Sao Paulo: The Netherlands’ heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to Argentina in the World Cup semi-finals looks to have definitively ended Arjen Robben’s hopes of exorcising his ghosts from the 2010 final.
Wednesday’s game at an overcast Corinthians Arena had been billed as a duel between Robben and Lionel Messi, but instead it was the defenders on both sides who took centre-stage.
While Messi was masterfully coralled by Dutch centre-back Ron Vlaar, Robben rarely threatened to add to his tally of three tournament goals.
Set free by Wesley Sneijder on the stroke of full-time, he was denied by a magnificent sliding block from Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano.
And when he finally managed to cut inside his man on the right flank and shoot at goal in trademark fashion in the first half of extra time, his effort flew straight at Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Robben at least found the target in the penalty shootout, after the game finished goalless following extra time, sweeping the ball into the bottom-right corner as Romero plunged the other way.
But Romero had already saved from Vlaar by that point and when Sneijder’s subsequent spot-kick met the same fate, it was left to Maxi Rodriguez to fire Argentina into a showdown with Germany in Sunday’s final.
Having been within touching distance of a second consecutive final appearance, Holland must instead prepare for Saturday’s third-place play-off with Brazil, and Robben was less than enthused by the prospect.
“The third-place match? Honestly, it’s only the title that interested me,” he said. “Losing drives me mad. It hurts.”
Beaten in three World Cup finals and two semi-finals, Holland have become accustomed to encountering heartbreak at football’s showpiece event, but Wednesday’s defeat was particularly hard to stomach for Robben.
– Nearly man –
Four years ago, in the final in Johannesburg, he was once again billed as Holland’s lethal weapon, but when put clean through by Sneijder in the second half, with the score 0-0, he could only find Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas’s legs.
Few of Holland’s players wore a look as haunted as Robben’s in the moments after Spain’s 1-0 victory at the Soccer City Stadium, and misfortune was not yet finished with him either.
Robben had already finished on the losing side in a Champions League final in 2010, when Bayern Munich lost 2-0 to Inter Milan, and when fate presented him with an opportunity to make amends, he failed to seize it.
In the 2012 final, against his former club Chelsea and at Bayern’s very own Allianz Arena, he squandered an opportunity to give his side an extra-time lead with a penalty that was saved by Petr Cech.
Chelsea went on to win on penalties, and Robben’s transformation into football’s ultimate nearly man appeared complete.
The following season, however, things changed, as Robben capped a fine campaign by scoring an injury-time winner against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium.
A weight off his shoulders, the 30-year-old enjoyed a stunning 2013-14 season, scoring 21 goals in 45 games as Bayern won a league and German Cup double.
He carried his form to Brazil, netting twice in the 5-1 rout of Spain, once in the 3-2 win over Australia, and winning the injury-time penalty that saw Holland edge Mexico 2-1 in the last 16.
Although he sparked controversy by admitting he had gone to ground too easily during the game against Mexico, it was as a potential player of the tournament that he arrived in Sao Paulo to face Argentina.
Romero thwarted those hopes, however, and as Robben will be 34 by the time of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the ghosts of Johannesburg seem destined to haunt him still.