- to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.
Yesterday, we were once again treated to the sight of Arjen Robben diving to help his team get the result they needed. For most of the Netherlands’ match against Mexico, he seemed keener to win a penalty than to try and score via the more traditional and direct method of kicking the ball into the goal. That he tried to get a spot-kick several times and eventually managed to do so made it particularly difficult to accept. Even worse was that, deep down, we knew he would succeed all along.
As often as we have seen Robben cut in from the right and power a shot past a helpless goalkeeper, we have seen him knock the ball past a defender and fall to the floor before spinning round, arms outstretched, entreating the officials to award him a penalty. This habit has come to define him as much as his considerable footballing ability: he will always remain a player whose many victories are tarnished in the eyes of many by the manner in which his opponents were defeated.
Now, Robben is undeniably a cheat. He fits the definition to a tee: he consistently and shamelessly ‘acts dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.’ The internet is full of videos and .gifs of him throwing himself over non-existent tackles, howling as though his injuries require life-saving medical intervention and then bouncing straight back up again when he realises that his thespian efforts will go unrewarded.
That said, there is a distinction to be made between this:
It’s one thing to go to ground when the defender hasn’t even tried to make a challenge – or for the attacker to initiate contact, Ashley Young-style – and another entirely to provoke and exploit a defensive mistake in the manner that Robben did against Mexico.
It is the aim of every attacker to exploit defensive mistakes if and when they are made – including outstretched legs in the penalty box. A defensive mistake is what it is: to leave a trailing leg in contemporary top-level football is every bit as stupid as charging forward twenty yards and leaving a gaping hole for an opposition player to run into.
It follows, then, that if an attacking player can spot a gap in a back four, run through it and score a goal, he can recognise a stupid attempt at a tackle when he sees one and make sure it’s punished accordingly. As a skilled chess player and an astute football tactician (he apparently proposed the 5-3-2 system the Dutch have used in this World Cup), Robben knows this and understands that even though his direct route to goal may be blocked, he can still score – more-or-less – by provoking and punishing a defensive error.
That being the case, Robben is not to blame for Mexico’s defeat. Rafa Márquez, whose lunge it was that he used to win the match-winning penalty, is directly responsible. He committed an act of bone-headed idiocy unbecoming of most youth-teamers, let alone a man of his experience and on-pitch intelligence. If he doesn’t stick his foot in, one of his colleagues takes possession of the ball, punts it down the field and the teams play extra time.
Miguel Herrera, simultaneously Mexico’s manager, mascot and cheerleader, is also culpable to some extent. There’s no way a coach of his standing can say that he was unaware of Robben’s history of histrionics, yet his tactical choices gave Robben every chance to dive and to dictate the result.
It’s obvious that if you surrender the midfield battle with thirty minutes left on the clock and elect to pack your own penalty box with defenders that 1. Robben will spend the next half hour dribbling into the area looking for legs over which to throw himself and 2. he will eventually find one and throw himself over it.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that Márquez’s challenge didn’t make significant contact. It doesn’t matter that it was Robben’s third attempt to con the referee into awarding the Netherlands a spot kick. It doesn’t matter that he’s been pulling the same underhand tricks for over ten years and is still getting away with them.
Ultimately, Mexico had plenty of warnings and yet they didn’t alter their approach to prevent him from doing what he does best. It’s a shame and it’s unsavoury as hell, but what Robben did – on this occasion, at least – wasn’t cheating. He just punished a defensive mistake.