clubs lose money on tickets, jersey sales and everything ancillary to the product on the field. Make no mistake, a guy like Robben moves product.
However, the question of whether or not Bayern should be compensated is a bit trickier. Robben was injured with Bayern back in March, suffering a calf injury that the team essentially had him carry throughout the late Champions League stages.
Robben then damaged his thigh muscle in a pre-World Cup warmup match against Hungary, and was forced to sit out the first two games in the 2010 group stages. The fact is, it seems both Bayern and Holland were bad actors, heaping pressure on their key player without regard to the consequences.
The difference is that Bayern has a right to do just that. They own Robben, and like any piece of property, they can use it as they see fit. In the modern game, this over-work borders on the immoral, but players know what they are getting into. In the Netherlands’ case, Robben was just on loan, and while fans of the international game aren’t going to like this, the fact is that national teams no longer have the space in which to use and abuse players.
That’s why many clubs are pulling their guys away from national teams. In the past, clubs covered up these extractions by faking injuries. Today, clubs just say no, and dare nations to fight them.
Even powerful countries like England are discovering this new normal as wealthy clubs such as Chelsea work to subvert their plans. And given the levels of irresponsibility we’ve seen on the part of national teams — even the United States played a man, Oguchi Onyewu, when he was likely not 100 per cent fit — clubs are probably right to.
In the near term, Bayern takes a huge on-field hit. The Munich giants currently sit 12th in the Bundesliga and suffered a humbling loss last week at Kaiserslautern, where their lack of bite and the hangover from the World Cup on their squad was wholly exposed. In the long-term, having Robben fit and fresh for the meat of the German and European seasons might work to their advantage.
The Netherlands? They begin Euro 2012 qualification this week, but they will hardly miss Robben against their first three opponents: San Marino, Finland and Moldova.
Sounds like a sweet deal for the Dutch.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League.