The Bayern winger faces his former club in the Champions League semi-finals this week. But had things turned out differently, he could have been lining up in white, not red
By Alberto Pinero & Ben Hayward
Robben arrived at Madrid in the summer of 2008 amid much expectation. Then president Ramon Calderon had failed to deliver a big-name signing the previous summer, having promised Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas and Robben himself. So the following year, obliged to boost his rapidly declining credibility, Calderon brought in the Dutchman - seen by Madrid fans as the least-attractive alternative in that particular trio - for an excessive and even exorbitant fee of €36 million. That was hardly Robben's fault, but the pressure was on before he had even kicked a ball at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Despite the injuries, the Dutchman's first season was a success as he appeared 28 times in all competitions but was part of the side which claimed the league title under Bernd Schuster. Things, it seemed, could only get better.
On a personal level, they certainly got better as the wideman managed to stay clear of the treatment table more than he did in his debut season, although he still suffered his fair share of injury woes. In total, he appeared 37 times in all competitions in his second term and scored eight goals.
After Schuster was ousted for claiming his Real side could not beat Pep Guardiola's blossoming Barcelona at Camp Nou, Robben played a key role in the team's attempted title fightback under Juande Ramos, as Madrid amassed 52 points from a possible 54 to move to within just four of the Catalans ahead of the Clasico at the Bernabeu. Back from yet another injury and ludicrously likened by the Madrid press to Lionel Messi, the Dutchman started that match, playing a part in his side's first goal and setting up their second, too. But Madrid lost 6-2 and after one of the most damaging defeats in the club's history, there was no way back for the capital side in the title race. Nor was there for Robben.
Florentino Perez returned as president in a blaze of optimism and glory the following summer. And with the construction magnate, the big names finally signed up. In came Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso. Out went Wesley Sneijder and Robben.
The former Chelsea winger had enjoyed a positive pre-season, scoring three goals and playing his part in another four. But Madrid were looking to recoup some funds following a vast summer outlay and Robben was also a victim of club politics, associated with the pre-Perez establishment under Calderon and unfairly chastised for the failures of that tenure.
"He [Florentino] gave up on two exceptional players, Sneijder and Robben, simply because I had brought them in," Calderon claimed last year.
So Bayern's €25m bid was accepted, even though coach Manuel Pellegrini later admitted he would have liked both Robben and Sneijder (who was sold to Inter) to have stayed at the club, while the player himself claimed he had been forced out against his will.
"I didn't want to go, but the club wanted to sell me," Robben explained at the time. "There have been many lies, but at the end of the day I have to decide what's best for me, because I want to play and to show everyone the footballer I am."
But that was then. And almost three years on from his Real departure, there now appear to be no regrets for Robben.
"I had some very good years at Madrid," he said this week. "It's a great club, and it's obviously special to face my old team-mates, but I have been at Bayern for a time now and I am happy here. I am thinking above all about getting to the final, whoever the rival is."
With Madrid, however, it just wasn't meant to be.
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